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The Rev. Leighton Ford will be the featured speaker at the Singing on the Mountain on
June 22 in Linville.
Photo courtesy of Leighton Ford

Originally published: 2014-06-04 11:09:52
Last modified: 2014-06-04 11:21:20

Singing on the Mountain welcomes Leighton Ford

by Sherrie Norris

Evangelist and author Leighton Ford is expected to draw thousands of people to the MacRae Meadows of Grandfather Mountain on Sunday, June 22, for the 90th annual Singing on the Mountain. 

Ford is returning for the third time as the event's keynote speaker, having also appeared in 1969 and again in 1989. 

Ford will be joined by dozens of gospel music singers for the all-day "singing, preaching and dinner on the grounds," as the event has long been known for. 

Sharing the stage with Ford before and after his address will be The Cockman Family, The Rick Webb Family, The Sneed Family, The Hurleys, Bread of Life Quartet, Michael Combs, Ernie Penley and others to be announced.

The 2014 gathering will pay tribute to the late multitalented singer, songwriter and guitarist, Arthur Smith, who with his "Crackerjacks," served as the event's music master from the 1950s through the early 1980s. 

Smith, who died on April 3 of this year, was a gifted entertainer and close friend of Grandfather Mountain developer Hugh Morton. 

Smith was regularly accompanied by his brother, Ralph Smith, a crowd favorite known for his sense of humor, and others, including Tommy Faile, Maggie Griffin, Don Ainge, the Shulers and George Hamilton IV. 

Perhaps best known for his instrumentals "Guitar Boogie" and "Feudin' Banjos" ("Dueling Banjos"), Smith also wrote and performed a collection of inspirational tunes, including "Acres of Diamonds," "Because Jesus Said It" and "I Saw a Man."

"He had a very strong faith and considered being the musical host for the 'Singing' to be part of his ministry," said Harris Prevost, vice president of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation. 

Prevost said it was Smith who was responsible for inviting his "friends" -- Johnny and June Carter Cash -- in 1974 to sing for free, as well as helping to bring the Rev. Billy Graham to speak in 1962.

Smith, himself, served as speaker in 1991.

"Through his connections, Arthur brought in many great speakers and performers to help make the singing the event it is today," Prevost said.

Ford plans to build his message around some of Smith's original gospel. In addition to knowing and loving Smith, Ford said he and Graham often recorded the popular Hour of Decision Christian radio broadcast at Smith's Charlotte recording studio.

"I plan to try to include some of Arthur's songs and thoughts, because our faith is a singing faith," Ford said. "I am not promising to sing, but who knows? I might even break forth into song."  

Among those noted personalities who have appeared at the singing, in addition to Smith, are the Cashes; Billy Graham, including Graham's son, Franklin Graham, and grandson, Will Graham; Bob Hope; Boots Randolph; Carroll Roberson; Roy Acuff; Oral Roberts and his son, Richard Roberts; and many others.  

As president of Leighton Ford Ministries, which focuses on raising up younger leaders to spread the message of Christ worldwide, Ford has spoken to millions of people in 37 countries. 

For 30 years, he served as associate evangelist and later as vice president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. For many years, Ford was featured as the alternate speaker to Billy Graham on the Hour of Decision broadcast and his own daily TV and radio spots in the United States, Canada and Australia.

Ford was the recipient of the 1990 Two Hungers Award, which recognized his contributions to addressing the physical and spiritual hungers of people around the world. In 1985, he was selected as Clergyman of the Year by Religious Heritage of America and as Presbyterian Preacher of the Year by the National Presbyterian Center. 

TIME Magazine singled him out as being "among the most influential preachers of an active gospel."

Ford is honorary life chairman of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, having served from 1976 to 1992 as chairman of this international body of Christian leaders. He chairs the Sandy Ford Fund and has served as a board member for World Vision U. S., the Duke University Comprehensive Cancer Center and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

He is also author and co-author of numerous books; his latest book, "The Attentive Life, Discerning God's Presence in All Things," was published in May 2008. 

Ford lives in Charlotte with his wife, Jean. They have one daughter, Deborah, and a son, Kevin. Their older son, Sandy, died in 1981 following heart surgery. 

A long time tradition

A long held tradition, Singing on the Mountain is considered the South's longest running event of its kind and is recognized by the North Carolina Arts Council and Blue Ridge National Heritage Area as part of the Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina. 

The gathering began in 1924 when the late Joe Hartley Sr. hosted a family and church picnic on the singing grounds.

In an earlier interview, Hartley's son, Robert Hartley, now deceased, said that the picnic evolved quite by accident into an annual reunion that grew larger in number each year.  

It didn't take a lot of planning, initially, he said, as word of mouth proved to be the best advertisement. 

Helping to organize the event, in addition to his father, Hartley said, was Linville native Jack Cook, who led the singing and served as secretary as the assembly increased.
 "Most of the preaching was done by Rev. Will Cook from the Bamboo community of Watauga County, pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church," Hartley said.

Joe Hartley was eventually elected chairman of the event and, according to his son, he lived from year to year, anxiously waiting for that summer reunion.

Robert Hartley said that in those early days, traveling to Grandfather Mountain was not an easy venture, although folks came from Avery, Watauga and surrounding counties, making their way on horseback, in buggies, some on foot and the luckier ones in Model-T Fords.

Many church leaders canceled their services on that particular Sunday and brought their congregations over the mountain with them.

For many years, Hartley said, the local people "held the singing together"; only when Hugh Morton acquired the meadows, did the event begin to receive promotional coverage and financial backing.

"Mr. Morton realized the importance of the event to our families and he took a big interest in it," Hartley said. "Through his expertise as a promoter and photographer, Singing on the Mountain received national attention."

The date for the event was initially set as the fourth Sunday of June, although not without confusion. "Many people assumed it was the last Sunday of the month, rather than the fourth," Hartley said. "The only time we've ever changed the date was in 1963, to accommodate the schedule of Billy Graham." 

Prior to his death, Robert Hartley had missed only four singings -- two while serving in World War II and two due to job obligations in Tennessee.

Robert and his brother, Joe Lee Hartley, who preceded him in death, co-chaired the singing for many years. It was bittersweet, Robert said, when he became the last of "Uncle Joe's" children to keep the heritage alive. 

Having moved back to Linville after many years away, Robert Hartley spent his last days with his wife, Clara, in the Hartley family's homeplace where he was born. 

It was fitting, Hartley said, that he just had to step out onto his front porch and in looking heavenward, he had a spectacular view of the mountain that meant so much to his family -- a constant reminder that Grandfather Mountain would always be close to heart and home.

"The Hartley family still comes, and they still bring their picnic like they did 90 years ago," Prevost said. "Little has changed, except for the size of our audience and the technology we use."
"Whosoever will, may come."

Joe Hartley said it every year and his words remain true today --"Whosoever will may come." 

There is no admission required to attend the event, but a goodwill offering will be collected to support the musicians who volunteer their time to perform.

The music begins at 8:30 a.m. and continues through the afternoon with the midday break around 1 p.m. for Ford's message. Casual dress is encouraged, as are lawn chairs and blankets. Picnics are permitted and concessions and merchandise will be available.

Parking (including handicapped) is available at MacRae Meadows, located on U.S. 221 in Linville, two miles south of the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 305. 

Camping (no RV hookups) is permitted on the MacRae Meadows field on a first-come, first-served basis starting the Monday preceding the event. 

The event is held rain or shine.

For more information, visit or call (800) 468-7325.

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