In 1977, I purchased an album by a Southern Gospel group from Tenaha, Texas; Something for Everyone, by the Singing Christians (Canaan Records) I saw the group play in Nacogdoches, and found them to be very entertaining. The following year, I saw them perform again and purchased Refresh Our Spirit (Canaan Records).
I loved the traditional four-part harmony, featuring the vocals of Wayne Christian (lead), Danny Hollis (acoustic guitar and vocals), Rusty Oxford (bass), and Danny Smith (tenor), but the real appeal was the outstanding young men who played in the band. Gary Goss (piano), Emory Atkins (bass guitar), Ronny Ricks (drums), and Kevin Bailey (electric guitar). Something told me, these guys are not your typical gospel quartet.
The Singing Christians had recorded five albums on Canaan Records/Word Music Group (1974-1978) but they were evolving into much more than a quartet. In 1978, the group began to prepare for a new album. They wanted more from their music and dreamed of expanding into larger country stages, but dared not lose their base in Gospel music. The record executives encouraged them to change their name to the Mercy River Boys and the legacy of the band began.
The Mercy River Boys first album was entitled, Breakout. It featured several songs that charted in the traditional and Southern gospel radio markets, including Flat Top Martin Guitar, Shine On, and Coming Back on Time. Two songs were specifically released to crossover into country music radio; You Needed Me, and Momma’s Sugar. The most interesting song on the album was Blow on Tempest. It had a solid four-part vocal harmony on the chorus but the energetic rocking electric guitar on the ending established the MRB band as a tour-de-force. In a way, it was a foreshadowing of the future, for the most progressive musicians in the group.
In 1979, The Breakout album was an undisputed hit success! It was a finalist for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Grammy Award for best traditional gospel album. Ironically, there was very little ’traditional’ gospel music recorded on the project. Breakout was also a finalist for a Gospel Music Association Dove Award and Merlin Littlefield won a Dove for the backliner notes on the long-play album. The die was cast and the future was bright for the MRB.
The Mercy River Boys hired a new booking agent and began performing in country venues. They were already headliners in Christian music shows but decided to open for major country acts like Louise Mandrell. The MRB shared the stage with many country performers and played at festivals, rodeos, and concert arenas from coast to coast. They brought in a new crowd to add to the music fans the Singing Christians had previously established. The MRB became the second gospel music group to crossover into the country genre. Only the Oak Ridge Boys had accomplished that feat.
In the Arms of My Best Friend (Canaan Records, 1982) followed in the musical stylings of the Breakout album. Ronny Ricks moved from drums to lead vocals and acoustic guitar. Chuck Long replaced Kevin Bailey on electric guitar. Danny Hollis pursued a solo career but the musical experience of the MRB continued nonstop.
The 1982 album featured several crossover songs including, Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport Today. It was a hit in country radio with a soul searching social-gospel message that rings true today some thirty-six years later. Ronny Ricks’s voice was a perfect match for secular radio, a blending of Kenny Rogers and Randy Owen of Alabama fame. His voice was also featured on other deep vinyl cuts like Walking on Clover, the soulful Last Train to Glory, and the iconic hit, In the Arms of My Best Friend. Once again the musical formulation of mixing four-part harmony and progressive country music was a success and a new Christian Country genre was born.
In 1983, Wayne Christian, the leader of the band, began searching for a new record label to fully embrace the MRB’s Christian country persona. Talks were advancing with CBS Records Nashville office when Wayne decided to pursue a career in finance and politics. Danny Hollis and Emory Atkins returned from a brief hiatus to continue the tours for the remainder of 1983-84. The remaining members of the band decided to go their separate ways without the new secular recording contract.
Danny Hollis, Emory Atkins, and Ronny Ricks would form a new band, PARADISE, releasing their first album, God Bless The U.S.A. (Englewood Records, 1985). Paradise would initially continue with the progressive Christian country genre, featuring many of the songs they had collectively made famous in the MRB. They released three more albums over the next six years and their style dramatically shifted toward the CCM genre (Contemporary Christian Music).
The LEGACY of the Mercy River Boys is inscribed in the lyrics and music they cut into vinyl. They are the pathfinders of Christian Country music and will forever be one of my favorite musical experiences.
Respectfully scribed by Charles Harris