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A SONG AND A PRAYER

White vans and yellow buses jammed Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. Bright lights, ticket hawkers and lines of concertgoers had resurrected a city bustle that usually dies at 5 p.m.

Elderly ladies groups, seniors in Softspots shoes and married couples with kids, most of them white, crowded toward the ticket-takers _ a foretaste, perhaps, of what will happen Friday, when Bill Gaither comes to the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa.

Before the night was over in Jacksonville _ and a long night it would be _ nearly 10,000 people would come. But not for a rock concert. They came to cheer an assembly line of soloists and family bands, some old-school, some contemporary or bluegrass. They came to laugh at scripted humor, clap and sing along to songs as timeworn as the South itself, to cheer gospel music's 67-year-old superstar.

Gaither is considered among the best songwriters in gospel music. He and his wife, Gloria, have written gospel music classics for more than 40 years, their lyrics hurdling racial boundaries. Among more than 600 songs are Because He Lives and He Touched Me, favorites with Christians of all denominations. Recently, Bill Gaither joined with black Pentecostal preacher T.D. Jakes for a gospel music video, Build a Bridge.

But his full-time job is the Bill Gaither Homecoming Tour, with 70 to 80 concerts a year. Some Homecoming performances are taped, sold on video and aired on Christian TV stations. According to the industry tracking company Pollstar, the tour sold 581,975 tickets in North America in 2003, more than the ZZ Top, Chicago, Travis Tritt and Crosby, Stills & Nash concert tours. Gaither has received five Grammy Awards and 28 Dove Awards, and the American Society of Songwriters, Authors and Publishers dubbed him Christian Songwriter of the Century in 2000.

At the Jacksonville arena, ventriloquist Taylor Mason takes the stage with a corn cob puppet:

"I'm being stalked," says the corn.

"By whom?" Mason asks.

"Dr. Scholl."

"Dr. Scholl?"

"He doesn't like corns."

This cracks up Dick and Martha Foxworth. The couple, 69 and 66 respectively, were raised on Southern gospel. They claim to have almost every Homecoming video Gaither ever made. Dick Foxworth can name the missing pieces in his collection: the video with Billy Graham, the one with Lynda Randle, The Best of the Cathedrals.

"I just missed buying them, but I'm going to," he says.

They don't listen to much but Southern gospel, his wife explains. Plus, the comedy is "good and clean," Dick Foxworth says. "It's entertaining, but it's also a way to worship."

Sometimes they watch their Gaither videos with Eddie Jones and his wife. It's like going to a place you've never been, Jones, 77, says. "They even have one tape that they made in Australia. It's a beautiful auditorium."

And in Colorado, "It's down in the valley with all the mountains all around it. It's like an amphitheater. You've just got to see it," he says. "I like to see new buildings, new places, new things."

For much of the night, Gaither sits to the side. Casually dressed in black slacks, a red shirt and a silk black over-shirt, he rises only to introduce the next group or soloist.

"There's been a renewed interest in bluegrass music," he stands to tell the crowd. . . . "Welcome, the Isaacs!"

Three women and two men position themselves onstage, all dressed in shades of brown and turquoise _ the mother, her son, two daughters and a son-in-law.

They harmonize: "He sits high. He looks low. And he guides my feet wherever I go. . . ."

After one of their songs, Gaither emerges and asks whether the instrument Sonya Isaacs Surrett is playing is a violin or a fiddle.

"Fiddle," she says.

"What's the difference between a violin and a fiddle?"

"A violin has strings," she answers, then adds a southern drawl, "a fiddle got "strangs.' "

Then the mood changes as Jessy Dixon steps onstage in a light gray suit, white shirt and turquoise tie. He is one of two black performers in tonight's lineup.

"I had nothing but heartaches and troubles," he sings, his eyes closed, his voice slow and deep.

"Take your time, Jessy!" a fan shouts from the masses. "Take your time."

"I had nothing, but doubts and confusion. But. Now. I. Have. Eeeeeeeev-erything."

Almost as quickly as the spirit turned mellow, it turns upbeat again with the sounds of an organ and a recorded choir blaring from the arena speakers. Dixon starts his next number, "Get Away, Jordan."

Hands clap, a few people stand up. As if gospel music's answer to both Michael Jackson and Little Richard, Dixon does a moonwalk-style Holy Ghost dance onstage, eliciting oohs and ahhs. Then he hurries down the steps and into the aisles, meeting Gaitherites face-to-face. Others have caught on to the excitement and rock side-to-side. Someone snaps Dixon's picture.

At 10, three hours into the show, Gaither announces a 15-minute intermission. They have about an hour to go, he says.

A few small children stand at their parents' hips in the concession line. Courtney Greene, a 15-year-old in snug jeans and a black shirt and leather jacket, looks to be among the youngest to come of her own free will.

She grew up listening to her parents play Gaither's music. He writes songs but also sings with the Gaither Vocal Band, which now includes three other men. She wants to be a gospel singer, too, she says. Not old-school gospel like Gaither, "definitely" a contemporary singer.

She can learn from Gaither. "I like how he writes his own songs and how he, like, bases his songs on his own life."

Back in the arena, the stage has become a choir loft, and the singers gather together. They sing classics, often asking the audience to join in. There's a videotaped tribute to Vestal Goodman and Jake Hess, gospel legends and Homecoming tour regulars who died in December and January, respectively.

For the finale, the crowd stands to sing Gaither's hallmark Because He Lives, which he wrote in 1971 after overcoming a period of depression.

Gloria Gresham and Linda Griffin usually would be in bed by now. But for this, they have stayed awake.

"It's just plain, down-home gospel music that you can understand the words to," says Griffin, who started listening to Gaither in 1980. She's in her 50s now, she says, "too old to do the rap thing, even if it's Christian rap."

With Gaither and the other groups tonight, you're sure to get a message in the lyrics, Gresham says. "Because he lives, I can face tomorrow _ this is a message."

Just after 11, the clapping singers parade offstage and a crew hauls off speakers, the microphones, the grand piano. Gaither meets with a group of fans to take pictures. Later, he will head to Orlando, then Fort Myers and, finally, Tampa.

He looks exhausted.

"I really enjoy it," he says. "Every night, it's different."

Really?

Well, with the exception of some of his jokes.

"It started out honoring the old pioneers in our field," Gaither says. "It's gone past that because there are a lot of good, young artists coming up."

He thinks the mix of artists is what makes his shows popular. In Tampa, more than a dozen musicians are expected to perform, including Mike Allen, Lynda Randle, the Hoppers, the Florida Boys and Jeff and Sheri Easter.

Not long ago, Gaither thought his season in gospel fame had ended, according to his 2003 autobiography It's More Than the Music, co-written by Ken Abraham. The Gaither Vocal Band was "winding down," Gaither says in his book. "It was time for us to step offstage and encourage the next generation of writers, musicians and singers."

In 1991, he asked some friends, gospel greats, to join him in a recording session for old time's sake. They sang all day at that studio in Nashville. Someone had a video camera, and when Gaither saw the footage, it had a certain "anointing" that made him think it could bless others. The amateurish video aired on a Christian network, and people across the country bought it and asked for more. Gaither called the session a "homecoming." In years to follow, he hit the road for a tour.

Will the Gaither Homecoming ever end?

Gaither pauses. "We'll probably stop when people stop asking us to come back."

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