Bluegrass gospel group The Easter Brothers still saying “Thank You”

This story was originally published July 3, 2014 in the Charleston Daily Mail.

There aren’t too many living people who can say their songs are in hymn books, but James Easter is one of them.

His song “Thank You Lord For Your Blessings on Me,” co-written with brothers Russell and Ed, is sung in congregations all over the world.

And the brothers, now all in their 80s, are still singing that song. They will perform it live this Saturday night at the Milton Opry House.

James, 82, said he still sometimes cries when he sings “Thank You Lord” because he remembers the man he was when he wrote it: a recovering alcoholic and convicted felon, fresh out of prison.

He had a wife and young child, a job that paid next to nothing and a tiny house he rented for $10 a month.

“I didn’t have no wealth whatsoever. I was right at the bottom but I knew I had something in my life that made me happy.”

James sat down and wrote the words that would find their way into gospel music history:

“There’s a roof up above me, I’ve a good place to sleep, there’s food on my table and shoes on my feet. You gave me your love, Lord, and a fine family. Thank you, Lord, for your blessings on me.”

It’s a simple declaration of faith that fans have come to expect from the Easter Brothers, who also have contributed songs like “Lord, I Can’t Picture Me Without You,” “He’s The Rock I’m Leaning On,” and “A Heart That Will Never Break Again” to the southern gospel canon.

Their success might be a little surprising to those who grew up in Mount Airy, N.C., in the 1930s, however. The Easter brothers were singing a very different song then.

Russell, the oldest of the Easter boys, taught James to play guitar when he was eight years old.

A few years later — when James was 10 and Russell was 12 — the boys started playing in beer joints together. And before long, they were doing more than just playing in beer joints.

James said he and Russell were full-blown alcoholics before either of them could legally drive a car.

The addiction almost killed Russell when he was 14. He got a bottle of bad whiskey and would have died from alcohol poisoning if James hadn’t carried him to a doctor.

Russell’s life was spared when he met and married a girl from Danville, Va. She got him into church and away from the bottle.

James, meanwhile, was still in Mount Airy.

“I got in with the wrong crowd,” he said. “You had to do mean things if you got to run with them.”

That quickly got him into trouble. By age 16, James was stealing cars with his buddies and taking them for joyrides.

“We called it borrowing cars,” he said.

The court didn’t see it that way. James was found guilty of felony theft charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

But like Joseph in the Old Testament, James believes his time behind bars was just part of God’s plan.

Rev. C.S. Grogan, writer of southern gospel classics like “Jesus Signed My Pardon,” came to speak at the prison a few months after James arrived.

James reluctantly attended the service and sat in the back of the mess hall, hiding behind the heads of the other inmates. But then he looked at Grogan.

“I saw some tears coming out from under his glasses. He pointed straight at me and said ‘I know somebody that loves you.’ I punched my buddy and said ‘He must know my mama.’

“I’d never heard about Christ. None of us had ever been to church, never heard preaching,” James said.

“From that moment I wanted him in my heart. I didn’t get him right then, but I wanted him right there.”

James would not convert to Christianity for several more years.

He was released after five years for good behavior, returned to Mount Airy and, before too long, was running with his old group of friends.

“I was well on my way back to prison,” he said.

Russell came to James’ house and talked his little brother to move to Danville, where both he and Ed now lived in an effort to escape their reputation back home.

“We were three alcoholics in Mount Airy,” James said.

Once in Danville, James found himself wandering into a little church.

“I don’t even know the name of the church. I couldn’t wait for them to give an invitation because what brother Grogan said kept running through my mind.”

His life finally on track, James joined his brothers in their group the Green Valley Quartet, which they eventually changed to the Easter Brothers to avoid confusion with another local group.

They started off singing religious songs by country and bluegrass artists like The Stanley Brothers and Roy Acuff as well as old hymns.

But their popularity really took off when the brothers began writing their own tunes.

Russell wrote a song called “The Darkest Hour,” which got the attention of bluegrass duo Don Reno and Red Smiley, who got the Easters a recording deal with King Records.

Not long after that, James said a New York magazine interviewed Elvis Presley about his favorite records.

Presley mentioned he listened to a lot of southern gospel, and one of his recent favorites was a song called “Darkest Hour” by a North Carolina group called the Easter Brothers.

When the magazine hit newsstands, calls started flooding into the Easters’ record label.

“All of Elvis’s fans wanted our record,” James said.

As their star began to rise, the brothers were offered opportunities to get back into country music.

They always declined, however, worried returning to secular music might drive them back to alcohol.

Once, a record label executive promised to put them at the top of the record charts if they would record some love songs.

“We told him we were already singing the greatest love songs we could sing,” James said.

The Easter Brothers have now been on the road for 60 years. And even though Russell is 84 years old, James is 82 and Ed is 80, they are showing no signs of stopping.

James said it feels like they’re just getting started. They are still writing songs — they have more than 100 now — and the brothers hope to record at least one more CD.

“We’re called to do it. That’s why the Easter Brothers are still out here,” he said. “It ain’t the money. That disappears real quick.”

The Easter Brothers will appear this Saturday at the Milton Opry House along with the Easter Family, a bluegrass group of Russell Easter’s grandchildren.

Doors open at 5 p.m. and the concert begins at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and $5 for children. Concessions will be available.

The Easter Brothers and the Easter Family also will appear at Rumble Community Baptist Church in Ashford on Sunday at 10 a.m.

The groups will perform at Stanaford New Beginnings Christian Church in Beckley at 6 p.m. Sunday.