I grew up in deep East Texas in the sixties and seventies. In my youth, I traveled across the state to watch musical groups and bands perform. My brother and I started a small family gospel group, enjoying a minimal success in our teenage years, but a lifetime of performing was not in the cards for us. In 1975, I met the Journeymen, a musical group from Tyler, Texas. This is the story of two of their members who would help transform the vocal and musical sound of Gospel music.
Danny Hollis was the best vocalist I’ve ever heard sing. His voice reminded me of Marty Robbins; it was uncanny how much he sounded like the famous country balladeer. He played both a Gibson electric guitar and a Martin acoustic. His musical skill kept him in demand in the local recording studios and he became a regular guitarist for Wally Fowler’s ”Top Ten Nashville Band.”
In 1975, Ronny Ricks was the drummer for the Journeymen. He was only 16, but already an accomplished musician with a reputation as a great percussionist. What I didn’t know, and would not discover until 1980, was that Ronny Ricks was one hell of a country singer. A cross between Kenny Rogers and Randy Owen of Alabama. It is very rare to find a drummer with a voice that smooth. In time, Danny and Ronny would become a great one-two punch in four different bands, and both would end up in the Texas Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
In 1977, both Danny and Ronny would leave the Journeymen to perform with another successful Southern Gospel group from East Texas, The Singing Christians. After recording two albums, the Singing Christians rebranded themselves as The Mercy River Boys to kick-start a new musical genre known today as Christian Country Music. Both men would become lead vocalists in the organization, scoring hits on secular country and gospel radio stations. After the breakup of the Mercy River Boys, both Danny and Ronny would combine their efforts with another MRB band member to form Paradise (I have written about all three of these bands in previous blogs).
Danny Hollis would continue to play and perform for the next forty years. In 2014, he released a new album with his new group, The Danny Hollis Band. Ronny would tour with several groups over the same period of time, most notably, White River, and the Penny Gilley Band. Both men were inducted with the eight original members of the Mercy River Boys into the Texas Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in November of 2015.
These two men, from the piney woods of East Texas, led a musical revolution with the Mercy River Boys that placed them in very rare company. I have written about this revolution before and how it created a new stylistic genre. Christian Country Music is a mix of traditional and progressive country with a positive, moral message. Danny and Ronny’s voices and their musical talent helped to lead in the formulation of the new genre. Others would follow in their footsteps, but they were the forebearers and musical pathfinders.
I’ve lost track of both performers for decades but I have fond memories watching them perform with the Journeymen, the Singing Christians, the Mercy River Boys, and Paradise. I wish they could have continued to work together in those early years but they performed together for over a decade.