Randall Franks from the Catoosa News interviewed Little Jan and Bro. Jerry via phone in August 2006. This is a copy (used with permission) of that interview. Visit his Southern Style column on the Catoosa News web site.
When I walk through the memories of my childhood there are two Southern gospel acts that stand out above all the others at making a little kid laugh, one of those was The Lewis Family with the antics of Little Roy Lewis, and the other was Wendy Bagwell and the Sunliters and the side-splitting stories of Wendy Bagwell.
Known to millions around the world was Wendy’s “The Rattlesnake Story” about the group’s visit to a small snake handling church back in Kentucky. The success of that story made the group a household name across America and even put them in the midst of popular culture as product spokespeople as they helped folks “Snap back with Stanback,” a powdered headache remedy. In my early days of performing, I often found myself honored to be appearing in concerts or events with Wendy, Little Jan Buckner and Geraldine Morrison.
I never walked away without feeling that I was welcome around them. While it’s been a decade since the world bid farewell to Wendy as he joined those telling jokes around the heavenly cracker barrel, his musical sidekick Little Jan holds steadfast to the beliefs that kept the group going through every door God opened for them.
I had the pleasure to visit with this dear friend and her husband by phone from Nashville, Tenn. on August 2.
“If I could have chosen my path. I certainly would not have chosen the path I had to come down for the past 10 years,” she said.
In the beginning of those 10 years, Little Jan lost two men in her life.
“I have not written a lot since Wendy passed away,” she said. “I think I would have written had Ronnie not passed away. It was less than two years and Ronnie passed away. “That took my daddy away and my husband away,” she said. “When you are use to having those two main men in your life and they just vanish, that’s hard to deal with. I would have never dreamed it could have stifled me so in my everyday living but it certainly did.”
Little Jan leaned heavily on her faith to make it through. “God knows what the big picture is,” she said. “He allowed me to go down through this path. It’s been a tough thing. “When I first got on stage without Wendy and Jerri, I was not sure I could even function,” Jan said. “All of a sudden the fact is whatever power from God, He gave me something so that I was able to stand and continue on to sing solo. “Solo has never been anything I ever thought about or wanted,” she said. “There were many times, especially when we went with RCA (Records), that different producers and people in the business not only talked to Geraldine about going country but talked to me about going country.
“First of all our heart, soul and everything is in us. I like all kinds of music. But I love gospel music,” she said. “It says something. It speaks to me and it feeds me. So, I never thought about being a soloist. I was just as happy as I could be being the third part of Wendy Bagwell and the Sunliters.
She said through it all she did have a drive and desire to continue to serve God with her talents.
“The lessons I’ve learned and the fact I’ve been able to stand alone without the other two standing beside me,” she said. “That can be something you get really comfortable with. Wendy was the talker. You couldn’t catch him off guard even in his sleep. I’m not that way. You do what you have to do and God gives you the grace to stand and gives you the ability.
“I had a good time. I can think back on the last ten years and know I’ve learned a lot with Wendy Bagwell and the Sunliters,” she said. “But I am telling you the lessons that I’ve learned since Wendy passed away are just too numerous to count. They were hard lessons and it’s not anything I’ll soon forget.”
Through her lifetime of dedication to gospel music, Little Jan was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. She received a Grammy for the song “Tell It Again” and was Southern Gospel Female Vocalist of the Year.
“I’m excited God has given me the privilege of continuing on in something I believe that God has called me to do and set me apart from others,” she said. “I am happy now.” She continues to warm the hearts of audiences around the country with her beautiful voice and shear enthusiasm towards life.
Little Jan Buckner is now teamed with Southern Gospel Music Hall of Famer Dr. Jerry Goff in marriage and the couple is sharing their joint ministry bringing together a unique worship experience.
Jerry, often referred to as “Mr. Enthusiasm,” is a Dove Award winner who performed with the Thrasher Brothers, led his own group, Jerry and the Singing Goffs, helped form the Gospel Music Association, made pioneering strides in gospel television, and wrote and recorded many national hit songs including “Please Search The Book Again,” and “Tear Stains In The Sand.”
I’ve had the pleasure of working in concert with Jerry and he is a tremendous presence on the stage.
“I am trying to retire a little bit,” Jerry said. “You don’t retire from your responsibility to the Lord. “Your old body says you should slow down a little bit,” he said. “Jan doesn’t think so cause we work more than we really should I guess. When you love what you are doing and you enjoy God’s blessing you just keep doing it. I don’t ever read in the Bible where it says the call lifts from your life. So I guess it’s a call without repentance. We can’t repent and stay away from it.” Dr. Jerry Goff and Little Jan Buckner-Goff are now finding great demands on their concert requests taking them from the Georgia Mountain Fair to Silver Dollar City, from Canada to Bahamas’ cruises.
“We do churches and we do some concerts,” Jerry said. “The main thing we do, my joy is working churches. There we not only sing; Jan sings, I sing and play the horn. I get to share the word as well.”
After 16 months of marriage, the couple interrelates in the interview like newlyweds playing off one another’s comments. A few months into the bliss of the new marriage Little Jan lost another important Jerri in her life when her former stage partner and fellow Sunliter Geraldine Morrison passed away in September 2005. Little Jan stayed by her side through her final days. While much of the last decade for Jan has dealt with overcoming loss of loved ones, it is through her faith in God that she is sustained and she conveys that faith in the performances she and Jerry are sharing around the country.
Jerry can hardly do a performance without featuring “Old Rugged Cross” on his trumpet. A standard he would often enter auditoriums playing from the back of the hall making his way to the stage with no need of amplification, just a good pair of lungs.
“Ninety nine percent of the time the very first thing we do is have the congregation join with us and we sing the “‘Old Rugged Cross,’” he said.
And one of their concerts just would not be complete without hearing Little Jan sing “Walk Around Me Jesus” and “I Firmly Promise You.”
“The audience always wants to hear those songs from back when Wendy and Jerri and I were singing,” she said. Jerry said that the couple adjusts its program to suit the occasion and the needs of the church.
“We don’t always sing the very same songs,” he said. “It’s according to how you feel and what kind of service it is. We testify and share songs of worship and praise, not in a concert with applause in mind but more in worship.”
Both are talented musicians and often share their musical prowess in programs along with the latest musical innovations.
“Most of the time we work with (sound) tracks,” Jerry said, “Once in a while at the close of the service Jan will sit down at the piano and play.”
While soundtracks are an advantage to many professional performers there are pluses and minuses to their use. “First of all I am going to go both positive and negative,” Jerry said. “The positive part: It gives us a lot fuller sound musically than we use to have and it’s easier to travel ‘cause you don’t have all the band. So that may be good. And it may be good that it has allowed a lot more people to travel and sing.
“On the negative side, I don’t think it’s as good because there is just nothing,” he said. “Even though you may have a piano and a bass and whatever you may have, nothing takes the place of live music especially when there is a break in the song where there aren’t any words.
“People have a difficult time just sitting there and listening to the track fill the void,” he said. “They don’t have a focus. They can’t look at the piano player or whomever it is playing. I don’t think it’s been a great thing. I can’t say it’s been bad because we all use it. Nothing will beat a live band.”
“That’s the reason we always carried guitar pickers and bassist with us for that same reason,” Jan said of her days with Wendy Bagwell. “Somebody that could play a little bit of guitar and piano to make whatever track we did use feel alive.”
“Because you can buy tracks down at the Lifeway bookstore,” Jerry said. “Everybody that can carry a tune thinks they are called to sing. It has flooded the market. Preachers are just inundated with people calling them wanting to come and sing.
“They think God’s called them to sing ‘cause the got a track and they can go plug it in and do their thing. I can’t say that that is good,” he said. “For those who really are capable of carrying a program it has muddied the water a little bit. They are not seasoned in conducting a service and they will go into a new church and they don’t know how to handle it. They may destroy it for anybody else coming down the road.”
It is sure however that the polish of Dr. Jerry Goff and Lil’ Jan Buckner-Goff will keep audiences coming back time after time to any venue where they perform.
Jerry, who is a professor of church history and New Testament documents at Christian Life College and served as chaplain for the senate of the state of Tennessee, is often called upon to speak to groups and congregations; he conducts three-day crusades and lectures on “Positive Spiritual Attitude.”
The couple has a new release entitled “New Love” featuring “Sunday’s A-Coming,” “Love Grew Where the Blood Fell,”(Little Jan Live) and “A Birth I Can’t Forget” “Little Jan and I have chosen songs from our background of Southern Gospel and Country Gospel with a prayer that they will touch people’s hearts and put a smile on their face,” Jerry said.
To find out more about Little Jan and Dr Jerry Goff or order their latest release or some classic Wendy Bagwell recordings, visit www.littlejanbuckner.com or www.drjerrygoff.com. For information about bringing them to your church, call (615) 383-4932 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Randall Franks is an award-winning musician, singer and actor. He is best known for his role as “Officer Randy Goode” on TV’s “In the Heat of the Night,” now on Turner South. His latest CD release, “God’s Children,” is by etrecordshop.com. He is a member of the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame. He is a columnist and staff writer for The Catoosa County News and can be reached at email@example.com.