By John Herndon, KentuckySings.com
LAWRENCEBURG, Ky. — At first glance, Sand Spring Baptist Church looks like your normal country church.
Cattle graze in fields near the church property. One side of the parking lot exits into the one-lane Pump House Road. Even the main road in front of the building, a hilly two-lane locals know as “Old 127” gives the picture of a time gone by while cars and trucks speed up and down the four-lane U.S. 127 Bypass a mile or so to the west.
An aging sanctuary and the large cemetery on the north side of the church property makes one think of one of those “all day singing and dinner on the ground” celebrations of days gone by.
But a 900-seat auditorium, less than 10 years old, has made Sand Spring, located about three miles from Lawrenceburg, Ky., one of the hottest places in gospel music today.
“I love coming to Sand Spring,” Phil Collingsworth said after his family performed at the church on Nov. 29. Their Christmas show marked the second time The Collingsworth Family had been to church and at both appearances, the auditorium overflowed with people watching from a large foyer outside.
Acclaimed pianist Jeff Stice has lost count of his performances at the church, both as a solo artist and formerly with Triumphant Quartet. “Oh my! Probably 20 times at least! I love Sand Spring Baptist Church!”
Bringing in the biggest name groups is not that unusual but doing so at least 10 times a year and packing the house nearly every time is rare.
“Sand Spring is one of those churches in the country that has quite a few gospel concerts in a year’s time. We are thrilled to death about that,” says Mark Trammell, who performed at the church in October. “There are some churches in Kentucky with three or four concerts a year, but I know of nothing on the level of Sand Spring.”
Sand Spring is not the only church in the country successfully promoting major Southern Gospel performances on a consistent basis but the congregation has few peers.
The big names come in but there’s no admission charge and no corporate sponsorship. The church will only book groups who will come on a love offering basis.
“I enjoy coming to Sand Spring,” says veteran bass singer Ray Dean Reese of the Kingsmen. “We have been here several times and we always look forward to coming back. It’s just like home. What a wonderful, wonderful church and what a wonderful, wonderful promoter they have. He’s one of the few promoters that really continuously keeps Southern Gospel music. We appreciate him and we hope that anybody that’s in this part of the country, in Kentucky, will come to see us.”
That promoter Reese refers to is Larry Briscoe, who heads the church’s concert ministry. What started out as a one-time concert for the church has grown to packed houses for some of the big names in Southern Gospel. It’s still a labor of love.
“We give God all the credit,” says Briscoe, a retired state government worker. “We think this is a ministry the Lord wanted to happen. That is the main reason we have been successful.”
It all started in 2006 when the church booked the Crossmen Quartet for a concert.
Briscoe says he does not recall anything special about the event. “We just contacted them. We had had some groups in the past, but it was never anything planned like what we do now. It was sporadic. We just had some individuals and groups. We might have somebody one year and then the next year not have anybody,” he says.
But soon after the Crossmen appeared, Briscoe, his wife Barbara and two other church members, Roy and Velena Harley, came together with the idea of bringing nationally-known groups to Lawrenceburg on a regular basis.
While the church had plans to replace the 300-seat sanctuary, it did not anticipate what its concert series ministry has become.
“When the Crossmen came, it was a Sunday night and we had about 150 or 200 people there,” Briscoe smiles.
And now Briscoe is a familiar face at the National Quartet Convention and the contact list on his phone reads like a Who’s Who of Gospel Music.
“We love Larry and love the ministry there,” says Eric Bennett, bass singer for Triumphant. “The keys to their success? I think No. 1, it is a lot of hard work. Obviously, if people don’t know you are going to be there, no one will show up. I am sure when they started doing this, there were struggles, but now they have a massive email list and maybe a snail mail list.
“No. 2, they bring in quality groups.”
Among those who performed at Sand Spring in 2017 were Triumphant, the Collingsworth Family, the Mark Trammell Quartet, Legacy Five, The Isaacs and The Hoppers. The lineup for 2018 is also impressive with the Kingsmen, Ivan Parker, The Nelons, Brian Free and Assurance, and the Goodman Revival.
“Ever since they started we come once a year,” The Kingsmen’s Reese says. “Sometimes we come twice a year for different programs.”
Triumphant also returns to the lineup this year while several popular regional groups, such as His Heart and the Patriot Quartet, will also perform.
And Southern Gospel fans flock from points near and far. A check of the parking lot prior to just about any concert will see cars or church busses from throughout Kentucky and surrounding states.
Briscoe chuckles as he recalls those early struggles to what the ministry is now. “We were trying to book groups,” he smiles. “About three to five years ago, it turned around. Now the groups call us. We also work with the Harper Agency. They call us.”
The power of Sand Spring’s ministry was apparent in 2014 when The Isaacs were booked for a January concert on a two-week notice. The building was practically bursting at the seams.
The same thing happened last summer when the Hoppers booked for a Saturday night concert in June on a late notice. The building was full again even though that very same night, The Oak Ridge Boys were playing a sold-out show at Renfro Valley, just over an hour down the road. The Oaks drew some of the crowd that is normally at Sand Spring.
Briscoe agrees that some of Sand Spring’s success can be attributed to quality concerts and free admission. The church never has — and never will, he says — sold tickets. Nor has the church ever signed a contract to give the groups any guarantee other than a love offering.
Briscoe says he’s not always been successful in selling the idea to come with no guarantee and has been unable to bring some groups to Lawrenceburg. But those instances are rare and the offerings usually surpass what groups ask for as a guarantee.
“These groups talk to each other,” he says. “They know what we are doing. They know there will be a high number in the crowd. If you are coming to Kentucky, Sand Spring is where you want to be.”
The church’s publicity is massive but simple. A Facebook page “Sand Spring Gospel Concerts” publishes the schedules and updates along with photos and videos of those concerts. The email list is long and goes to work throughout the year.
The church also uses traditional media with news briefs in the local weekly newspaper, The Anderson News, and promotes the series on several Southern Gospel radio stations throughout Kentucky.
But the most reliable form of advertising is the most basic. “There is no advertising like word of mouth from friends,” Collingsworth says. “Obviously, Sand Spring is doing it right there. Friends say, ‘You out to come.’ It’s a beautiful facility, there is room for everybody. You can see the stage well. There is good parking. They have all these elements that are going right, then they have friends telling friends.”
The church is about 30 minutes from Lexington and an hour from Louisville. Cincinnati is only about 90 minutes away. Briscoe nearly always asks where people are from and says people have attended from as far away as Maryland and Louisiana.
Most importantly, Sand Spring sees what it is doing as a ministry.
“We love Larry and love the ministry there,” Bennett says. “Sand Spring is always very generous. They are really giving people. Brother Larry always wants to take care of us. They take care of us physically. They feed us. Then, before we go on stage, Brother Larry gets us together and we always pray together.”
And that underscores the primary reason for Sand Spring’s success.
Briscoe believes the backbone for the series has been that the church has viewed its goal as a ministry. from the outset. “We have been able to build this from the foundation and we have been able to back what we have said we can do,” he says. “We give God all the credit for that. Without Him, this would not be possible.”
And there are people thirsting for the message in song.
“We can be on stage and if there are 1,000 people there, there are 1,000 different needs,” Bennett says.
Trammell agrees. “I don’t think it is as much about the people singing but the message in our songs. Our message still draws people to this day. As far as I am concerned, gospel music is alive and well.
“I am thankful that in the 21st Century we have areas where gospel music is still very healthy and very alive. (Sand Spring) is one of those areas. We are grateful for that.”
Outreach is the driving force behind the series. “The church has picked up quite a few new members because of the concerts,” says Sand Spring pastor, Dr. Mike Hamrick. “I can go to Kroger or to Pizza Hut and people will come up to me and thank me for the concert or tell me what a concert has meant to them.”
Briscoe understands. “I stand at the door after the concerts. It’s amazing the things you hear. I don’t think anyone here realized there was a void for Southern Gospel until we started doing the concerts. It goes back to what you grew up with and the music you love. The people listened to this music. Their parents listened to this music.”
Just like Larry Briscoe.
“As a kid, I can remember going to Renfro Valley for all night singings. I went with my mother’s cousin. We rode on a flatbed truck and had hay on it. That’s where we slept. I listened to the Blackwood Brothers, the Cathedrals and the Statesmen.”
As a teen, he watched the Gospel Singing Jubilee on Sunday mornings and made it to the singings in the afternoons.
That same spirit is alive and well about 10 times a year at Sand Spring Baptist Church.
“I believe it’s God’s work,” says Triumphant’s Bennett. “Sand Spring has a ministry that is happening.”
Briscoe smiles. “What this has grown to is unbelievable. God opened the doors and we want Him to have all the credit.”
And those who attend a concert at Sand Spring believe God is at work. “The people at Sand Spring really feel like family to me,” says Stice. “Not only is the Spirit of the Lord present, the love in the room is wonderful.
Adds Briscoe, “For those two hours, the world just goes away. The Spirit of the Lord is there and that is why people enjoy the concerts.
Big names performs, others benefit
While the biggest names in gospel music headline the concert series at Sand Spring Baptist Church, several regional groups also benefit from being able to open the performances.
“We have opened for several groups,” says David Martin, bass singer for The Noblemen, based in Shelbyville, Ky. “Larry Briscoe and the church have built up a good gospel music crowd here and it is a good group to sing to. There is a great spirit in the church and a great place to sing.”
The Noblemen opened for the Mark Trammell Quartet at Sand Spring in October. Martin says the group has traveled throughout Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, West Virginia and Indiana over the years but being able to open for a national group at Sand Spring has opened more doors.
“When you come here, there is always a big crowd. Every time we have been here, it has been at least three-quarters full. A lot of times, there have been chairs in the aisles,” he says with a laugh. “When you have a big crowd like this, you have people here from a lot of different churches. We get a lot of bookings off churches like this.”
2018 Sand Spring Concert Series
May 10 Tribute Quartet
June 7 The Nelons and Jeff Stice
June 21 Triumphant and His Heart
July 13 Old Paths Quartet
July 27 Resurrection of Faith Tour
Joseph Hardebank and The Erwins
Aug. 30 Brian Free and Assurance
Sept. 21 Primitive Quartet
Oct. 18 The Joymakers
Nov. 9 Goodman Revival
Dec. 31 Steve Ladd and Tribute Quartet
All concerts begin at 7 p.m.