After 14 years, they're still Singing in the Barn
CHAMBERSBURG - In a conventional venue, a ticket to see a nationally touring gospel performer could cost up to $75. And even among gospel and country musicians these days, top-flight personalities would rarely perform in an actual barn.
Defying convention, Gospel Music Hall of Fame members The Nelons will share the stage with Michael English, singer Amber Nelon Thompson and pianist Jeff Stice for a concert Saturday, June 11, at Singing in the Barn, 2778 Mont Alto Road, Chambersburg - a real barn where founder Harold Wildeson housed a herd of dairy cows for 11 years.
There is no charge for admission, but an offering will be collected.
The Nelons were recently inducted into the Gospel Music Association’s Hall of Fame, and they have participated in the Gaither Homecoming Tour and Video Series with their blend of traditional and contemporary gospel music.
Michael English is known as one of the most powerful communicators in Christian music. After experiencing the highs and lows of the industry, he chronicled his experience with addiction and depression as well as his redemption in his autobiography, "The Prodigal Comes Home."
Amber Nelon Thompson, the youngest Dove Award nominee in the history of the Gospel Music Association, travels full-time with The Nelons in addition to her solo career.
Jeff Stice, a six-time recipient of the Singing News Fan Award for Favorite Musician, will also be featured.
“It will be a lot of fun,” said Kelly Nelon Clark. “Not only will we be singing the classics that have stood the test of time, we will also share many wonderful and interesting stories behind these timeless songs.”
There is never a charge for admission at Singing in the Barn, a nonprofit organization. Wildeson has faith that if he books the shows, the people will come and the money will be raised through voluntary donations.
And so far it has. For 14 years, Singing in the Barn has drawn overflow crowds to hear nationally-known gospel musicians. The Nelons show will be the second of three shows at the venue this season.
Wildeson recalled a time in 2008 when the treasurer of Singing in the Barn showed him the list of expenses for a performance and then the list of the offerings that had been collected that night.
The lists were the same down to the dollar.
Other times, deficits from one show have been covered by surpluses from another.
Wildeson and his wife, Karen, moved onto their dairy farm in 1987 and ran it until 1998. When they started losing their rented farmland to other farmers in the area, they sold the herd.
Two years later, Wildeson knew that it was time to do something bigger with his barn. Inspired by a higher calling, he gutted the barn and Singing in the Barn was born.
Initially, his biggest struggle was resisting the urge to turn it into a for-profit business that charged attendees for tickets and food. Instead, he decided to trust that if he renovated the barn and booked the bands, God would work out the finances.
While Wildeson credits the concept of Singing in the Barn to divine inspiration, each performance in the barn is a leap of faith.
Wildeson’s faith gives him the courage to keep taking the risks, but the stress has taken its toll.
“There was a lot of stress in our family trying to do all of this,” he said. “We did it. I don’t know how we did it, but we did it. There’s so much stress, especially for my wife. How would your wife feel if you said, ‘Honey, on Saturday night, I want you to be prepared for 1,000 people?’”
Wildeson grew up in a church that didn’t allow musical instruments during services, which would drive him to take up the harmonica, guitar, bass and piano as he grew up. Playing by ear, without any formal training, he and some friends started playing country music but transitioned to gospel when they received invitations to perform at churches and youth groups.
Touring up and down the East coast, going anywhere he was asked to play, Wildeson witnessed first-hand the ability of music to shake things up and connect with people.
“You’re not supposed to go to churches and sing country music so we decided we better kick into playing some gospel music,” he said. “Right in the front pew there were three little ladies that might have been 80-plus years old. When we started up, and those drums kicked in, and that bass guitar, and that lead guitar, and everything, they weren’t used to that. It was really exciting.”
Wildeson has made a firm commitment to generosity. He believes that if 20 percent is considered an acceptable tip, then he should tip 25 percent, and he even leaves pleasant notes for his servers. He is a voracious reader who was once so moved by a book that he bought 500 copies to give away to friends. When he’s not busy with his job as a real estate broker, writing his own book or spending time with his family, he can be found in the barn playing piano and singing to the empty theater seats.
“I love people,” he said. “I love to be out among the people. Laid back is my way of doing life.”
It is this generous attitude that makes Singing in the Barn so inviting to so many.
“There are lots of people who come here who would never go to a church,” said Wildeson, “but they can come here and hear the gospel and sit back here and not feel like someone is looking down on them. They just feel comfortable here.”
Over the years, Wildeson has made continuous improvements and upgrades to the venue.
In the beginning, bales of hay were brought in as seats for audience members. The current theater-style seats originated in the old Greencastle High School, which has since been torn down, and they were later used at the Rhodes Grove Camp and Conference Center before finding their way into Wildeson’s barn.
The barn can seat approximately 1,000 people, and during performances it is often filled to capacity, so Wildeson encourages attendees to bring their own lawn chairs just in case.
“I’m open to whatever happens,” he said.
Wildeson has a knack for turning potentially disastrous interruptions such as a steer mooing during an emotional testimony into a magical experience for the audience.
He remembers one rainy night in the early days when singer Michael Booth performed with a microphone in one hand and a bucket in the other to catch the water leaking in from the roof.
The original tin roof has since been upgraded to a sturdier rubber one, but this informal atmosphere where anything can happen and everyone is welcome has become a trademark of Singing in the Barn.
On another occasion, a performer invited all of the veterans in the audience onto the stage for a tribute. A support beam under the stage snapped under the weight, and it caused a small panic in the audience.
Wildeson joined the veterans who remained at attention on the broken stage and said, “If anyone’s going to break my stage, I can’t think of a better bunch than these guys.”
A negative had been turned into a positive, and the crowd went wild.
When people ask Harold Wildeson how he gets such large acts to perform in his barn, he replies, “The Bible says ask and you shall receive. I simply asked. I called them.”
Many have even become repeat performers over the years, which is something Wildeson attributes to Singing in the Barn’s unique atmosphere both on and off of the stage.
While Singing in the Barn has come along way from bales of hay for seats and a leaky ceiling, Wildeson has even bigger visions for the future, including turning the hillside behind his barn into an amphitheater that could seat thousands and replicating the existing model in barns around the country.
Singing in the Barn’s performance season will conclude on July 30 with the Bowling Family and Jerry DeLawler.
For more information, go to www.singinginthebarn.com or call 717-860-0001.
When you go:
The Nelons with Michael English, featuring Amber Nelon Thompson and Jeff Stice
Singing in the Barn
2778 Mont Alto Road, Chambersburg
Doors open 5:30 p.m.; concert begins 6:30 p.m.
No reserved seats; overflow seating on the lawn; bring chairs
For more information, go to www.singinginthebarn.com or call 717-860-0001.