Less than a year after getting his start in gospel music, Laney learns from Kingsmen legend
By John Herndon, KentuckySings.com
CRAB ORCHARD, Ky. – Describing Drew Laney’s introduction to the world of Southern Gospel music as fast is akin to saying there’s a little bit of speed at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
It would be the monumental understatement.
Laney, all of 21 years old, has been turning heads since he started appearing on stage with The Kingsmen just before the National Quartet Convention got underway last September in Pigeon Forge.
“Just who is this kid singing bass beside Ray Dean Reese?”
“Is he here to stay?”
The answer to that second question is a resounding “Yes!” Just a few minutes after a concert at Watts Chapel Baptist Church, Laney admitted his meteoric ride has been nothing short of a dream come true.
“I have always loved Southern Gospel music,” Laney said. “I grew up on Southern Gospel music and The Kingsmen have always been a big, big name for me. I have always wanted to sing. I love old southern gospel,” Laney says.
But until November of 2021, his experience had been limited to a few times at his home church in Monroe, N.C., located about 30 minutes from Charlotte. “I might have sung in a choir when I was a little kid, singing with my mom a handful of times. I have always loved music but I was shy and I was scared to get up in front of people,” he says.
Still, the desire to use the enormous talent was burning in Drew Laney’s heart. And it just happened that The Kingsmen stopped for a concert near the aspiring singer’s home.
“I talked to Ray Dean,” Laney smiles. “I said, ‘For a guy who has never sung and doesn’t know much about singing – If you tell me a note, all I know is it is a letter in the alphabet – how can I get started singing?’
“He said, ‘You need to find a good group. Get started in a good local group and just get in there and learn it.’”
About a month later, Laney connected with Molded Clay, a regional group based in Rock Hill, S.C. His first job singing gospel music would last all of nine months.
But he made an impression on some people in the know.
And it just so happened that The Kingsmen were ready to begin the process of bringing someone in to learn from Reese, a Southern Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame member who has been hitting the low notes for the group since 1967. And it also just happened that Kingsmen baritone Alan Kendall planned to have lunch with a friend while off the road one day.
“It was like he just popped up out of nowhere. Ray was interested in finding a bass singer,” Kendall remembers. “Ray had been talking about it for years and we had kind of been keeping our eyes open.
“I was having lunch with Pat Barker, who is with The Guardians. Pat and I both live in the same town, Douglasville, Ga. We got to talking and I said, ‘Do you know any bass singers out there, younger ones that would come in and be willing to take a back seat to Ray and just kind of learn?’
“He said, ‘Well, there is this kid that is singing with a local group somewhere in the Charlotte area.’ Pat said, ‘I don’t even know his name. You would have to call Danny Jones (of The Singing News) to find out.’
“So I called Danny and he said, ‘His name is Drew Laney.’ I said, ‘Is he any good?’ Danny said, ‘He is very advanced for his age. He has no earthly idea of the level of talent he has. And he is willing to learn.’
“I said, ‘That’s what I want to hear.’”
Kendall got in touch with the young bass, talking music and just getting to know more about him.
Eventually, Kendall asked for a video. “So I did that. And another video,” Drew smiles. “And another video. And another video. Then after about a month-and-a-half or two months of talking to them, I get a call. They said, ‘Hey look at our schedule. See if there is anything close and come sing with us during sound check. So I did. I went to Bladenboro, N.C. It was about an hour-and-a-half, maybe a little bit longer from my house to get down there.”
To get ready for the audition, Drew says he listened to all of The Kingsmen songs. “I didn’t know what songs they were going to ask me to sing,” he smiles.
Reese, who is also the owner of The Kingsmen, knew someone was coming but was not expecting a young man who looked like he should be studying in college somewhere.
As soon as Laney began singing some of those Kingsmen standards, it was obvious he belonged.
“When he came in, he was just ready,” Kendall says. “He had been preparing himself. Philip Hughes was filling in for us and when he heard (Laney), he just about fell out of his chair. He was not expecting anything like that out of a 20-year-old. After he was done, he said, ‘I am sold on him.’ I said, ‘I am too.’”
And the one that mattered most, Reese, was also sold on Laney being groomed to take over when he steps down. Reese asked Laney if he had any plans for the rest of the weekend.
“I said, ‘I ain’t got nothing to do at the house,’ Laney recalls. “He said, ‘Well, jump on the bus.’”
Reese asked Drew if he wanted to do it again the following weekend.
“After that second weekend, on the way home, it was about 11 o’clock as we were pulling into Asheville,” Laney remembers, “Ray Dean asked me, ‘If I were to hire you, would you come on?’”
Laney didn’t have to contemplate.
“I said, ‘Yes, sir!’”
He’s been growing with The Kingsmen ever since. A month after Laney jumped on the bus, the quartet introduced him at the NQC in Pigeon Forge.
“From the moment he stepped on the stage, he was a natural,” Kendall says. “We would introduce him and Ray would stay on stage and just build him up. He pretty much had the ultimate endorsement from Day One with Ray there.”
Crowds have taken to the new bass voice. He’s personable. He’s really good. And he knows that he’s learning the business from a legend. At Watts Chapel, Laney sang for most of the set, but when it was time for Ray Dean Reese to take the stage, he quietly stepped back to take it all in.
After all, Drew Laney is being groomed to step in for one of his heroes.
“I told Ray Dean that ever since I was a little boy, I have looked up to him,” Laney says. “Tracy Stuffle (of The Perrys) was another big one. My great-grandma was a fan if there ever was one. She loved southern gospel music and she listened to The Perrys and The McKameys. They were the first two groups I liked.”
But after jumping on The Kingsmen bus, Laney soon learned things can change quickly in the gospel music industry. Soon after he came aboard, there were new singers in the lead and tenor spots – Cole Watson and Thomas Nalley – as well. But they both had previous southern gospel experience. Soundman Brandon Reese, Ray’s son, is also an industry veteran.
Laney says Ray Reese made the transition go smoothly. Drew says he’s felt no pressure even though everyone that hears him knows he’s following a legend.
“Ray has made it so easy for me to walk in there and not be scared,” Laney says. “He has given me so much advice and it just motivates me. It pushes me. If I mess up, he’s going to help me cover it. He’s always been a big motivator and he took (the pressure) from me. I look up to him as a father and grandfather. I love Ray.”
On stage, Reese pokes at Laney’s youth with quips like, “Twenty-one years ago I was starting to draw Social Security” but watching the veteran interact with the young bass makes it obvious the affection goes both ways.
Laney adds that even though they’ve been together for less than six months, the rest of the group is family. He says Kendall, who initiated The Kingsmen’s contact, has taught him so much about the industry.
“Alan and I text all the time,” Laney says. “I don’t think I have met one person in this industry that knows as much about music as Alan can tell you every song that has ever been sung and probably sing the words to them: gospel, country, anything. He is just so knowledgeable”
It’s all happened so fast. Less than two years ago, Drew Laney was asking Ray Dean Reese how to get his start. Now, he sings with the legend every night and will someday be standing behind that far left microphone every night.
“He has a lot of Ray in him, of course. He has a lot of Armond Morales in him, a lot of Tim Riley in him. He could do all of those kind of features. When he came in he was just ready,” Kendall says. “He had been preparing himself.I have never seen a kid more prepared in my life, I don’t think.”
But for now, Drew Laney can still pinch himself with the realization he’s making a living doing what he loves.
“We all fit in so good together. We are on that bus and we have the best time together. It’s our home away from home. Some people look at this as our job. This IS our job because we are making a living, but to me it’s not a job.
“I am having so much fun. This is like a dream come true.”