Gospel Barn makes joyful noise

Marlin Burnett, of Jemison, owns and operates the Central Alabama Gospel Music Barn. The Barn hosts singings the third Saturday of every month.

As long as there are places to congregate, people in the Deep South will come bringing fried chicken, sweet tea, pecan pie and hymnals to make a joyful noise. And as long as Marlin Burnett can, he’ll make sure there’s a place for people from Chilton County to congregate.

Burnett, 70, is the owner of the Central Alabama Gospel Music Barn located on County Road 29 in Jemison. For 23 years, he has operated a music barn and has operated the one in Jemison for six years.

The idea spawned from an old blue equipment barn he owned in his hometown of Pelham.

“We started in 1988, because Oak Mountain Baptist Church didn’t have a fellowship hall,” he said. “We had birthday parties and baby showers in it, and in May of ’88 we started having gospel singings.”

For Burnett, being in charge of the gospel barn is a labor of love. Even in tough times, the music has helped him ease pain. Burnett lost his first wife, Dorothy, to a brain tumor in 1998, but said he continued the singings. He eventually remarried his current wife, Glenda, in 2001.

“I just love gospel music,” he said.

His health began to take a turn for the worse shortly after, though. He was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and was forced to leave his house in Pelham due to the amount of stairs it had. He moved to Jemison and built the current barn.

“I had some health problems and sold that house,” he said. “We did the singings in that barn from ’88 to ’07. I sold the barn with the house, and after we sold it, they wouldn’t insure it anymore. So we shut that one down.

“In ’05, I had [the current barn] built. I drew up the floor plan, and [my wife and I] did all the inside work.”

To call the facility a “barn” is a bit of a stretch. About the only thing it has in common with the original barn is the same shade of blue on the outside of the building. The current barn has a stage, multiple sets of lights, air conditioning and a large kitchen area to serve guests.

“[A member of] the Smith Family [singing group] said it was the first barn he’d ever been to with carpet,” said Burnett.

What goes into a gospel singing is almost as elaborate. Burnett said there was a great deal of planning and work that goes into a single singing.

“We try to cook a meal for 300, and sometimes we have 225, sometimes 275,” he said. “We give to-go plates to folks to carry home with what’s left over.

“We usually start Thursday getting the food; we’ll go to Sam’s Club and get things. We start cooking desserts Friday, and then the main meal Saturday. It’s a three-day event.”

To feed 300, the amount of food needed is staggering. Burnett said on average, he and his wife purchase 28-32 pounds of butterbeans, 15 gallons of turnip greens, cook 20 pones of cornbread, 10 gallons of tea, and four coffee pots, plus soft drinks.

Add in utilities, and it’s pretty easy to see that it isn’t cheap to operate. Burnett said every penny comes from out of pocket, or from donations, and in recent years, more have come from his pocket.

He also said he fears that if donations don’t pick up, the barn and singings may be a thing of the past.

“Last year, we payed $9,250 out of pocket,” he said. “It’s taking a lot out of pocket, due to the economy. We would need about $1,200 a month in donations. I hope [we don’t have to shut down]. We’ve talked to the audience about it, and donations have picked up, but it’s still not enough.”

Still, Burnett said he refuses to charge admission.

“Never,” he said. “We charged one time, and lost $1,800.”

He and his wife still keep going. After what he estimates to be around 500 shows, he thinks he can hold out for one more milestone.

“I’d love to keep it open ‘til ’13,” he said. “That’d make 25 years. I think I can make it that long. I’d hate to close it, but they way the economy is, and being self-employed, I don’t have two to three checks to draw from. I just have one.”

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