Gospel music saw much change during the decade of the 1960s. Television brought gospel music before new audiences, with programs such as the Gospel Singing Caravan, Bob Poole's Gospel Favorites, Singing Time In Dixie, and the Gospel Singing Jubilee. Longtime names such as the Harmoneers, Sunshine Boys, and Homeland Harmony entered into either full-fledged or semi-retirement, and new groups such as the Cathedrals, Imperials, Downings, and Dixie Echoes were formed. The Happy Goodmans and Kingsmen emerged from recent obscurity and joined the elite among full-time gospel groups. But when Jake Hess was once asked what probably changed gospel music the most during this period, he responded with, "It changed when those boys from Bryson City came along." The Inspirations not only launched a phenomenon in gospel music that is still making history almost 50 years later, but they set a unique standard of presentation and character that remains today.
Martin Cook was a high school chemistry and physics teacher at Swain County High School in Bryson City, NC, who loved to sing and play gospel songs. He was the original pianist for the Kingsmen Quartet, and had also played for a regional group called The Silvertones. Around 1964, he began bringing some of his students to the basement of his house, and they would gather around the piano and sing gospel songs into the wee hours of the morning.
Among the regular attendees at his home singings were 15-year-old tenor Archie Watkins; 15-year-old lead singer Ronnie Hutchins; 19-year-old baritone Jack Laws; and local bass singer Dean Robinson. With this lineup, the Inspirations Quartet was born. The group began accepting concert dates at churches and functions in the western North Carolina and North Georgia areas, and soon created a loyal local following. When Dean Robinson bowed out in 1966, the quartet hired young 14-year-old bass singer Troy Burns. A few months later, the group recorded their very first album for the Mark V label, entitled Our Pioneer Heritage. Many of their early albums have become collectorâ€™s items, particularly Just As Long As Eternity Rolls, as only a few hundred copies of the album were pressed, after which a warehouse fire destroyed the master tapes for the album.
Combining the gospel harmonies of the Jordanaires and Original Oak Ridge Quartet with the old timey styles of famous Grand Ole Opry quartet, the Old Hickory Singers, the Inspirations formed a sound that was all their own, and immediately caused gospel music fans to sit up and take notice. Evangelists Ralph Sexton and Maze Jackson gave them early exposure through their television and radio programs. They soon caught the attention of J G Whitfield and Les Beasley. An appearance at one of Whitfield's sings in Atlanta, GA, proved that the Inspirations were set to take the gospel music world by storm. Les Beasley began featuring the Inspirations on the Gospel Singing Jubilee, and eventually the group became regulars on the show. The members of the quartet dedicated themselves to singing gospel music together, whenever and wherever they possibly could, and the quartet hit the road full-time. In 1970, CBS Evening News devoted a seven-minute segment to the Inspirations. Such an appearance on primetime national television was the type of exposure gospel groups had only dreamed of at this point.
The Inspirations had several songs during this period that became standards. "What A Wonderful Time" and "When They Ring Those Golden Bells" were early favorites, but it was the R E Winsett song, "Jesus Is Coming Soon", that became their signature song. Written during World War II, Winsett died before ever realizing the song's enormous success. The Inspirations took the song to No. 1 on the Singing News Radio Chart. Groups such as the Florida Boys, Oak Ridge Boys, Thrasher Brothers, and Eleventh Hour Singers soon followed suit, and a southern gospel mega-hit was born. (NOTE: The song has been honored by the SGM Industry as the SGM Song of the Century). The quartet soon signed a contract with Canaan Records, where they remained for the next two decades.
Another groundbreaking achievement of the Inspirations occurred in 1967 when they hosted their first annual Singing In the Smokies. What began as a small local concert that brought more prominent gospel groups to the western Carolina area blossomed into one of the largest concert series in gospel music, and became an event that brings millions of dollars to the Inspirations' hometown of Bryson City and surrounding areas. Bryson City, a town once under a depressed economy, became a center for tourism, and continues to benefit from the Inspirations' foresight. After 45 years, Singing In the Smokies is still going strong.
The Inspirations also set a standard in gospel music that wasn't limited to simply singing. Prior to forming the group, many of the group's members, excluding Martin, had never even attended a gospel quartet concert. Witnessing what went on at many concerts at nearby Asheville City Auditorium, the group began taking notes on not only the positives, but also the negatives of the gospel music industry. This resulted in the establishment of bylaws that set the quartet apart from many of the other gospel music groups. The quartet strictly lived what they sang, and conducted business in an untraditional, ethical manner.
Early personnel changes for the group occurred in 1969, when Ronnie Hutchins left the quartet and moved to California. Troy Burns left the quartet the following year. Eddie Dietz was hired as lead singer, and Marlin Shubert was hired to replace Troy Burns. Neither Hutchins or Burns stayed gone from the quartet long, and by 1971, the quartet consisted of Martin Cook at the piano, Archie Watkins, Tenor; Ronnie Hutchins, Lead; Eddie Dietz, Baritone; Marlin Shubert, Bass; Troy Burns, Bass Guitar; and Jack Laws, Guitar and vocalist.
In 1972, Marlin Shubert left the quartet and was replaced by 18-year-old bass singer Mike Holcomb. With his youth, energy, and ultra-low vocals, Holcomb immediately became a crowd favorite, soon adopting the moniker, "Ol' 6'4, 94". He has since become a mainstay of the quartet, with the third longest tenure of any member in the quartet's history.
Ronnie Hutchins left again a year later, and Troy Burns moved to the lead spot. Hutchins has most likely had the most varied career among Inspirations members, as he traveled with the LeFevres & Willie Wynn and the Tennesseans. He then created a group, The Southern Knights which served for almost 10 years as backup vocalists to country & rockabilly star, Billy "Crash" Craddock.
Television exposure and constant hits kept the Inspirations on top of the gospel music world during the 1970s. The Inspirations have placed more songs on the Singing News Radio Top 40 Airplay Charts than any other gospel group. Hits like "Touring the City", "When I Wake Up to Sleep No More", "A Rose Among the Thorns", "Swing Wide the Gates", "More to Go to Heaven For" and "Jesus Is Mine" all climbed to the top rungs of the Singing News charts. The Inspirations took home 23 Singing News Fan Awards during the 1970s - six for Favorite Group, twelve representing each member's vocal position, and two for song of the year. Archie Watkins was awarded Singing News' Favorite Male Vocalist three times.
The group's sound and consistency was not only established by their distinctive vocal capabilities during this period, but by the unique background accompaniment given by their musicians as well. Joining Martin Cook during the 1970s were musicians Jack Laws, Roger Fortner, and Dale Jones. With Laws on upright bass, Fortner on guitar, and Jones on steel guitar, the Inspirations created a sound on stage and in studio that has remained consistent for over 40 years. The gospel music listener knows exactly what to expect when purchasing an Inspirations recording.
The Inspirations vocal lineup of Holcomb, Dietz, Burns, and Watkins remained unchanged for six years, until 1979 when Eddie Dietz resigned from the quartet to pursue evangelism. Jack Laws resumed the baritone position, and Roger Fortner moved to upright bass. Fortner left the quartet in 1981, and was replaced by Martin's oldest son, Myron Cook. Fortner's career has been varied as well, having since spent his career playing for The Hoppers, The Talleys, The Greenes, and most notably The McKameys also continuing to play guitar on all of the Inspirations studio recordings.
While most of the Inspirations' personnel remained consistent for several years, the baritone parts switched frequently through the early 1990s. Jack Laws stepped down from the baritone position in 1986, and Ronnie Hutchins returned to the group once again. In 1988, the quartet hired young baritone singer Chris Smith. Smith left the quartet due to health reasons in 1991, and Eddie Dietz returned to the quartet.
The Inspirations continued to place more hits on the Singing News Charts during the 1980s and early 1990s, with songs such as "The Wonder of Wonders", "Is That Footsteps That I Hear?", "They're Holding Up the Ladder", "One Day", and "It's Still the Blood". The group released one of their more unusual albums in 1987, entitled Going Home for Christmas. The album was a departure for the Inspirations, featuring full orchestrations and original Christmas songs, yet the classic "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem" remained the album's most popular song perhaps a testament to the style and consistency that the Inspirations have provided for their fans.
In 1992, Ronnie Hutchins returned to the quartet for a fourth time, serving once again as the group's lead vocalist until 1997, when he left the road after an extended hospital stay. Replacing Hutchins was Matt Dibler, who would remain with the group for the next 11 years. Thankfully, Hutchins soon made a miraculous recovery, and today works as the quartet's office manager.
The following year, Eddie Dietz left the quartet to join his family in forming Eddie Dietz and Mountain Gospel. For the next year, Jack Laws and Ronnie Hutchins rotated between the baritone parts until the quartet hired Melton Campbell in the fall of 1999. Both Dibler and Campbell injected youth into the quartet, as once had been done by the group's original members some three decades earlier. Laws continued with the group for a few more years as guitarist and featured vocalist.
As the group entered into the 21st century, they continued to be rewarded by their loyal fans. They were awarded Song of the Year honors in 2002, 2003, and 2007 for their hits, "I'll Not Turn My Back On Him Now", "We Need to Thank God", and "I Have Not Forgotten" at the Singing News Fan Awards. They were voted Favorite Traditional Male Quartet in 2005 and 2006, and Mike Holcomb once again received Favorite Bass awards in 2002, 2005, and 2008. Martin Cook and Archie Watkins both were recipients of the Marvin Norcross Award, and each was inducted into the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2003 and 2007 respectively. Cook was also inducted into the Southern Gospel Music Piano Roll of Honor at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion in 2005.
Today's lineup of the Inspirations holds firm to their roots, while setting the stage for another generation. The group as of January, 2011 consists of Martin Cook - Piano, Mike Holcomb - Bass, Jon Epley - Baritone, David Reagan - Lead, Jodi Hosterman - Tenor, Myron Cook - Upright Bass, along with Luke Vaught who can play almost any instrument put in his hands.
The Inspirations have continued to remain a top-selling recording artist, now recording for Horizon Records. They still pack churches and concert halls to capacity. Their presence still commands respect and admiration. The boys from Bryson City have proven consistency and integrity are still important, in times where neither has seemed to be viewed as relevant.