As someone with a passion for southern gospel history, I feel it is often my duty to break down false pretenses about the genre; one of those being that ‘classic’ southern gospel is just ‘four guys and a piano.’ Even from the beginning, southern gospel has been filled with a number of family groups – the Chuck Wagon Gang, the LeFevres, the Happy Goodmans, the Hinsons, the Speers, and this month we’ll explore one that I feel has been lost among much of today’s southern gospel audience – the Hemphills.
First, let’s get the pronunciation down. They are the ‘Hemp-hills’, the ‘ph’ does not become an ‘f’. With that underway, let’s explore this family that dominated the southern gospel scene in the 1970s and 1980s…
The Hemphills were originally from Louisiana before eventually moving to Nashville. Headed by Joel Hemphill, the group consisted of his wife LaBreeska, sons Trent and Joel Jr. (Joey), and their daughter Candy. LaBreeska was the daughter of Gussie Mae Goodman, sister to Howard, Rusty, and Sam Goodman of the Happy Goodmans.
This Goodmans connection is interesting to note. Joel Hemphill, originally a pastor, was a songwriter, and on the Goodmans 1967 recording Bigger ‘n’ Better, we find one of the first recordings of a Joel Hemphill song – “Not In A Million Years”. That same year, the Hemphills would release their very first album on Canaan Records – The Country Gospel Style Of Joel & LaBreeksa. This was just Joel and LaBreeska – their children were still all under the age of ten. The duo would release their second recording, In Gospel Country, in 1968. This album featured Joel’s classic “Pity The Man”.
Beginning in 1969, the Hemphills became a group. But still, Trent, Joey, and Candy were too young to join their parents on stage. So, Joel turned to his nephew Tim McKeithen and his wife Dixie. Thus, the ‘Singing Hemphills’ were created – Joel, LaBreeska, Tim, and Dixie.
During the early seventies, the group recorded a number of songs written by Joel that are still occasionally recorded to this day, including “An Unfinished Task”, “I’ll Soon Be Gone”, “Ready To Leave”, and “Sing The Glory Down”.
In 1975, the Hemphills recorded what would actually be their second live concert recording, One Live Family. This two-record set would emphasize the ‘family’ aspect, as this is when the Hemphills’ children began to sing as part of the group. Candy, then about 14 years old, performs “I Came On Business For The King”, a song written by her dad. Candy’s recording would reach #10 nation-wide on the Singing News Chart.
As the 1970s progressed, Tim and Dixie McKeithen would depart the Hemphills (eventually launching their own group, the McKeithens), and they became a true family group of Joel, LaBreeska, Candy, Joey, and Trent. What set the group apart was Joel’s songwriting – it was rare to find a Hemphills recording that had a song written by a non-Hemphill. Joey, Candy, and Trent would occasionally write their own songs as well. Hits of the late seventies included “Open My Eyes”, “Consider The Lilies”, and “I’m In This Church” – which would go #1 in Singing News.
In 1980, the Hemphills released Workin’, which produced another #1 song that you just might be familiar with – “He’s Still Working On Me”. Listeners could expect a new album every year from the Hemphills during the 1980s, with songs like “Good Things”, “It Wasn’t Raining When Noah Built The Ark”, “Master of the Wind”, “I Can Smile”, “Let’s Have A Revival”, and “Ring The Bells”.
The Hemphills did an interesting bit of marketing for their 1983 Louisiana Live recording. Featured on the album was a song titled “I’m Not Perfect, Just Forgiven”, which was inspired by a bumper sticker. Thus, the Hemphills launched a contest, asking fans to send in their favorite bumper stickers. The winner would receive…a chance to go alligator hunting with Joel Hemphill (remember, the group was originally from Louisiana). The winner drawn was an eight-year-old, who was accompanied by her father on the trip. (Her winning entry was “I Like Jesus Better Than Ice Cream”).
Then, in 1990, the Hemphills decided to retire from touring. This definitely shocked many fans, as the group’s popularity certainly had not waned. Joel would continue songwriting, and he and LaBreeska would release a number of duo projects in the 1990s. Candy would pursue a solo career, and Joey and Trent would launch Hemphill Brothers Motor Coach Company. LaBreeska passed away in December of 2015.
I decided to cover the Hemphills today not just because of their significance to southern gospel in the 1970s and 1980s, but also to point out how little of their music In total, the Hemphills recorded 22 albums, only 2 of which were made available on CD – Celebration (1989) and Hemphills Hits (1990) (which is actually a collection of re-recordings of previous hits). The remaining 20 projects are only on vinyl and cassette. While a few tracks did surface on “Best Of” CDs from the Benson Company in the 1990s, much of the Hemphills music remains out-of-reach to this day….unless you’ve got a turntable and (almost) all of their albums at your disposal, which is the case at WBTX.