HANCOCK COUNTY — Shiloh Christian Church was more than a place of worship Sunday. There the local gospel group The Melody Masters led the final gospel sing of its career; it was a gathering of intimate friends and unfettered happiness bound by music as trusted, comfortable and durable as a favorite pair of shoes.
The latest incarnation of The Melody Masters: Joe Beyers on guitar; Gary Gustin with his banjo; bass player Elvin Thomas; Rowena Holliday behind the piano; and organist Barbara Dennis, fronted by song leader Fred Powers, were playing their swan song at the place where it all began.
Outside Shiloh church – a small, white building with a steeple, gravel parking lot and cemetery at the cross point of CRs 500S and 500E – cars were packed several rows deep and jammed around the sides of Pastor Fred Girdwood’s house across the road well before the opening medley lifted “I’ll Fly Away” to the tree line.
“We got here at 5:30, and I thought we were going to be early,” said Sue Goff, who with husband Jack once attended Shiloh. “But we had to park in the preacher’s yard.”
“We haven’t been here in about 10 years, so it was a good homecoming for them and a good homecoming for us,” Jack said.
All told, some 300 gospel lovers from 67 churches crowded into the sanctuary; 60 more watched and sang along with a video feed in the fellowship hall.
Baptists, Nazarenes, Methodists, Catholics, Friends, Latter Day Saints. They were all there Sunday from Knightstown, Anderson, Carmel, New Castle and every little church in between.
“I told Joe, whenever our crowds quit coming it’d be time for us to quit,” said Gustin, who admits he’s 79 years old, leaning heavy on 80. “But our crowds have never quit.”
That’s a pretty stout statement for a group of players who originally met – without really knowing it – during an informal pick-up jam at a political hog roast in 1991 and played their first real gig at a church ice cream social in 1992.
“We thought it was going to be a one-time deal,” Beyers said, but since then, The Melody Masters have never missed a monthly show.
Well, there was that one time they were snowed out and people couldn’t get to the church, but there wasn’t much they could do about that, Thomas said. Otherwise, the group has met every Friday for practice and led a gospel sing each month at churches and fairs all over the area.
“We wanted to limit it to playing just once a month to keep it fun,” Thomas said.
The band decides which of the more than 100 traditional gospel tunes in its repertoire it will play and passes out song books at the door. Not that many of those in the pews have needed them.
Then it starts.
Powers leads, sings and exhorts; the rhythm section drives “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “Mansion Over the Hilltop” as Holliday fills every nook and cranny with gospel piano against the backdrop of Dennis’ organ.
Spontaneous harmonies blend from a few pews back. High notes flow from the corner of the room; voices almost reaching the high notes come from somewhere else. Old, slender fingers tap to the time. And there are lots of smiles.
“Many, many times, there’s a strong presence of the Holy Spirit,” Thomas said.
In addition to the music, every gospel sing contains a short devotion, prayer requests and a witness or two. Talent from the host church is always invited for a showcase, and the local preacher opens and closes with a prayer.
The Melody Masters don’t get paid, the plate never gets passed, and the band won’t have it any other way, which has made some preachers looking at a crowd sometimes triple the size of a usual Sunday a bit itchy.
“We’ve almost gotten into some knockdowns with some preachers over that,” Beyers laughed.
After their standard closer, “God Bless America,” a tune they’ve sung well over 200 times, there were more smiles, lots of stories, long handshakes, longer hugs and a few red eyes as a line overtook the far wall heading for refreshments in the fellowship hall.
“It’s been a long run,” said Gustin, firmly clasping the hand of one well wisher. “But I think we did some good.”