When Karen Peck was a child, her parents took her to marathon, all-night gospel “sings” at the Atlanta Civic Center.
Standing on tiptoe in her chair to see the performers, she was enraptured—in every sense of that word—with the stalwart piano chords, homespun pageantry, and the solace of old-time religion on tear-streaked faces. When the anointing came, as they say, on Vestal Goodman, that big-voiced “Queen of Southern Gospel” would start waving her trademark handkerchief over her bouffant in fluttery, divine semaphore.
“I was uplifted and just mesmerized by it all,” Peck says, enough so to form her own girl group called The Joyful Trio, setting the tone for a lengthy career as an award-winning, chart-topping gospel artist who is a mainstay of the “Gaither Homecoming” series. Now 51 and fronting Karen Peck and New River, she is serving her second term as the first female president of the Southern Gospel Music Association, based in its Hall of Fame museum at Dollywood. Look for her alongside Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah in an upcoming movie about a struggling choir.
“I was tickled that I got to use the word ‘y’all’ on camera,” she says, of the project, filmed around Atlanta. Its title, appropriately, is Joyful Noise.
Making peace with tradition
Ever since James D. Vaughan officially established Southern Gospel as a male, quartet-based genre in 1910, its performers, like other sacred-music communities, have argued intramurally over issues of showmanship and solemnity.
“I believe entertainment is a type of ministry,” says Peck, who comes across as a blond beatitude with a killer wardrobe. “I want the audience to love the music and to feel the love of Christ through the music. People are genuinely hurting out there. My calling, I believe, is to share hope and encouragement through music, to let folks know that the Lord is with them. And if I can make ’em laugh a little between songs, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.” She adds with a wink, “I may get in trouble for saying that!”
Regardless of the tempo of her songs, Peck’s lyric soprano confides, reassures, and entreats like an aural Balm of Gilead. “I think she has one of the best voices in gospel music,” says Stella Parton. Peck’s “Four Days Late,” invoking the Biblical story of Lazarus and recorded 48 hours after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, recently was named “Song of the Decade” by The Singing News magazine, the industry’s leading trade publication, and her New River ensemble—consisting of her alto-range sister, Susan Peck Jackson, and Jeff Hawes, a vocalist and pianist— has been nominated three times for a Grammy and multiple times for Dove Awards. Peck also has received 11 “Favorite Soprano Fan Awards” from the readers of The Singing News, and New River has enjoyed five consecutive No. 1 songs.
“I’ve been performing and touring for 31 years, but I still have a lot to learn,” says Peck in her home near Dahlonega, where she just returned from a festival in Sweden. “I said ‘y’all’ to the interpreter and then said, ‘Now you’re speaking Southern Swedish!’ Uh, I don’t think they got that joke, judging from their faces. But the spirit of God knocked down all the language barriers once the music started.”
Great job, great boss
Peck grew up nearby in Gainesville, Georgia. “Instead of a poster of Shaun Cassidy on my bedroom wall, I had one of The Nelons,” she says, referring to the latter incarnation of the venerable LaFevres. “Well, I had a crush on Donny Osmond, too, but I would look at that poster of The Nelons and pray, ‘Lord, if you can’t put me with that group, please put me with one like them!”
A promoter asked the Joyful Trio to open for the LaFevres, and she soon was on her way. She studied piano, music, voice, and elementary education at Brenau Women’s College, and in 1981, during her sophomore year, the Nelons invited her to join them.
“I was green as all get-out, wearing those fancy dresses and feeling like Cinderella, traveling all over the place,” she says. “As is often the case, I didn’t realize just how blessed I was at the time, but I was living my dream.”
Peck performed with The Nelons for about 10 years. Then she married Rickey Gooch and planned to semi-retire and start a family. “I thought I’d just perform locally, but God had other plans.” The progressive, upbeat sound of New River—“the Lord loved to be near water,” as she explains the name—quickly acquired a following, and Peck became part of the evangelical gentry, gigging in Branson and entertaining on cruises with Mike Huckabee and the Rev. Charles Stanley. She has home-schooled her two children.
Her husband converted his family’s “homeplace” in Yahoola (“Yay-hooler,” in the local dialect) into a gospel compound called New River Park, with a stage designed to look like a country chapel, covered in weathered, dun-colored wood and a tin roof. For the past decade, the band has played host to “Christian Music Nights,” an annual, weekend-long “homecoming” held around Father’s Day. It attracts veterans such as the Lewis Family, The Primitive Quartet, and Jeff and Sheri Easter, as well as up-and-comers like CS&K and Brian Free and Assurance.
“We spend days just planning the meals!” says Sheri Easter. “And the grounds are so beautiful. In the twilight, you see the chapel’s cross silhouetted against the sky, and there’s nothing quite like it. We all know each other for the most part in the gospel community and try to support each other, so it’s good to see all of these familiar faces, catch up, and enjoy the fellowship.”
New River just released an album titled Reach Out, and Peck sings one of her songs on the soundtrack for Joyful Noise.
“I love my job, and I couldn’t ask for a better boss,” she quips about her musical ministry, “and I have one great retirement plan, let me tell you.”