Jerrid Fletcher and singers from his Baylor University gospel music choir Heavenly Voices are brushing up on the past to sing for one of the nation’s biggest music festivals next month.
They will perform Oct. 13 at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Austin’s Zilker Park, singing on the Zilker Stage, one of eight employed in the three-day fest, which draws more than 70,000 fans annually.
Listed on the ACL schedule as “The Baylor Choir,” the ensemble will sing at 1 p.m., hours before that evening’s headliners of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Jack White, Steve Earle and Gotye.
It’s a repeat visit for Fletcher and several of his singers, who performed at the 2010 festival. The director was delighted that Austin gospel promoter and organizer Greg Adkins invited them back, even after hearing Adkins’ request for this year’s program.
“He said he’d like us to sing some gospel from the 1960s and ’70s, things like Edward Hawkins’ ‘Oh, Happy Day’ and the Rev. James Cleveland’s ‘Don’t Feel No Ways Tired,’ ” the gospel leader said.
The older standards meant something new for a group whose repertory leans heavily on contemporary gospel, with songs by the likes of Israel Houghton and New Breed, Kirk Franklin and original music by Fletcher and band leader Trey Thomas III.
The request sent Fletcher and Thomas, music minister of Greater New Life Baptist Church, scurrying to hymnals and older church members for suggestions that the group can shape into a program within a month.
“It’s an interesting challenge. Man, I’m in the hymn book at the church and looking on YouTube,” the 26-year-old Fletcher said with a laugh. “I wish my great-grandmother were here to tell me what she was singing back then.”
Sundays find Fletcher and several of his Waco singers in Dallas, where they are active in The Potter’s House, the nondenominational mega-church led by Bishop T. D. Jakes. He and Thomas will take Fletcher’s ensemble the Difference, which contains several Heavenly Voices members, to Austin, rather than the full Heavenly Voices choir, whose active membership averages around 70 members.
Fletcher took a smaller group two years ago to the ACL festival, which was an eye-opener.
“It was a very, very different audience. The crowd isn’t your normal church crowd,” he recalled. “It was a big shocker to have people with beer cans in their hands come up afterwards and say, ‘God bless you,’ or, ‘God really used you to minister.’ ”
Ron English, Heavenly Voices’ Baylor faculty sponsor, attended that 2010 performance, but admitted he was so busy helping with backstage details and organization that he caught only part of the program.
“I was working more than watching, but they did a good job,” he said.
While the ACL festival provides Heavenly Voices singers with an audience in the thousands, the choir’s big event of the year comes in February with its annual Gospelfest at Waco Hall, English said.
That is when participation swells to its greatest number, and English attributed much of the group’s present size to Fletcher’s leadership.
Fletcher, who is not a Baylor student or graduate, stepped in to lead the Heavenly Voices seven years ago after playing keyboards in the group’s backing band.
He and Thomas have seen it grow from slightly more than a dozen members to nearly 100 participants in the course of a year, with some 60 to 70 singing onstage.
In that time, Heavenly Voices has recorded and released two CDs, “Heirs of the Covenant” and “I Am.”
Fletcher sees next month’s ACL performance not so much as an opportunity to promote Heavenly Voices or Baylor to a big crowd, but a chance for Christian ministry.
“Singing is just a segue to open a door to make a difference,” he said. “We don’t want to just sing it, but live it.”