Spreading God's Word

Written by Bruce Hawkins.

Reaching people is why he enjoys singing gospel music

Panola County resident Mike Burkhalter spends his weekdays as a Texas Department of Transportation employee working on area roads. What some people may not know about this Garrison native is that he has a long history of singing gospel music with his family, performing with various well-known groups, and even touring the country on a bus spreading God’s word through gospel music.

“It goes back to my daddy,” he said about his love of gospel music. “ He’s 89 right now. When he was in his early 20s he sang in a quartet in Nacogdoches. He met mother, and she sang a little bit and she played the piano. When I came along, we started singing in church—Church of Christ, which has no instruments. So, we sang a cappella. “Mother, Daddy, and I at home would sit around the table and sing, just us three,” he said.

“It got to where we started sounding pretty good, and people started calling us to sing at funerals and nursing homes,” Burkhalter said.

He credits becoming a stronger singer to playing the trombone in high school and taking an after school music class where he learned shape notes as a child. “These were two influences,” he said. “But Mother and Daddy were my inspiration.”

The three of them, Burkhalter and his parents Venyard and Betty Ann, sang together until younger brother John decided to join the group in about 1985. The family quartet, which performed and recorded several cassettes, lasted until the late 1990s as traveling and singing became too demanding for his aging father.

“When Daddy got too bad, John and I started singing together,” Burkhalter said. The brothers, along with two other men who attended college with John, began the Southern Harmony Quartet in 1999.  This group continued until 2004 when its tenor singer graduated.

It was four years later that Burkhalter learned The Southern Plainsmen Quartet was searching for a bass singer. He met them at their tour bus, auditioned, and was invited to join the group. ”I had always known of the Southern Plainsmen, Burkhalter said. “I had always wanted to sing at that level.”

Burkhalter and the rest of the Southern Plainsmen boarded their tour bus every Friday and went to venues to perform on Friday and Saturday nights and twice on Sundays. “I even got to sing on three cruises with them,” he said. “That was exciting to me. Here I was a little country boy from Garrison, Texas on a cruise ship singing gospel music.”

Besides traveling as a Southern Plainsmen member, Burkhalter also attended quartet conventions for two years and met other gospel singing greats such as Bill Gaither, the Blackwood Brothers, and Mark Lowry to name a few.

“That was a good experience,” he said. “I met a lot of guys and have sung with lots of them,” He also had the privilege of sharing the stage with other gospel groups such as The Hoppers and Gold City.

Deciding that working a full-time job at Tyson in Tenaha, driving a school bus for Garrison ISD, and touring with the singing group was too much for him and his family, Burkhalter left the Southern Plainsmen Quartet in 2011 after three years of performing. “It just got to be too grueling,” he said. “It was taking a toll on me.”

Not long after he left The Southern Plainsmen Quartet, he met Patsy and Paula Ford, gospel singers from Jasper known as The Ford Sisters. “I went to one of their concerts and they invited me to eat,” Burkhalter said. He began being part of their performances in 2012 and still occasionally joins them on stage.

It was during the time that he was singing with The Ford Sisters that The Master’s Men called Burkhalter. “They are a big time group and I’ve always heard of them,” he said. When the group’s bass singer left, Burkhalter got the invitation to join The Master’s Men. He has been with this group more than a year and travels around southeast Texas for performances.

The Master’s Men is a double quartet group, meaning there are two men singing each part, Burkhalter explained. The group originated from members of First Baptist Church-Silsbee in an effort to promote southern gospel music.  “Most of our dates are around the Jasper, Beaumont, Lufkin area,” Burkhalter said. “However, we will perform anywhere. We sing for the Lord is our bottom line, and we just want to reach all the people we can.”

Reaching people is why he enjoys singing gospel music. “One foremost thing is to sing for God,” he said. “Spread God’s word through gospel songs.” Burkhalter said he stresses the importance of the old gospel genre. “Listen to the words. They’re wonderful.”

Burkhalter hasn’t ventured far from his roots of singing gospel music. A few past performances at Carthage’s Saturday Night Hayride to sing older country songs is about all that he has done other than gospel music. “That’s just what I grew up with and I enjoy it,” he said. “I feel like God has given me my talent, and He wants us to use our talent for Him.”

Burkhalter said touching lives through their music is what it’s all about for him and the other Master’s Men members. He recalled a recent performance where an audience member greeted him and thanked him. “This little old lady came up to me and said, ‘Mike, I want you to know you have really really blessed me tonight’.” I told her I was proud of that and to continue thanking God for what you have.”

Besides traveling to various venues for performances and playing for love offerings to help pay expenses, The Master’s Men host two large concerts each year. These concerts include performances from them and three bigger-named groups. Their hope is to continue spreading God’s word through traditional gospel music.

“People still like gospel music, but there aren’t young people getting into it anymore,” Burkhalter said about the typical audience and the lack of young gospel singers. However, he is encouraged when young people sing a traditional song in church. “Contemporary is fine,” he said. “It’s just not my favorite. I prefer the old gospel music.”

Shortly after joining The Master’s Men, the group released a CD with a solo song by Burkhalter. Patsy Ford, of The Ford Sisters and who is also a gospel radio show host in Jasper, told him that his song, Happy Rhythm, was the third requested song for the month of the CD’s release and that it remains in the top five.

With the support of his three grown children; Chase of Woodville, Tyler of Mt. Enterprise, and Amber of Houston, Burkhalter said he is encouraged by them to continue singing gospel music.

Although a full-time singing career isn’t in Burkhalter’s plans, he said he would certainly consider it if the opportunity was offered. “The only thing is you can’t work while you do that and you can’t make a living just singing. It would be a God thing if it happened.”

Burkhalter said he is happy singing at venues closer to home on the weekends. “I love doing what I’m doing,” he said. “I love singing with The Master’s Men and The Ford Sisters.”

For more information about The Master’s Men, purchasing their CDs, or booking them for performances, please go to www.mastersmensilsbee.org