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Originally published November 14, 2009 at 12:01 AM | Page modified November 14, 2009 at 2:16 AM

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Jamboree brings gospel music players together

Sooner or later, somebody had to break out "Amazing Grace."

Yakima Herald-Republic

MABTON, Wash. —

Sooner or later, somebody had to break out "Amazing Grace."

This time it was Pat Wandling on his violin.

The 86-year-old's slow, weepy rendition of the classic hymn filled the sanctuary.

The parade of musicians at Mabton Grace Brethren Church's Gospel Jamboree plucked, strummed and sung all the other favorites: "Rock of Ages," "I'll Fly Away" and "I Saw the Light."

But the 100 or more people crammed into the church had to know somebody would eventually play "Amazing Grace" at the monthly open microphone festival of gospel music.

Wandling dug out his violin after 60 years of dust-collecting for the occasion to play for the first time at the jamboree and solicited Carl Smotherman to accompany on the guitar.

"I just got the urge to," said the retired Horse Heaven Hills farmer.

The Gospel Jamboree, started 11 years ago by a retired church couple, welcomes all musicians. Some are rusty, some are professional, but all are there to blur the lines between entertainment and evangelism, song and sermon, fun and fervor.

"It's good heartfelt music and it does send a message about our God," said Gwen Lawson of Heartstrings, a trio of three Lower Valley sisters who sing and play.

All the songs are Christian-based, most are renditions of hymns. Performers give testimony and sermonettes between songs. And the whole festival begins and ends with prayers.

Most of the organizers consider it a church outreach.

"This is a ministry," said Mike McGhan, who operates the soundboard and plays bass in the Mabton-based Joyful Noise, one of the regular bands.

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Roughly 110 people regularly attend, filling a little more than half the seats in the church.

Horse Heaven Hills farmers Richard and Joyce McBride started the monthly music festival after attending a Seattle concert by the Gaithers, the well-known Nashville gospel group. It started in the Mabton Grange Hall on the Sunnyside-Mabton Road, but moved to the church a few years later.

About five years into it, the event began regularly attracting more than 100 fans.

The McBrides have since become snowbirds, traveling to Arizona in the winter. Church members and musicians Carl Smotherman and Dawn Andrews - both members Joyful Noise - have been coordinating the festival in recent years but gave it a hiatus over the winter while Smotherman had hip surgery.

In May, when they revised it, attendance had dwindled to about 30. That's when they threw in an extra element - a featured artist - and began aggressively advertising with posters, fliers and newspaper announcements.

Each month, the jamboree showcases a specially invited performer. Sometimes they are professional, other times they are just good. The organizers pay them from proceeds collected in a donation jar set near the door of the sanctuary.

"We're trying to cover at least gas money," said McGhan.

Up this month is Dale Brown, a Prosser musician known for his ability to electronically mix several instrument tracks onstage while singing. He uses guitars, harmonicas, percussion instruments, bass and the banjo to construct the music.

In September, they chose Hand Picked, a seven-member bluegrass band from Walla Walla that features a banjo, mandolin and the first upright bass in Gospel Jamboree history. Their twangy tunes, some hymns, some originals, prompted the church crowd to clap and sing along.

Joyful Noise and Heart Strings are the two most regular local performers. Both groups draw most of their members from the congregation.

Joyful Noise is a regular act at senior day at the Central Washington State Fair. Smotherman is the lead guitarist and primary male vocalist. Andrews also is one of the singers.

The rest of the docket is filled out by whoever wants to give his or her talents a whirl. A guitar player from Boardman, Ore., is one of the regulars, making the 90-mile drive nearly every month. Accordion players have shown up while some singers croon to a split-track CD.

The three sisters of Heart Strings typically perform by themselves for a while, then invite their father, Bill Lawson, on stage to sing with them.

Heart Strings ended the jamboree in September while Bill Lawson, an Arkansas retired evangelist from Arkansas, closed the festival with a prayer to the "Lawd" coated in a Southern drawl.

The music attracts a crowd of mostly silver-haired fans, diligent in their attendance and eager to sing and clap along. They carpool from Benton City and take shuttles from assisted living centers throughout the Valley.

One of the biggest fans is Dewayne Carlson, 83, of Sunnyside.

He rarely misses a jamboree and still chokes up when talking about how much his late wife, Joyce, enjoyed the performances. She died in January.

"Oh, she was worse than me," Carlson said. "She wouldn't let me get by without coming down here. She loved it."

Many of the fans say the music reminds them of the revivals and gospel music gatherings of their childhoods.

"It's old-time music that we grew up with," said Page Bradford of Grandview.

She and her friend, Lena Johnson of Benton City, also grew up in Arkansas. Johnson says the music brings back memories of her family riding in a horse-drawn wagon to gospel music festivals.

"That was our entertainment," she said.

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Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic, http://www.yakima-herald.com

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