By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal
The Landmarks are a Southern Gospel quartet that love what they do. “We don’t hunt or fish much,” said Jeff Crews, who sings tenor for the group. “We sing quartet music.”
The New Albany-based group is composed of Crews, lead singer Allen Rooker, baritone singer Larry Kirk, bass singer Chris Weaver, keyboard player Richard Gray, bass guitarist Larry McCord and drummer Wayne Hussey.
“It’s a ministry of encouragement,” said Crews.
“We figure if we can take a person’s mind off of whatever is bothering them, that’s good,” said Kirk, one of the founding members of The Landmarks.
The group tours churches across north Mississippi, but also performs at corporate events, including the ground-breaking ceremony for the Toyota plant in Blue Springs.
“Imagine the diversity looking back at you,” Kirk said. “Everybody was clapping and smiling in a place you would not typically think of gospel music. We try to speak to Christian life here, and what’s important.”
Tales from the road
The band’s main mission is to spread the gospel by singing songs about “the blood, the cross and heaven.”
Though the group tours heavily among churches, it also performs at secular venues, such as cruises or theme parks, bringing people unfamiliar with the gospel in contact with it. Kirk said visitors from overseas thought Elvis invented Southern gospel, and associate the genre with a cappella barbershop quartets or with shows like “Forever Plaid.”
“We plant a seed in a novelty of four guys singing low, middle and high,” Weaver said, “Eventually, the words start to mean something to them.”
Many young people are captivated by the authenticity of Southern gospel sounds, he said, because it is something they have never heard before.
Members of The Landmarks are men of various denominations and occupations, but are invested in each others’ stories, and are stronger for finding a consensus about the band amid different opinions and backgrounds, Crews said.
They find the same appeal with their audience, whom they hope to provide an escape from the stresses that plague them. Churches are especially crucial, because a despondent congregation cannot deliver the word to those who have not heard it. For this reason, the band manages its finances so money will not be an issue for church venues.
“We sing to people bombarded by life. Sometimes, those people are us,” said Crews. Often playing is as much of an escape for them as it is for listeners.
The Landmarks are not the first band for any of its members, original or otherwise. McCloud played with a traveling country trio, and Hussey drummed for the gospel group Golden City.
Weaver and Crews came in 2007 from their own bands, Crews from the trio Paid in Full and Weaver from the band Crossway, which was nominated for a Dove award in 2002.
“Everyone brings experience to the table,” said Crews. “Our different styles complement each other.”
Most of the members sing and play by ear, and their experience ensures professionalism. Each member knows his job and does it well.
The Landmarks have remained faithful to their style throughout their six albums. Kirk said the band’s name reflects what they strive to be: unwavering, fixed, reliable.
“Larry and Richard are the keepers of the Landmark brand,” said Crews.
Even if a song is fun to sing, it may not be “them.” Gray and Kirk keep them grounded in that respect and view the younger members of the band as a sign that The Landmarks will continue when they are gone.
“They will make sure it doesn’t stop if one of us goes to the house,” says Gray of Crews and Weaver. “They are hitting the prime of their gospel life.”
The Landmarks were formed in New Albany in 1975 by Sonny Tate, the late Scottie Taylor, Larry Kirk, the late Phil King, Richard Gray, Harvey Childers and Danny Lyle. Gray and Kirk are the only two founding members left in The Landmarks.
At the time, Gray was singing with a group called the Ambassadors. Kirk and Gray were friends, occasionally helping each other with songs, and when the Ambassadors’ tenor left the band, Gray asked Kirk to fill in. It was when Kirk left his group, The Masters, and joined Gray that they became The Landmarks.
“I didn’t sing baritone, but Richard taught me how,” said Kirk.
Gray is the only one in the group with a classical music background, but Southern gospel is a different ball game.
“All that classical music went out the window,” laughed Gray, but the rest of the group insisted that they often follow Gray’s lead in putting parts together, that “he knows where the music should go.”
In the late ’70s, gospel was much more popular, Kirk said. It was not uncommon to do four shows in a weekend, and the group gained steam as it played concerts with full-time touring groups, rotating members in and out along the way.
Eventually the band reached a crossroads: Take the band to the next level or be satisfied. With three musicians and four singers, the members couldn’t justify putting their families at risk by relying on the music business.
“If you’re not going up, you’re not going,” said Kirk of the music industry.
The Landmarks disbanded in 1985. Kirk said he kept up with Gray, but other members drifted to other projects or music minister positions in churches, and the group stayed dormant until July 1998, when longtime fan and tenor Jeff Crews contacted the original members for a reunion.
Don’t call it a comeback
“Jeff listened to The Landmarks since before his feet could touch the floor – they still can’t,” Kirk said, laughing about his friend’s stature.
Crews, a Southern gospel aficionado, said that in the ’70s and ’80s, there were two true-blue gospel groups in Mississippi, who made good records listeners could be proud of: The Heismen and The Landmarks.
“The Heismen embodied energy and excitement, raw emotion, but The Landmarks were like ice, slick and polished,” Crews said.
In the 1990s, Christian music artist Bill Gaither began sponsoring “homecoming tours” with the intent of reuniting major acts of the Southern gospel scene. One such tour brought The Heismen back to the stage, and Crews thought it would be amazing if The Landmarks performed a one-time reunion as well.
“I called around and pretty soon everyone who had ever sung for The Landmarks wanted to do it,” Crews said.
The concert sold out 1,000 seats and 300 standing-room spots, stamping out the “one-time” part of the ticket.
One interesting condition to reuniting was that no one would depend on the group as a livelihood. In fact, the group’s profits go toward the St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, and the band wears St. Jude neckties on stage to increase awareness.
“Getting behind St. Jude unified us as a band and with our audience,” said Kirk, who told a story about an overall-clad man who would put a $100 bill in Kirk’s hand each show and say, “Can you get this where it needs to be?”
Removing money from the equation allowed the group to have fun and revel in the intrinsic reward of praise through music.
“It’s better when it’s not your job and you’re doing it for your own satisfaction,” said bass singer Chris Weaver. “You can enjoy it when you’re not looking at the crowd worrying if the audience is big enough to pay your bills.”
“Three instruments and four voices make something that is impossible for an individual,” said Kirk. “When it all clicks, there is nothing else like it.”