When I was twelve, Harold Wayland was the most popular singer at my parents’ church. Every Sunday, the little Southern Baptist meetings featured special music. For the uninitiated, this means that someone, usually from the laity, stood up to sing a solo in front of the congregation, ostensibly after undergoing a delicate screening process to which I was never privy. My father, the Minister of Music, was the gatekeeper, the cherub with the flaming sword, barring the way to that sacred microphone. I imagine the conversation going like so:
“I’d like to sing the special music next week.”
“Okay, what song?”
“‘God Only Knows’ by The Beach Boys.”
“That’s not really about the Lord, per se. And you’re a bass.”
“But the Holy Spirit told me to do it!”
Week after week, the pulpit mic rang with a roster of Sandi Patti and Steve Green tunes. Occasionally, my father would open up his own trove of backing tracks and do “Midnight Cry” or “In This Very Room.” I even sang once or twice, as I recall. Most people used tapes as accompaniment. Once in a while, someone would have sheet music for Jim, the pianist; or the Whaleys would trot out a guitar and a nice duet.
Yet, when Harold Wayland mounted the stage, you could feel the room shift. He was old even then—a short man with coke-bottle bifocals set in clear frames grown pink from use. His hair might have been red once, but it had long ago faded to an indecipherable, mousy gray. Plus, he would plaster the remains of it atop his head in a few stiff strands of comb-over. I never knew the color of his eyes, but there were deep crow-foot smiles at the corners of them. He wore slacks and a button-down underneath the cream Seville drapery of his choir robe. You could hear people sit up straighter in their pews as Harold slowly negotiated the few carpeted steps down from his regular spot in the choir loft’s back row. The congregation would lean forward; Harold would say a few words of explanation, then begin a capella.
To my selfish, adolescent mind, the sound was terrible. In crackled, leathery tones, the man would make his way through unaccompanied verses of some old hymn he had chosen. When he finished, Southern Baptist though they were, the congregation clapped. I couldn’t understand. Harold sang in the choir faithfully, a trait my father always valued over talent. I was sure the old man was nice. He was even a good singer in his way, but as a kid, I didn’t grasp why the little country church was so enamored with his haphazard voice. Wasn’t the smoothness of, say, James Taylor better?
At the turn of the millennium, the Coen brothers brought old-time music crashing back down around our ears with O Brother, Where Art Thou? The soundtrack mined the depths of true folk tunes, many of which were written about hard times. I’ll not forget the chills that crept down my arms the first time I heard Ralph Stanley singing “O Death,” nor the exquisite longing behind “Down to the River to Pray.”
Having grown up in the Alan Jackson and young Garth Brooks era of country music, I was more familiar with watermelon crawls and tears in beers. The claw-hammer heartache of real folk music was new to me, a ghost rattling in the radio speakers, but I loved it. I worked at a summer camp at the time, listening to Caedmon’s Call and forging friendships with other counselors, many of them eschewers of mainstream country radio. There was never a better time to be immersed in “I’ll Fly Away.” On Wednesdays, we’d dress up as hillbillies (not much of a disguise, really) and do traditional crafts with the kids in our makeshift mountain village. Stan McMahan would trot out his banjo, and we’d grab guitars and sing a few camp-redacted versions of songs like the theme from Hee Haw or “Elvira,” which I always thought was about the horror movie hostess in the black dress. All of us thrilled to the strains of “Man of Constant Sorrow” and marveled at the Fairfield Four singing “Lonesome Valley.”
There was some sweet desire in the sound, some nearly unanswerable pain that played out in the melodies. Allison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, and Gillian Welch brought their beautiful voices to the production, but it was the broken notes that made me lean into the speakers. Only Ralph Stanley could have sung “O Death.” No Adam Duritz, no Bono, no Charlotte Church—no one but Stanley, his voice laden with decades until it stumbled in his throat. He sang not like a siren, but like a river reed, fiercely alive yet hollowed out with age. I never owned a copy of the record, but whenever I found one near a CD player, I put “O Death” on repeat.
I’ll fix your feet till you can’t walk. I’ll lock your jaw till you can’t talk. I’ll close your eyes so you can’t see. This very hour come and go with me. I’m Death, I come to take the soul, Leave the body and leave it cold.O Death, O Death, Won’t you spare me over to another year?
Those who have stomached tribulation are more willing to trust the weathered voice. When you need to know that you’re not alone, that there is another corner to turn beyond the turmoil, sometimes the faltering timbre of heaped-up years is worth more than whatever new kid is singing on the block. We all love talent. We take joy in hearing players play and in seeing dancers dance. I once took joy in seeing a well-executed stroke with a seven-iron. I’ve delighted in food, song, storytelling, impossible diving catches, and good dovetail joinery. Seeing and hearing masters at the height of the craft is a reminder that the Lord who wrought the heavens and hills is also the creator of complexity and the maker of mirth.
On the gray days, though—the forgetful and forgotten days, lost beneath piles of cheerless papers—it is often the withered voice of taxing experience we crave. Broken though its sound may be, we long to hear it make the effort. Even non-applauding Southern Baptists clap at the end of such songs as were sung by Harold Wayland. They were proof that, at the end of many dark roads, it is still possible to sing.