No matter the genre of music, comedy seems to always be a common thread. Whereas country music had Minnie Pearl and Jerry Clower, the southern gospel world had one name in particular – Wendell “Wendy” Bagwell.
There’re actually two components to the success of Wendy Bagwell. First, his comedic stories (which we’ll discuss in just a moment), but the second is often overlooked – especially nowadays: the beautiful southern gospel music produced by Wendy, Jan Buckner, and Jerri Morrison – collectively, a trio known as Wendy Bagwell and the Sunliter’.
The group was organized in the early 1950s, and by the late 1950s, it consisted of Wendy, Jan, and Jerri – a lineup that would remain intact for the rest of their career – 39 years. Their first ‘mainstream’ album came out in 1961 – Old Time Religion. This album contains one of their earliest ‘hit’ songs, “Pearl Buttons”, and immediately, Wendy’s ability to convey a spoken story in song – in a similar fashion to a recitation – are evident.
It would not be until 1970 when the comedic side of Bagwell was given the spotlight, with the release of his first all-comedy album – This, That, And The Other. The liner notes of this album indicate that Bagwell had been sharing such stories for years at concerts, but the release of this album in particular brought it to the forefront. One of the stories, ‘The Rattlesnake Story’, officially titled “Here Come The Rattlesnakes”, would become a number-one hit ‘song’ on the Singing News charts. This eight-minute story recalls when the trio performed at a church in Kentucky that, unbeknownst to them, felt compelled to “take up the serpent” as part of their worship. The chaos that ensued made the story one of Bagwell’s signatures, one that he would perform and re-record for many years to come.
More stories and comedy albums would follow. Often, each album from Wendy Bagwell and the Sunliters would feature 8 to 9 songs, and then a story by Bagwell. The 1970s gave us “Pickin’ Up Paw Paws”, “Ole Ralph Bennett’s Volkswagen”, “10-4 On The Cotton Top”, and “From Peanuts To President”. Bagwell developed the expression “And that’s a fact with my hand up!”, in fact it would become the title of his 1986 comedy album.
Here, though, is where the comedy appears to start to overshadow the great southern gospel music that was produced by the Sunliters. While Wendy would tell the stories, it was the vocals of “Little Jan” Buckner and Jerri “Geraldine” Morrison that would shine in the songs. Aside from “Here Come The Rattlesnakes”, the Sunliters never had a number-one song, and many of their songs did not even chart in the top ten. Yet, it was Bagwell’s persona and stories that drove the fans to the concerts.
Perhaps the ‘magic’ of the Sunliters came from how Wendy’s stories were intertwined with their songs, the experience of seeing the group in concert. Fortunately, this was captured in the few live albums the group produced: You Won’t Believe This – Live From Langdale (1971), On The Road (1979), Three German Police Dogs… (1983), and the extremely hard-to-find Absolutely Live (1989). These four albums provide listeners with the perfect balance of Wendy’s stories and the heartfelt music of the Sunliters.
The stories kept coming in the 1980s. Although Bagwell would re-record “Here Come The Rattlesnakes” numerous times (with slight variations on each), listeners were treated to “Ole Myrtle Ligett”, “The Bus Is On Fire”, and “Anybody Seen My Teeth?”. I will not overlook the fact that, yes, many of these stories clock in at well near 10 minutes in length, but if the time commitment is made, the listener is surely rewarded.
Musically, the trio evolved. Originally viewed as a ‘folk’ group in the 1960s, the 1970s saw their sound begin to ‘gel’, and a number of fans believe the 1980s was the ‘prime’ era for the Sunliters. Songs such as “The Family All Together Now”, “Above It All”, “I’ve Got His Footsteps”, “Let’s Turn The Lights On” and “Walk Around Me Jesus” were released in the 1980s. Sadly, though, virtually none of the Sunliters albums of the 1980s have been released digitally.
The group continued into the 1990s, in fact, they performed at the Rockingham County Fair in 1990. Ultimately, Wendy Bagwell and the Sunliters came to an end when Wendy passed away on June 13, 1996. Jerri Morrison would retire from touring (passing in 2005), but “Little Jan” Buckner continued a solo ministry, performing even to this day, carrying on some of the music of the Sunliters.
Wendy Bagwell and the Sunliters, the perfect combination of comedy and pure southern gospel music. Sadly, though, while the comedic side of Wendy Bagwell has been preserved for generations to come, the same cannot be said about their music. You’ll notice weekday mornings that I play a Sunliters album about every other day (and I’ve got just about the entire collection to choose from). That’s simply because I want to ensure that not only do we remember the legendary stories of Wendy Bagwell, but also the wonderful music of Wendy Bagwell and the Sunliters.