This month, we conclude our three-part series looking at the history of one of southern gospel’s premier mixed groups – the Nelons. We began our journey in 1977 and then followed this group through the 1980s – a decade in which they pioneered a style that was referred to as ‘middle-of-the-road’ gospel music, mixing contemporary elements with traditional stylings.
We continue our journey in 1990. On November 18, after 9 ½ years as their soprano, fan favorite Karen Peck performs her final date with the Nelons. Recently married, Karen teams up with her sister, Susan, to launch her own group – Karen Peck & New River.
This leaves the Nelons without a soprano, a rather interesting situation considering the group had always had a soprano singer, even during their days as the LeFevres. However, this now means that the Nelons are a true family group: Rex Nelon, his son, Todd Nelon, daughter Kelly Nelon, and Kelly’s husband, Jerry Thompson. Without a soprano, the Nelons go into the studio to record A New Generation. Despite a rather ‘new’ sound, this album produces a number-one song, “I’m Glad I Know Who Jesus Is”.
As we enter 1991, the group’s history gets a bit…complicated, so bear with me. Recall that Kelly Nelon had been recording a number of successful solo projects, which often times ‘crossed-over’ into the inspirational and contemporary markets. To pursue this solo ministry full-time, Kelly departs from the Nelons. Not too long after, her husband, Jerry, also departs to join her.
Now, without an alto and tenor, Rex Nelon quickly re-organizes the Nelons. Their 1992 recording, Right On Time, brings some new faces: Tammy Britton on alto, Paul White on lead, and a very young Charlotte Penhollow (you may know her as Charlotte Ritchie) as soprano. Although a wonderful recording, both singles released from Right On Time would fall short of the Singing News Top 10.
As 1992 progresses, Rex considers retiring the Nelons. After all, Rex himself had enjoyed a 40-year career in gospel music. Kelly and Jerry, though, do not want to see the Nelons disband, and so, they both rejoin the Nelons. This paves the way for some hit songs for the remainder of the 1990s: “We’ve Got To Get America Back To God”, “That’s Enough”, “No More Tears”, “The Lord Stood By Me”, and “He Called Me Out”.
The Nelons would endure some minimal lineup changes for the remainder of the 1990s, and as the new millennium approached, the group consisted of Kelly Nelon, bass guitarist Jason Clark, lead singer David Hill, and soprano Amy Roth. In 1998, Rex Nelon announced retirement from touring, appearing only at special events (such as the National Quartet Convention). Therefore, the Nelons hire Dan Clark to sing bass.
January 24, 2000, marked the end of an era for the Nelons. While overseas in London to record a Gaither Homecoming Series video, Rex Nelon suffers a fatal heart attack. He was 68 years old.
Rex Nelon’s legacy continues strong to this day. The Nelons are, once again, a true family group led by Kelly Nelon and Jason Clark (whom she married in 2001). Jason and Kelly are joined by Kelly’s two daughters, Amber and Autumn. Just as the group was pioneering new sounds in the 1980s, the current version of the group continues to do so, often times blending elements of contemporary and even modern country into their music. Still, you would be hard-pressed to attend a Nelons concert and not hear them perform some of their time-tested classics like “O For A Thousand Tongues”, “We Shall Wear A Robe And Crown”, and the fan favorite, “Walk Right Out Of This Valley”.
Next month, we’ll look at another of southern gospel’s popular family groups – the Spencers. That reminds me, Wade Spencer will be in concert on Friday, March 10, at the Mtn. Grove Church of the Brethren in Fulks Run, 7:00pm. Come and enjoy his unique ‘Appalachian’ style of southern gospel music.