A Conversation with Wes Hampton
For a formatted version (including photos, courtesy of Hannah Lefchik), click here: southerngospeljournal.com/features/200901.pdf. A plain text version is below.
I’d like to offer a special word of thanks to fellow blogger Wes Burke. When he posted a brief interview with Wes Hampton a couple months back, it planted a seed in my mind—”Hey, it just might be possible to interview a member of the Gaither Vocal Band!” So thanks to both Wes’s, here you go…
DJM: How did you get interested in Christian music, and what led to a desire to perform it?
Wes: When I grew up, my parents always had it in our car, and at home—the 8-tracks with the Imperials and Steve Green. Those two were the main ones that really influenced me from an early age. I also heard secular singers like Billy Joel, Ronnie Milsap, and Whitney Houston. They were amazing vocalists, but I always gravitated more toward the Gospel stuff. I really loved The Best of the Imperials—I fell in love with their music.
I was still pretty shy as far as singing. Other than children’s choir, I didn’t sing in front of people. I didn’t get courage to sing till I was in eighth grade, middle school, getting a little more courage to start singing in public.
Singing has been a part of my life from a really early age, but it’s just gotten more intense. I’d like to think that my voice has grown the longer I’ve done it.
DJM: What did you do musically before joining the Gaither Vocal Band?
Wes: I did do some stuff in college at Trevecca Nazarene—I traveled with the Trevedores for a couple of years. We did PR for the school; we would travel weekends, singing at churches, and in the summer we would do music for student youth camps. I really, really enjoyed that. My wife brought me down to Birmingham, where we still are. I got involved interning with the worship staff at our church down here. I started working with the praise team. I was eventually hired part time, then full time once I graduated in 2000. My primary job there was to lead praise band and vocal team. I would pick out some of the music, and lead worship when worship pastor wanted me to or was out. It was kind of like an associate worship minister there. I really loved it. I loved working with soloists as well, and some choir. It wasn’t a traditional choir, but all the praise teams come together, and an open choir, whoever wanted to be be a part of that. I really enjoyed that, they gave me a lot of hands on experience as far as working in the church setting, leading worship, being in front of congregation. I also worked part time in retail when I was working part time at church and trying to finish school. I learned a whole lot in those few years, like how to live on a budget!
I also sang in high school in a quartet and trio. Churches had us come and sing, and they took up a love offering. It was the coolest thing to do what we really enjoyed doing—to get paid for it was just a bonus! So music is something that has just grown and got more intense.
DJM: So did you do any recordings in high school or college?
Wes: Yes, but I don’t talk about them!
DJM: Oh, sorry, I can skip that question!
Wes: No, that’s okay, I can answer. Actually, we did record stuff at Trevecca. My wife was in a mixed ensemble with seven or eight people and I was with the Trevedores. We did a CD together—half a CD with her group, half with my group. It was really rough, but it’s still fun to go back and listen every now and then, to how bad I was!
But there’s some really good stuff in there too. We learned how to become better singers. We heard vocal inflections and placement that did not work, and that made us better singers as well.
Then I also did a couple CDs with Brook Hill. The church I was involved with in Birmingham did one in 98/99 called Whosoever, and then another one a couple of years later, called Rain Down. Rain Down was a lot of fun for me; I produced the solos. It was a big learning experience for me. Those were all that I know of besides the Vocal Band titles.
Oh, and my wife and I did a lot of studio singing, background vocals for local artists.
DJM: For the first few years, it seemed like a lot of people were discussing how your voice and range compared to David Phelps. Now that you’ve been there somewhere towards four years, are you seeing less of that?
Wes: Yeah, I am!
I remember I talked to David when I first got in the group. He said, “It took a couple years for people to start to accept me. That’s just part of it.”
It was true. I’ve been with the group three and a half years now, and it really took about two years to get established, where people were accepting me and starting to like me, and like the new sound.
It came to a point, too, where God really spoke to me and I realized He told me to be me and to not try to be or do what someone else does. I’m no David Phelps. I cannot hold on to those C-sharps like he can—he’s the only one I’ve heard who can do that!
I highly respect that, his talent, and what he brought to the vocal band in those years.
What he told me stuck with me. And I really feel like people now are giving me respect, if you want to call it that, accepting the fact that I am in this role and that I’m not geared to take David’s place. I cannot be that—I’m hear to bring what I can bring to the party, and hope people enjoy that, and what this Vocal Band brings.
Each Vocal Band brings something different—each is unique, not that one is better than the group before that, it’s always different and always interesting. But it’s hopefully always at a certain standard, and hopefully that bar is never lowered.
I think most important thing for me is to know that this is where God has placed me. I have peace and confidence in that, and I don’t try to be someone God has not called me to be.
DJM: So what has it been like to sing with David these past three months?
Wes: It’s been a lot of fun singing with David filling in. The blend was so nice—he and I would switch tenor depending on what song it was. If it was one of his big staple songs, he’d sing it, and it would give me a vocal break and sing a little lower. He and I would each do some baritone, also, with Marsh singing lead. So we were singing any of three different parts. It was nice to have some rest there, with usually singing the tenor all night.
DJM: Speaking of David Phelps and his big songs, are there any Vocal Band songs from that era that the group doesn’t stage since they don’t fit your voice?
Wes: Yeah, one of the big ones that we haven’t done is “Let Freedom Ring.” That is really his song. And, Bill being fair to me and wanting me to blend, didn’t want to put me in a position that was difficult for me to succeed at. He knows what I can do vocally, and what I can’t, and what Guy, David, and Marsh can and can’t do vocally, and he works with that.
Actually, I think “Let Freedom Ring” is the only song we haven’t done that was a big one when he was in the group. I think that’s it; we’ve done about everything else—“Hide Thou Me,” “Love of God,” “O Love that Will Not Let Me Go,” “I Pledge My Allegiance.”
DJM: Are there any vocal exercises you’ve done to work on your voice and perhaps expand your range, both before and after joining the GVB?
Wes: Not necessarily. I don’t do a lot of vocal stuff on a concert date because my voice warms up naturally. There are some nice low notes when I wake up, and as the day goes on I start warming up and it gets higher. I do lip rolls, humming, and head voice to loosen up my voice.
Probably the biggest change since joining the Vocal Band is more stamina. When I was leading worship, it was in a lower register (range), and that register was a lot stronger with my upper range not as strong. I’ve had to build that back up since joining the Vocal Band. It was a struggle for the first year, but I’d like to think I’ve got more stamina, like to think that the sound has improved.
DJM: If you could pick one earlier GVB member to do a concert with, who—and why?
Wes: Steve Green!
DJM: I thought maybe!
Wes: He is just a big musical influence in my life. I listened to him at such an early age and his music has such a tremendous impact on my life. I got to sing with him this past year—it was a huge highlight of my life. He was so gracious, so kind. I loved his spirit, his story, how open is in his concerts—how he used to perform for the wrong reasons and how God used people in his life to point that out to him and change his direction. I love his music, his heart, and I’d love to do a concert with him one day.
DJM: I still watch that video of It is Well with My Soul you two did together every now and then—great video! (Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8Qub3wklEM)
Wes: In fact, I’ve gone back and watched it four or five times myself—I remind myself that it really happened!
DJM: There’s one point—I think it’s the second to last verse—where I can’t tell who’s singing the harmony. Is that you or him?
Wes: I basically did the higher harmony stuff, except where I have the lead. When we rehearsed it that afternoon, we were thinking I could take the high part to be a little break for him vocally. I actually messed up several things in that recording because my brain was so fried!
DJM: I think the Vocal Band reunion video is coming out later this month?
Wes: Yeah, it is.
DJM: Have you heard anything about whether there might be any reunion live concerts?
Wes: Wonderful question! I have heard mention of that [possibility], but I don’t know what the probability of that is. I would be the happiest boy on the planet if that happened! To get together with those guys in a Vocal Band reunion tour would really rock! But I’m not sure if it’s gonna happen.
DJM: At the 2007 Homecoming taping where there was a day of hymns and a day of new songs, there have been three videos released with footage from the hymns taping day. Do you have any idea if the videos from the day of new songs will be coming out this year?
Wes: Yeah, they’ve finished another couple of videos, and they’re waiting for the right time to release those. I think they might release a couple more hymns videos yet. The day before the hymns taping, we did a taping on the Opry stage with the number of singers and all that, but a different setting and a different set. A couple of videos from that day have not been released yet. I would say at least three more videos from those dates will be coming out this year.
They have so much video footage at the Gaither Studios—they have a lot of video footage and old videos that have never been released, and I don’t know if they ever will be. Who knows if they’ll ever make videos out of those. They even have a couple of finished videos that have never been released.
DJM: Speaking of unreleased footage, I think I read in the liner notes to Lovin’ God, Lovin’ Each Other that the Vocal Band recorded twenty-four songs, and released thirteen in the end. I imagine Gaither does this kind of thing with the other Vocal Band projects, too—do you know if there are any plans to release any of this?
Wes: Yes, for that one, I think they did 25 songs. I think some of those will never be released—they just did what they thought was best.
There are at least two songs that haven’t been released from Lovin’ Life—we have nineteen finished songs we recorded. We redid “These are They.” “Let the Celebration Begin” was a great one that Gerald Crabb wrote. “Fear Not” was offered as a bonus track with the Vocal Band Christmas pre-release, and then we did another one called “Praise You” that hasn’t been released.
DJM: Do you know if the Vocal Band will be releasing any CDs this year?
Wes: Yes, there are plans to release at least one CD this year, and maybe more.
DJM: I’ve seen on some of the more recent Vocal Band projects that each group member is listed as a co-producer. What did that look like? Did you all do everything, or did different ones handle different roles?
Wes: Well, Bill primarily decides which songs are gonna be on the CDs, but he’s very diplomatic. He’ll take good suggestions, he’ll take a good song no matter where it comes from.
On Lovin’ Life, we didn’t have another producer, just us. We were all there for everything, and we all kind of gave our input—like when it came to mixing it down, more kick right here or more whatever. We were all tweaking and listening all the time, when recording and mixing down. Bill just loves that, and that way everyone feels like we all have a vital part in that. He graciously listed us all in the album credits.
DJM: What about tracking? Who would write the tracks for the musicians in the studio?
Wes: It was interesting when we did that. Gordon Mote was kind of the session leader. He’ll just kind of play the song, and all the musicians find their parts as he plays the song, it just happens. Someone makes charts, and they’ll kind of just go from there.
DJM: But I would assume that before that point, you’ve already decided keys, what key works for what voice, and all that sort of thing?
Wes: Yes—say for “I Will Go On,” we all sat down with each other, to see what was good for each voice, and that was on the date that we tracked that song.
DJM: There have been a couple of times in the past where the Vocal Band members have collaborated together to co-write a song. Do you do any songwriting?
Wes: We have not done anything yet with the current group. The last collaborative effort by the group was “Picture of Grace,” at least as far as the whole group being involved. That’s something I’d love to do in the new year.
DJM: What do you think Southern Gospel will look like in the future, say 25 years down the road?
Wes: Oh, yeah, I think it has such a loyal following and has for years, and it’ll still be strong. It goes from the Vocal Band all the way to the other end of the spectrum. To me, the Vocal Band is not Southern Gospel, but it is Southern Gospel, if you know what I mean. It’s just different sounding from anything else. I think Southern Gospel will continue to grow, from the more traditional sounding groups to the Vocal Band. That’s what makes it so great!
DJM: Some groups have a fixed set list every night, but I think you indicated earlier that Bill Gaither can call any number of songs. Between Vocal Band songs and Homecoming choir songs, how many songs do you have to be able to sing on the spur of the moment?
Wes: Wow, that’s a good question! Basically if it’s recorded, it’s fair game for for the Vocal Band. On the video we taped in Canada, we did “I Bowed On My Knees” with Michael English. Bill had never once asked me if I knew it, and we’d never rehearsed it. Sometimes it flies, and sometimes it falls, but especially if we rehearsed it in the last year or two it’s fair game.
We usually have a general idea of what the set’s going to be, but sometimes he’ll have something we had no idea was coming!
DJM: So would he even call stuff from the ’80s? What’s the oldest song he might call?
Wes: I think the earliest stuff he has called would be from the Vocal Band Homecoming project, “Temporary Home.” I think anywhere from that group forward is fair game, but he’s not usually going to call a song that we haven’t rehearsed at some point.
DJM: Random question: The year is 1975, and you have your pick of singing tenor for any Southern Gospel group. Which group do you choose, and why?
Wes: I would say maybe the Cathedrals, but I guess my first choice would be the Imperials, because that music was so instrumental when I was so young. That was when I first started hearing and singing harmony, when I was 4 or 5 years old with Russ Taff on “Trumpet of Jesus,” “Eagle Song,” “Oh, Buddha.” I still love that music!
DJM: Are there any questions you wish an interviewer would ask you, but nobody has to date?
Wes: Honestly you’ve asked some great questions. I’m not sure I can think of any. I often get more run of the mill questions like, “What’s it like to sing with Bill Gaither, to be in the group?” But there were some great questions. Daniel Britt also asked some great questions when he interviewed me.
Questions I love answering are what’s life like at home, what’s your day like.
DJM: I just didn’t want to duplicate what you’ve already done fairly extensively in the FAQ page of your site!
Wes: Oh, that’s very out of date! I’ve been home for a few weeks. There are so many emails in my inbox that it’s been unbelievable. I haven’t checked it recently because I’ve enjoyed being home so much, enjoyed being with my kids. I’m kinda selfish with my time, and want to spend every moment with my family! But I’ll hopefully get some more FAQs on there. I’ve got a lot waiting!
DJM: Any other thoughts or comments?
Wes: No, but I appreciate you taking the time to do this!
DJM: I really appreciate you taking the time, too! Thank you!