Just picking for Jesus

The Ol’ Elkhorn Pickers Club performs at Sand Spring Baptist Church on March 31, 2022. From left are bassist Gary Mitchell, Jeff Brewer, rhythm guitarist David Rayborn, drummer Ken King and guitarist Joel Miller. Behind Miller is keyboardist Rodney Smith.

Ol’ Elkhorn Pickers Club delivers joy wherever it goes

By John Herndon, KentuckySings.com

LAWRENCEBURG, Ky. – They might have an unconventional name, an unconventional history and even a mission that’s a bit different.

But when the Ol’ Elkhorn Pickers Club took the stage at Sand Spring Baptist Church last Thursday, the music was about as traditional as it could be as they sang the unchanging message found in the Bible.

And in their first appearance at Sand Spring, the Pickers brought the house down with several standing ovations from one of the largest post-covid crowds in the popular gospel concert series. 

Not bad for a group of guys who simply got together to have some fun playing music at Midway, Kentucky.

Drummer Ken King sings during the Ol’ Elkhorn Pickers Club’s concert at Sand Spring Baptist Church on March 31. (All photos by John Herndon)

“We played together on the praise team at Forks of Elkhorn Baptist Church,” remembers drummer Ken King. “Joel Miller wanted us to get together so we went to  his house and sat down and jammed.”

From those simple beginnings five years ago, things have evolved to the group playing over 100 dates in 2021 with a full schedule ahead in 2022.

At Sand Spring, the night was billed as a Bluegrass Gospel Jubilee with popular Bluegrass band Kentucky Blue also on the bill, but the Pickers’ sound would evoke more memories of Merle Haggard or The Florida Boys than Bill Monroe or Flatt and Scruggs.

That’s how the Ol’ Elkhorn Pickers Club planned it. “Our style, I would call it a cross between country gospel and southern gospel,” King says. 

And when the group opened its set with “Farther along, we’ll know all about it,” it was apparent that traditional music would be filling the auditorium, just as it does for the majority of their unconventional dates.

You see, while the Ol’ Elkhorn Pickers Club came together through a church and will play at churches when asked, the niche is a ministry to nursing homes and assisted living facilities. In turn, that determines the direction of a major portion of the group’s music. 

Jeff Brewer sings during the Ol’ Elkhorn Pickers Club concert at Sand Spring Baptist Church on March 31. Behind him is guitarist David Rayborn.

“We have between 12 and 15 assisted living facilities that we rotate on a regular basis,” King says. “We usually go to two or three assisted living facilities per week. We got that started at the end of 2019 when Covid was starting to break out. We knew that nursing homes were not able to have many people come in and we wanted to bring joy to these people.

“We decided we were going to start setting up for these people. We would play outside whether we’d play in 40-degree weather or in 90-degree weather.”

The group believes the ministry is one that is often overlooked. “There is definitely a need in nursing homes, but we have found that it is the assisted living homes that often get ignored,” says group member David Rayborn, a Baptist pastor who was playing rhythm guitar at Sand Spring but has spent time playing the bass guitar since joining the group in early 2021.

“People in the local churches and local congregations will often go sing and preach at the nursing homes. I think that people believe the nursing homes are the ones that really need the ministry and be ministered to and overlook the fact that people in assisted living homes are just as lonely and alienated,” continues Rayborn, who is the only Picker who does not attend Forks of Elkhorn. He serves as interim pastor of South Fork Baptist Church near Owenton.

Seeking to fill that ministry void, the Ol’ Elkhorn Pickers Club needed a change of pace from what they were playing at Forks of Elkhorn. “It’s interesting for us because we are all on the praise team and play at the contemporary service,” King says. “On the praise team we will play things from Mercy Me or songs like ‘Chain Breaker’ or ‘Days of Elijah’ and we have a ball with it. Then we turn around on Monday morning and load up to head to the assisted living homes and the first song we break into is ‘In the Sweet By and By.’”

It’s a ministry that has had some unusual moments, especially with Covid concerns prompting unconventional precautions and concerts. King chuckles as he tells of one date at an assisted living home where the group could not set up inside.

Joel Miller, who normally plays keyboards and rhythm guitar, takes the lead guitar during the Ol’ Elkhorn Pickers Club concert at Sand Spring Baptist Church on March 31.

“We actually had to set up and tear down five times,” he recalls. “They would not even allow you to approach the building to plug in your instruments. We had a staff member to help us. We’d load up and set up outside. Then we would get finished and we would set up on the side of a hill for others to see us. We did that five times.”

The Ol’ Elkhorn Pickers Club is able to provide the ministry as most of the members are retired or semi-retired and can devote the necessary time. And all are accomplished musicians who can play multiple instruments, making adjustments as needed.

For example, Thursday night, lead guitarist John Witt was on vacation, so Miller, who has played rock, country and gospel (Calvary Heirs) for nearly 50 years, took over on lead and played harmonica at times during the concert. He’s normally on the keyboard and rhythm guitar.

Rayborn moved to rhythm last Thursday to allow original bassist Gary Mitchell, who is battling cancer, to play a final concert before stepping away from the group. Rayborn played country music in the 70s, working with bands that fronted for greats such as Jack Greene, Jeannie Seely and Bill Anderson. Mitchell is also a country music veteran, having played for George Jones at one time in his career.

Last Thursday, the group was joined by keyboardist Rodney Smith, another gospel pro who has played with the Bishops, the Greenes, the Perrys and the Steeles.

Bassist Gary Mitchell plays in his final concert with The Ol’ Elkhorn Pickers Club on March 31.

Lead singer Jeff Brewer is a gospel music veteran and the harmony quickly meshed. “When we started out and had just gotten together playing tunes, it was just one of those natural things,” King says. “Joel would break into a lead part. Jeff has been singing with gospel groups since he was 13 or 14 years old. I always had the tendency to go to the tenor, so we would break into a song and it seemed like the three of us would naturally go in those directions.”

Right now, the group’s direction is simply having fun and spreading joy in music. The Ol’ Elkhorn Pickers Club does not charge a fee to play and any offerings or remunerations go toward travel expenses. It’s just about ministry. While assisted living homes are the main focus, the group welcomes opportunities to sing at area churches. 

The name is unusual. The niche is often overlooked.

But the message is simply about Jesus.

That’s universal.

Veteran gospel keyboardist Rodney Smith fills in with the Ol’ Elkhorn Pickers Club on March 31.

What’s in a name?

The Ol’ Elkhorn Pickers Club is one of the most unusual, yet eye-catching names in gospel music.

“Joel Miller was the one that came up with that name,” says drummer Ken King. “We are all old!  We are all members of the Forks of Elkhorn Baptist Church, so we latched onto that. And Joel noted that a lot of the old classic country and bluegrass groups called themselves ‘pickers.’ So the name kind of grew on us.”

King says most of the group also goes to some country festivals, appearing as “S.O.S.”

He explains with a laugh, “That just means Six Old Singers. We do quite a few Eagles songs and some other classic country and rock.”

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