EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was recently published in the Dothan Eagle’s Wiregrass Pride 2019 edition. It’s now being shared on a variety of our digital and social media platforms.
On Saturday nights, faithful Southern gospel music fans arrive at Grimes Gospel Lighthouse.
It’s a simple gray and white metal building with a covered porch, wheelchair ramp and a sign out front. Each week, the night of music is opened with “The Lighthouse” song – a gospel song that late founder Gene Hale made a Grimes standard.
“Most people that come in by the time they leave from here, they tell us, ‘We can just feel the spirit of the Lord here,’” said Pat Tanton, the current director of Grimes Gospel Lighthouse. “It makes us feel good.”
There’s no sermon from a preacher at the gospel music venue, although there is prayer, praise reports and prayer requests.
Located on County Road 25 near Wallace Community College, the Grimes Gospel Lighthouse opened in 2001, according to Tanton, and used to be located down the road in a building that was torn down earlier this year – although half of it had fallen in years ago. The current location and building has been used for more than 10 years and is provided at no charge by the owner, a friend of the founder, as long as the use remained a spiritual one, Tanton said.
A calendar about the size of a checkbook helps Tanton track the scheduled singers, who come from all over to perform traditional Southern gospel and bluegrass gospel music.
Pews donated for seating by other churches have pillows and blankets kept on hand for those who come out each week.
“Older people mostly come here; you don’t see many young people,” Tanton said. “Some of us burn up and the others freeze.”
Once a month, Grimes Gospel Lighthouse will host what it calls its “local talent” night – a covered dish supper to celebrate the birthdays of all the regulars for that month. Anyone who wants to sing that night is welcome to do so. Every other month, they show a Christian movie.
Love offerings are taken each week to help cover the costs of travel and lodging for the performers and on the local talent nights, the offering collected is used for the Lighthouse itself.
Grimes Gospel Lighthouse and another local gospel venue, Klondyke Gospel Music Center near Ozark, coordinate so that performers coming from out of town can perform at Klondyke one night and Grimes the next.
There are favorites who draw larger crowds on Saturdays – local performers like Walter Wilson of Dothan or The Byrd Family from Newville.
Anytime Tennessee-based gospel singer Bev McCann appears, Grimes will typically have its best crowd. And each year, Dane Bailey, known as the singing auctioneer, kicks off the New Year at Grimes Gospel Lighthouse.
Some of the older performers are starting to retire, Tanton said. Finding new performers is getting harder, especially for the small amount Grimes can afford to pay. While she knows traditional Southern gospel is not for everyone, she worries about what may happen to the musical tradition.
“Used to, they’d call me,” Tanton said. “I didn’t do hardly any calling, but now I call them … With no more young people that are going into it, one day it’s not going to be there. It’s very seldom you get to hear Southern gospel.”
The Byrd Family, a group of siblings ranging in age from 10 to 17, has performed several times at Grimes. Their mother, Holly Byrd, recently started playing bass for her children when they perform. There are seven siblings total but the younger ones don’t necessarily perform.
They have performed at Grimes Gospel Lighthouse several times and enjoy seeing the regulars in the audience. Holly Byrd said the crowd at Grimes always responds positively even when the kids branch out from gospel and play more bluegrass tunes.
“A lot of the older crowds do really enjoy the children,” Holly Byrd said.
Along with its regulars, Grimes Gospel Lighthouse has had people walk in after hearing the music. There’s just something, Tanton said, about the lyrics of gospel songs that can lift people.
Gloria Sheppard agreed. Sheppard and Carl Reisch help Tanton with operations at Grimes. Both Sheppard and Tanton will sing on some nights.
“When I’m really down and out, I really need to hear these songs,” Sheppard said.