Karen Peck, Southern Gospel sweetheart and north Georgia native, is ready for her close-up

This appears in the current issue of The Brenau Window, the university’s alumni magazine.

Karen Peck seems incapable of projecting the cool indifference that many celebrities affect on a red carpet.

Instead, she waves giddily to the fans who are shouting her name along the roped-off pathway winding through Dollywood for the annual Southern Gospel Music Awards. Peck, looking belle-of-the-ball in a rustling black gown, would pause to hug each of them, like long-lost kin, if there were time.

The gospel singer, who studied music at Brenau for two years in the 1980s, is both a presenter for this awards ceremony and a nominee for “Favorite Soprano,” an award she has won 11 times. Karen Peck and New River have become a mainstay act of the “Gaither Homecoming Series” with five consecutive No. 1 songs and a “Song of the Decade” to its credits.

She walks past the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame, with its old-fashioned, hardwood church pews, yellowed sheet music, and other homey artifacts that date to the genre’s origins a century ago as men’s “quartet music.” While women have made jubilant inroads in the industry, Peck, 51, is one of just a few who front a band with her marquee name, and she is winding up her second term as the first female president of the Southern Gospel Music Association.

“It’s still a male-dominated field, but that’s changing,” she says, in between all of the hugging, back-and-forth compliments, and photo shoots backstage. “I have a passion for honoring our legends and preserving the music’s history, which is one reason I’m here.”

The atmosphere – part evangelical homecoming and part class reunion – noticeably lacks the catty tension that simmers behind the scenes at other awards ceremonies. “Our community,” Peck says, referring to gospel artists, “is like a great, big family. The singers of my generation all grew up together. When we have troubles, as people do, we pray for each other. We’re not perfect — and it’s human nature to be just a little competitive with each other in music — but we’re all engaged in a ministry. If we talk the talk, we try to walk the walk and support each other. We aren’t ‘stars’ anyway – Jesus Christ is the star.”

She does a last-minute mirror check in the “Hen House,” as the women’s dressing room in Dollywood is labeled (the vending room across the hall is the “Biscuit Basket”) with her longtime friend, Sheri Easter, a “Favorite Alto” nominee who earned her MBA through Brenau’s online program in 2006.

“But this is the mackdaddy event for our form of music!” Peck says.

Easter, smiling, says, “Karen can always bring out a laugh in me, especially when I need it most.”

While they are waiting in the wings, Paul Couch, entertainment director of Dollywood, approaches Peck and says, “Hey, aren’t you that girl in that movie? Can I get your autograph?”

She playfully swats him with her evening bag.

Peck will appear, alongside Dolly Parton, Queen Latifah, and Kris Kristofferson, in “Joyful Noise,” a movie about a struggling, small-town gospel choir in Georgia scheduled for release in January. The film’s much-anticipated soundtrack, produced by five-time Grammy winner Mervyn Warren, includes a song, “Mighty High,” performed by Peck, who plays the master of ceremonies for a sing-off.

“I think it’s great that a big, mainstream movie is celebrating Southern Gospel and including a track from an artist who has worked so hard and brought so much to the industry for years,” Couch says.

Adds Peck, in her cane-syrup drawl, “It’s just a tiny role, but I’m excited that I got to say ‘y’all’ on camera.”

The movie’s casting agency had scoured contemporary Southern Gospel music for an authentic, telegenic artist and settled on Peck, who did not have to audition. She has been playing that role since she was four.

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When Peck was growing up in Gainesville, Georgia, her parents would take their three daughters to the marathon, all-night gospel “sings” at the Atlanta Civic Center.

Standing on tiptoe in her chair to see the performers, Peck was enraptured, in every sense of that word, with the piano chords, the homespun pageantry, and the solace of old-time religion on tear-streaked faces. When the anointing came, as they say, on Vestal Goodman, the “queen of Southern Gospel” would start waving her trademark handkerchief over her bouffant in divine semaphore.

“I was uplifted and just mesmerized by it all,” says Peck. “I rededicated my life to Christ in the 11th grade and said, ‘Lord, if it’s your will to give me a chance to sing, I’ll never stop.’”

She formed a girl group called The Joyful Trio and studied classical piano for 11 years, the last eight under Brenau faculty member and cosmopolitan taskmaster, Eliza Feldmann, WC’29, who became her mentor.

“Ms. Feldmann was so strict, so uncompromising, so tough,” Peck recalls. “She was a sophisticated lady who had traveled all around the world and returned to live on the edge of Brenau’s campus, and she would not accept anything less than your very best. At the time, I did not fully appreciate that – I probably grumbled about it, to tell you the truth — but I am so grateful to her now for her high standards, for giving me that foundation. I wish I could go back and thank her for all she did. She opened up my world.”

Feldmann, discerning potential in her pupil, helped Peck secure partial music scholarships in 1980 to attend Brenau.

“Brenau played a major, pivotal role in my life,” says Peck, who studied piano, voice, and elementary education. “It taught me that, while it’s great to sing and play by ear, I believe your voice is your instrument, and I always encourage younger artists to keep studying music, to learn the breathing techniques and keep refining their voices and their other musical abilities. It’s an ongoing, lifelong process.”

Karen Peck (center) and New River

A promoter asked the Joyful Trio to open for The LaFevres, one of Southern Gospel’s “first families” since 1921. Later, when Alphus Lafevre needed a soprano, he called Peck, who had just completed her sophomore year at Brenau. She began touring with the group when its founders were nearing retirement and passing the torch to Rex Nelon, who reconfigured The Lafevres as The Nelons.

“I was truly living my dream,” she says. “Instead of a poster of Shaun Cassidy on my bedroom wall, I’d had one of The Nelons. 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 just like them!”

Peck toured and performed with The Nelons for about 10 years.

“I was green as all get-out, wearing those fancy dresses and feeling like Cinderella, touring and traveling all over the place,” she says.

She also was developing her singular voice: a lyric soprano that confides, entreats, and reassures like the Balm of Gilead. “I think she simply has one of the best voices in gospel music,” says Stella Parton, the country music entertainer who conducted a master class earlier this year at Brenau. “It’s both delicate and powerful.”

The same could be said of her outsize stage presence. Peck, whose extracurricular music tastes include Lady Antebellum and Beyonce, comes across as a blond beatitude with a light heart and a killer wardrobe. She notes that ever since James D. Vaughan officially established Southern Gospel in 1910, its performers, like other sacred-music communities, have squabbled intramurally over issues of showmanship and solemnity.

“I believe entertainment can be a form of ministry,” she says. “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 communicate 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!’”

By the 1990s, when Peck was hitting her stage-stiletto stride, gospel music could be divided into several subgenres (defined by stylistic interpretation rather than ethnicity), including Southern Gospel, still quartet- and hymnal-driven and dominated by white Protestants; traditional Black Gospel, with its roots in African-American spirituals and the expressiveness of the Holiness church; and Progressive Southern Gospel, which spotlights more soloists, with the smoothing influences of pop and contemporary country. Karen Peck and New River fall under the last heading. Their hair lacks the vertiginous volume and their costumes the rhinestones of their forebears, but they still sparkle with some strategic Swarovski crystals. “Our look is more subdued these days, and we try to keep up a little more with trends, within reason – we’re not teenagers any more!” Peck says. “That’s something that I think more people are realizing – that gospel music does not always have to sound and look so old-timey.”

Over the past decade, the music surged in popularity through impresario Bill Gaither’s “homecoming” series of concert videos, which air ubiquitously on cable television. In 2004, the Gaither Homecoming concert tour ranked 16th in Pollstar, out-selling Elton John and Rod Stewart, among others, and Peck reigns as a Gaither favorite. A recent study ranked Southern Gospel was the ninth most popular format for AM stations and the 21st most popular for FM.

Of a recent show in Sweden, Peck says, “We were using an interpreter, who didn’t really understand the word ‘y’all,’ to try to talk to the crowd. I told them that was ‘Southern Swedish.’ Judging by their faces, I don’t think they got that joke. But the spirit of God knocked down all the language barriers. Even if the audience didn’t understand the lyrics, they felt the anointing through the music.”

When she married Rickey Gooch, the vocalist had planned to retire, more or less, and start a family. “I thought maybe I’d just perform locally from time to time, but God had other plans,” says Peck, who homeschools her two children.

In 1991, she renewed a familiar harmony with her alto-range sister, Susan Peck Jackson, who is married to David Jackson, from Nashville’s Sho-Bud pedal steel guitar dynasty, and they since have added pianist Jeff Hawes to the mix. The name “New River,” she says, had refreshing, regenerative associations, plus “the Lord loved to be near water.”

Peck’s husband, a hairstylist and builder, converted his family’s Lumpkin County 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, reclaimed wood with a tin roof.

“There’s such a beautiful, quaint, serene feeling there, especially when the sun is setting, and you can see the cross outlined against the sky,” says Susan Jackson.

For the past decade, the couple has held “Christian Music Nights,” an annual festival on Father’s Day weekend. It usually attracts a crowd of around 600, including gospel stalwarts such as the Lewis Family, The Primitive Quartet, old friends Jeff and Sheri Easter, and up-and-comers like CS&K and Brian Free and Assurance.

“For days before the event, we talk about the menu – fried chicken, casseroles, corn, the best Southern cooking you’ll ever put in your mouth — and for days after, we declare we’ll never eat again,” says Sheri Easter. (Her son, Madison Easter, also studied for a year through Brenau’s online program, and her daughter-in-law, Shannon, is enrolled at the university now.) “The community that is created there is a direct reflection of Karen.  She welcomes everyone in with arms wide open, and the people feel that warmth.”

The progressive, upbeat sound of Karen Peck and New River – with album titles such as “Taste of Grace,” “No Worries,” and the latest, “Reach Out” — has earned the act three Grammy nominations; multiple Dove nominations; and a place among the evangelical gentry with appearances on Trinity Broadcast Network (TBN) and gigs aboard Alaskan cruises with Mike Huckabee and the Rev. Charles Stanley. Peck is the first woman to serve on the board of Abraham Productions, a driving force behind arena-scale Christian entertainment, and lately, she has focused her personal ministry on churchwomen with seminars and conversational presentations, mingled with music. “I have a soft spot for pastors’ wives, and for all ladies who are dealing with life’s ups and downs,” she says. “So I sing a little, but we also share stories from our lives, and, well, I over-share. I don’t have a lot of boundaries when I’m talking.”

Peck’s faith, the source of so much joy, also has sustained her through tragedy, she says, recalling a devastating accident: “We were on our tour bus, headed back from a show in Branson, about 20 miles from home, when an elderly gentleman pulled out in front of us, and we hit him. The man, who did not survive, turned out to be a retired pastor,” she says, pausing to gather her thoughts. “We have been persevering through that aftermath with a process of faithful prayer, striving to view events like that as preparations, not punishments, to remember that the darkest times also come with great blessings. It’s part of us now, part of our story. All of us are more keenly aware that we are not promised tomorrow, that today is a gift. An amazing gift.”

Then, to lighten the mood, she says, “I do love my job, and I couldn’t ask for a better boss. And I have one great retirement plan, let me tell you.”

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