I had the opportunity to interview Kingdom Heirs tenor Billy Hodges at National Quartet Convention last year. After too many delays (most of which were my fault!), here you go! For a formatted version, click here.
DJM: Could we start with a little background—about your upbringing, and about how you became interested in Southern Gospel?
Billy: Interestingly enough, I haven’t been singing all my life. I sang in Choir at church and in High School. When I was 21 or 22 I started making an effort to sing.
DJM: Now were you familiar with Gospel music and didn’t have that much of an interest in singing it, or were you just unfamiliar with Gospel music at that point?
Billy: The only exposure I had to Southern Gospel music was when our little church out in the country. We would have homecoming, we’d eat, and then the groups would come and sing afterwards.
DJM: So did you hear some of the big-name groups?
Billy: No, no, no. Small, local groups. Which was great! So that’s kind of how it was for me.
There was a good friend of mine named Brady Weldon, who was an evangelist and he worked as a DJ. This is back when they had cassettes—back before your time.
DJM: I have hundreds of cassettes…and eight hundred-plus LPs!
Billy: Well, now you’re just braggin’!
DJM: Yeah—but I have cassettes! [laughs]
Billy: Well, have you ever lived where cassettes was all you had?
DJM: Actually, yes. When I was young, cassettes were all I had. LPs do predate me—I had to go back and get an LP player. But cassettes were all I had when I was young.
Well, he had worked as a DJ. I was just over at his house one day, and we were both out of high school. I was like, “Hey, buddy, what’s happening?”
He said, “Nothing. Hanging out.”
I said, “Well, that’s cool.”
He said, “Hey, I want you to listen to this.”
I said, “All right.”
So he played The Kingsmen “Go and Tell Somebody.”
Now we were just young, hyper kids, in our early twenties, so when it got to the part where the tenor [sings] then he started to run, like that, we kind of mimicked it. And it was the funniest thing, I’d ever heard, it was just so funny! You know, some things just make you laugh? It was hysterical! So, I said, “Man, that’s funny! That’s awesome!”
He was like, “Man, that’s the Kingsmen.”
I said, “Who?”
He said, “The Kingsmen.” And he had a bunch of Singing News magazines. And he showed them to me. In a nutshell, he pretty much told me everything real quick.
So he made me a cassette tape, the first one, and it had the Kingsmen “Go and Tell Somebody”
and a couple of other songs. It had the Perrys, where they sang “Under the Spout where the Glory Comes Out,” and where Tracy sounds like a chainsaw. It was the funniest thing I’ve ever heard! And then it had some Gold City, and it might had a Cathedrals song on there.
It was just a mix tape of all that stuff. And it was the first thing that I heard.
He said, “Yeah, man, the Kingsmen, they come around here a lot.” They’d always come to Dyersburg, Tennessee, to Union City, and to Martin—that’s where I’m from. So whenever they came to town, I’d go see them. And you know, once you saw the Ton of Fun in action the first time, you were hooked! Hamill knew how to get you.
By this time I had started in college in the fall. And then, I wanted to major in music, because that was the only thing that I could do—I wasn’t good in math, or science, certainly not geography or history. But I loved music. And I thought, “I’m gonna try to be a music major!”
Of course, I had to audition to see if I could sing. All that time, I’d sung along with the tapes, and thought, “Hmm, I can kinda hit these notes. Maybe I can do it! “I don’t know if I can or can’t. If I can’t sing, they will tell me!”
DJM: Where did you go to college?
Billy: University of Tennessee at Martin.
I auditioned with the song the Kingsmen did, “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be.” So at this point, I’d started as a music major, kind of been exposed, and then I went to see the Kingsmen in concert the first time the fall of that freshman year.
They sang in Union City at the Civic Auditorium, and I sat there, and heard a man sing like a woman. Instead of having four voices that were similar that sang different notes in the chord, I heard four distinct voices that sang different notes that fit their range. Instead of having a guy that sang high, I heard a guy that sang high all the time. His voice was high. And each voice fit each part perfectly. I’d never heard that. I’m 22 at this time, and I’d never heard that. And I was completely blown away. This was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard.
And after that, I said, “I want to do that someday.”
So basically, I went to college, and majored in music, and whenever the Kingsmen or Gold City came around, I’d go see them in concert. I’d never go see anyone else. Of course, nobody else hardly ever came around, so I didn’t really have a choice. Those were great days to go watch them out there. I was truly mesmerized, like “This is so awesome!”
So then, when I decided I really wanted to see if I could do this, I found that the Florida Boys were looking for a tenor singer. I called Garry Sheppard, and said, “I hear the Florida Boys are looking for a tenor.” (Garry and I had become friends.) I said, “What do you think?”
He said, “What are you looking for?”
I said, “I’m wanting to be in a group that does this, this, and this.”
Well, I’ll just tell you. I wanted to be in a group that’s gonna sing on the mainstage at National Quartet Convention. I’d like to go on a cruise—that looks like fun. I’d like to be on the cover of the Singing News. And I’d like to get paid a little somethin’.
And he said, “Well, they do all those things.”
And I said, “Okay.”
So I called Les Beasley, and he said, “Can you come down and audition?”
So I drove down, auditioned, and I got the job!
DJM: You’d never sung in a group before?
Billy: Never sung in a group before. I’d sung with a couple of guys locally.
DJM: Just special music for church, or had you done complete programs?
Billy: We’d done complete programs, but we’d only sang together for like six months. Because when I decided I wanted to do this, I was like 22 or 23 years old, and I didn’t join the Florida Boys till I was 25. So at that time, I had sang a couple years there. And going to concerts, you meet people. So I met some guys…
I guess I need to backstory this a little bit. In the college days, before I auditioned with the Florida Boys, and I went to the Kingsmen concerts, before the first one I went to, I started to hear people talking about groups and things. We’ve got a group, we’re looking for a tenor, blah blah blah blah.
I ended up hearing a guy saying he needed a tenor singer. I was thinking, “You’ve got to get your feet wet somewhere.” And I was really anxious to get started. So that’s kind of how it was. I met him and sang in his group. And while I was there, I met another guy named Mark Brantley. Mark Brantley and I became friends instantly. He knew every Kingsmen song there ever was.
We became best friends. I was 24, and he was like 22. Just kids! So we sang together. We literally were a garage band, because that’s where we practiced—in the garage, the sound system set up, with the door shut. That’s so funny, now that I think about it!
Jeremy Ballinger came over to see us. Then I called Mark the next week, and said, “Listen, me you, and Jeremy need to start a group together!”
And we did, and we sang together as Under Grace for just under two years before I left to go
sing with the Florida Boys. To hear Jeremy tell it, I called him on I-40, saying I quit the group while I was heading to Florida!
DJM: Before you auditioned?
Billy: No, after I got the job. He said that when I had packed up and was headed to Florida, I called up and said, “Oh, by the way, I quit!” So they gave me a hard time about that! We were really all best friends, real tight.
DJM: Did you do any recordings with them?
Billy: Yeah, we did two.
DJM: Do you remember the names?
Billy: I’m not telling you, because there’s some really bad singing on there! [laughs!]
DJM: I go back and try to find that kind of stuff when I can.
Billy: We did a recording called First Flight Out, and then we did another recording called On the Victory Side. “First Flight Out” was a song Squire Parsons and Gold City did, and “Victory Side” was a song Singing Americans did.
So those are out there. They’re actually on my laptop, but I’m not gonna give you one! I might
let you listen, but that’s it!
DJM: So you did have some background singing.
Billy: Yeah. It’s not like I went completely green to the Florida Boys.
DJM: Because that happens occasionally.
Billy: Yeah. And usually, it’s very rare. But there are those cases. You see, it’s a culture shock. I went to college in my hometown. I lived in the dorms, but I’d never been away from home. And I moved…I had to call my best friend and ask, “How do I wash clothes?”
I’m not joking!
I called and said, “Okay, I’m standing here with my laundry basket, and my detergent. What do I
do? I’ve common sense to know you separate the colors and the whites.”
My friend said, “Well, that’s the first step!”
So that was my baptism of fire with the Florida Boys. My first year, we did about 265 dates, my first year!
DJM: So that equates to Wednesday through Sunday?
Billy: I remember exactly what it was now. It was 256 days we were on the road, my first full year, from day 1 to day 1.
DJM: So your first Florida Boys year, not your first calendar year.
Billy: Correct. My first Florida Boys Year.
DJM: So you joined them in ’95?
Billy: Yeah. November of ’95. Left in March of ’97. Wasn’t there very long at all.
DJM: You did one CD with them.
It averaged out being something like 5 days a week being gone. We’d do two-week trips, ten-day trips—we did one twenty-four-day trip! And I said, “You know what? When I have to pay for a cable bill, and I don’t even get to watch the first little bit of cable, something’s wrong.” So I didn’t stay very long there. Then I went to Dixie Echoes, from 2001 to 2003.
DJM: What did you do between that?
Billy: Went to college—went back to school.
DJM: Did you still study music?
Billy: Went back and majored in music for another year. Then I quit that and I just kinda got
burnt out on singing, and I just wanted to find a job. So I became a fireman, a full-time
DJM: So what kind of training did you have to go through to become a firefighter?
DJM: As in a degree program
Billy: Two months.
DJM: But it was an intense two months?
Billy: We went for two months of eight hours a day, five days a week, specific training just to be firefighter. That doesn’t count the first responder training, the HAZMAT training, and any additional department training like high aerial rescue training and specialized equipment training.
DJM: High aerial—getting people out of hotels if there’s a fire?
Billy: Yeah. Ropes—like rappelling, things like that. We had an aerial platform that would go up 100 feet. You could put six grown men in this platform, all the way up at the top, and it would hold you. And there was only one building in town that was big enough for that. But in the surrounding cities, there were places where it could be used, where they didn’t have as nice a piece of equipment.
So just to get you in the door and get you all brought up to speed, it was forty hours a week, eight weeks worth of training. Then you had your first responder training, your medical training, then you always had your HAZMAT training—because anywhere there’s trains going through town, there’s hazardous materials—you don’t want to know what goes by your house if you live near the train tracks! That was a lot of fun. I enjoyed the fire department. I did that for about two years.
Then, I remember, I had had a tough weekend at work, and I came home on the Fourth of July
2001, and Scoot Shelnut called me, left me a message, and said, “We need a tenor singer.” Ironically, the month before, I’d went to hear them sing in Jackson, Tennessee.
DJM: Kevin Ivey was with them?
Billy: Kevin Ivey was with them. He said he enjoyed it, he wasn’t planning on leaving.
And remember, I had known them from the Florida Boy days, living in Pensacola.
DJM: You went back to Tennessee to be a firefighter, then?
Billy: Yes. When I quit the Florida Boys, I moved back to Tennessee, went to college, became a firefighter…because it was home. I went back home.
From there, I got that phone call, and I was like, “Wow, man this is great!”
They said, “You don’t have to audition. We know you can do it. So just come on down!”
And I said, “I’ll take it!”
Well, it didn’t happen quite that way—we discussed the finances. I was like, “I need this much money, because I do pretty good as a fireman, with insurance and everything.” Of course, not a lot of insurance runs around in the genre—I’m blessed where I am now, but anyway—but I had to make sure that the second time around, I knew what specific questions to ask. How much did we travel, how much does it pay, are there vacation times?
DJM: A little more practical, real-life questions than the first time around?
DJM: Are you on the Singing News cover, are you on the main stage, as compared to…
Billy: I don’t care if I’m on the Singing News. If I get sick, will you cover insurance? Do I get time off? What are my responsibilities—am I driving?
DJM: So you were with the Dixie Echoes from July 2001 through…
Billy: I quit them in November of 2004. No, that’s not right. November 2003, because I went to work at Marcus Point Baptist Church in Pensacola, as the Recreation Director. Big church—about 3500 members. Great job, great people—we loved it there. I stayed there from November of ’03 through January of ’05, and then left and started here with
the Kingdom Heirs that February.
DJM: And how did that happen?
Billy: I came home from work one day—’cause I’d always kept up with the Singing News. I looked at the Singing News website and saw where Jodi Hosterman had posted that he was leaving the Kingdom Heirs. I thought, “Man, that guy’s crazy! That’s the best job in the world!” You get the best of both
worlds—you get to sing and stay home.
DJM: Nine months out of the year.
And by this time I was married. I’d only been on the road and traveling—we got married in June, and I quit the Dixie Echoes in November—so like six months traveling. And I realized, when you’re single and on the road, it’s great. When you’re married and on the road, it’s not near as much fun, ’cause you miss your family.
And now that I have a little baby girl, I really don’t want to be gone. It’s tough leaving your kids. Especially when they’re little. And if anyone tells you otherwise, I’m pretty certain they’re not being completely honest with you.
DJM: What’s your daughter’s name, and how old is she?
Billy: Her name is Adison Jo, and she’s eighteen months Dec. 6th. And she’s a daddy’s girl!
DJM: So back to the story of how you joined the Kingdom Heirs…
Billy: So I’d heard he was leavin’, and I knew that was a great job. And when I worked at Marcus Pointe Baptist Church as recreation director, I knew that it wasn’t a job that I would have forever. I figured that..
DJM: that the church wouldn’t need it forever, or that it wouldn’t be something you’d want to
do for your whole life?
Billy: That it wouldn’t be something I’d want to do my whole life. You just know when God places you somewhere if you’re gonna be here for a while. I know I’m gonna be here for a while. I knew it when I took the job. I knew when I took the job at the church that it was a stepping-stone somewhere.
Did I know where? No. But I knew God opened the door, and I was gonna walk through it. So I thought, “We’ll see where it leads.”
So I came home from work one day, and I’m laughing because I remember the look on my wife’s face when I said, “Kingdom Heirs need a tenor singer.”
She stopped, looked at me, and said, “I don’t care if you’re gonna be a fireman, or if you’re gonna be a policeman”—’cause I’d talked about going back and doing those—“or if you’re gonna be a tenor singer for the Kingdom Heirs. But whatever you’re going to be, the next time we move, you’re gonna do that for the rest of your life, ’cause I’m not moving again!” She said it kind of laughing, but she was serious. So we’re not moving again.
And I’ll be honest with you. I never thought that I would get the job. First of all, vocally, I didn’t think I had the ability.
DJM: I was going to ask you about that. The three shows a day…
DJM: That’s got to be very tiring on certain voices. I’m not naming names, but I’ve heard of instances where people who were in that schedule with the Kingdom Heirs ended up developing voice problems…how has that been?
Billy: I knew when I took the job that it would be difficult to do. But you know, Daniel, God’s not gonna put you somewhere and then not give you the abilities to do it. God said, “I want you to do this, this moment in time is your opportunity, and you, not someone else, is supposed to be here.” It’s just the facts.
I had insecurities from the very beginning. I want this job, but I’m not sure I’m good enough.
Dude—look at the people who’ve been there! Jodi Hosterman is a great singer. David Sutton is a great singer. Rick Strickland—great singer. All these guys before, great singers. I’ve never considered myself a great singer. I still don’t consider myself a great singer. So I thought…the RPM’s are gonna be cranked to the red line every day if I get this job, because, like you said, it’s three shows a day, five shows a week.
So I thought, “You know, God, if You want me to be here, You open the door.” And he did. We sold our house to the first person who looked at it, and we moved to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
DJM: How far was that from where you grew up, by the way?
Billy: Five and a half, six hours—opposite side of the state. But a lot closer than Pensacola!
Billy: So we sat there, and I remember the first day I was on stage. “Oh, Lord, please…!”
If there’s any bit of success or improvement, I have to give all the credit to Arthur Rice, first of all for being a great friend—best friends—and for allowing me to try new vocal techniques that when I failed at those techniques.
And if it’s right, he goes, “Good, that’s better.”
And if it’s not better, he’s not gonna go, “You’re stupid. That’s dumb. You can’t get it right.”
He’ll just go, “You’ll get it tomorrow. You’ll get it the next show.” There’s always a next show!
Recently, a tenor asked me, “Has Arthur Rice worked with you?”
Yeah. All the time when I need something, he’s there.
And I can say, “I’m gonna try this here.”
And if it works, I keep it. And if not, I’ll try something else.
So all my vocal success, if there is any, comes from watching him—if you want to be better, watch people who are better than you, learn from them. So that’s what it’s been like.
And three shows a day—it is hard. I will tell you, it is physically demanding.
You talk to people all day long, and while you love that, you also wear down the very instrument you use for these people.
It’s a lot of work, but if you do it right, you just get stronger at it.
And it helps to learn your illnesses—if you get sinus drainage, which is the biggest problem among singers in our group—how do you work around that?
You become really tight with your doctor. I can call my doctor and say, “Doctor Littleton, I need this and this and this and this.” I don’t even have to go into his office.
He’ll call back and say, “Are you having these symptoms?”
And I’ll go, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.”
And he’ll go, “All right, I just had to ask. Where’s your pharmacy?”
And that’s it. And I’ll talk to him again in three or four months.
That’s pretty much what it’s like.
‘Course, we use Andy Stringfield as our designated singer, should anything happen.
DJM: Does he sing all four parts?
Billy: No, no!
This is kind of how it happens. If Jeff is sick, or something, then we’d do it as a trio, because he’s Jeff Chapman. Unless Tim Riley happens to be in the park that day, ain’t nobody gonna fill Jeff’s shoes,
If Steve is sick, then Andy can sing the baritone part.
If Arthur is sick, they shut down Dollywood.
I’m just kidding—they don’t shut down Dollywood! You would think that they would, and that’s what we tell him. But if something happens that he can’t do it, then Andy can sing the lead part, and he’s done it when there’s been an emergency or something.
DJM: During your time in college, how did they classify your voice? Did they classify you as a first tenor or as a countertenor?
Billy: First tenor. A countertenor, from my understanding…
DJM: sings in a true falsetto instead of head tones?
Billy: Yeah. A countertenor is a baritone singer that sings in full falsetto or in head tones, but usually in full falsetto.
DJM: Where in your case, you and most other Southern Gospel tenors use head tones which, musically speaking, is like ¼ of your voice box, as opposed to chest tones, which is full? How does that work?
Billy: Say that again? I think you know more about this than I do!
DJM: I have been told that the definition of chest voice is when you’re singing with a complete tone. Head tones are when you are using ¼ of your voice box. And true falsetto is none. [Demonstrates all.] So I would assume you use head voice, not true falsetto, most of the time.
Billy: I don’t use any falsetto notes unless it calls for it on really high light singing. I asked my vocal coach in college, who was a tenor, He had his doctorate so he knows what he’s talking about; when I’d ask questions, he’d pull out diagrams and show me the voice box, and say, “This is this, and this is this”—I still call him and talk to him.
And he says, “Billy, you don’t have a true falsetto and you can sing in those driven head tones your entire life.”
And he is a great operatic tenor.
But just so you know … I like to talk voice with other tenors. And there are some out there, like Brian Free, who’s just … he’s the exception to the rule. There’s no definition for his voice. I asked him, “Are you ever doing any mechanisms here?”
He said, “If you’re asking if I’m doing anything intentional to make it sound a certain way,” “no. It’s from can to can’t. I sing from where I can’t down here to where it stops. And there’s nothing else. Am I doing anything different anywhere along the way to try to make the words sound certain way?”
Billy: Enunciation. “No.”
When I asked him, “Can you give me any tips, because of longevity,” he said, “I’ve always followed the path of least resistance in my voice.”
DJM: His path of least resistance would kill most other singers.
Billy: Yeah. But I’ll tell you this. When I stood up there with those other tenors last night and did the opening, I found out I’m singing way too hard. They’re singing softer than I am; I sing really loud.
DJM: That’s the Kingdom Heirs’ style, though. Not that it couldn’t be re-defined, but the Kingdom Heirs have this driving style, to an extent.
Billy So you asked about head tones. I know, based on what I read in college,that had nothing to do with Southern Gospel music—so let’s just set that right there—in the tenor voice, based on what I was taught in college, there is a break in your voice that can be anywhere from an F above middle C to just above high C, depending on the voice, which is different from person to person as a tenor. That break is called the passagio, which is Italian for the word passage.
Everyone has one. There are some people—I would say, Brian Free is an exception; it appears he doesn’t have one; if he does, he doesn’t know where it is. If Jerry Martin has one, he doesn’t know where it is either.
DJM: Genuine freaks of nature.
Billy: Truly genuine.
Johnny Cook. A true freak of nature. ‘Cause you can’t hear it.
DJM: Actually, I think Johnny Cook had one.
Billy: Yeah, like double high C?
DJM: Well, because there is this one point when he did “Looking For a City” with Vestal, when he goes up one more key, and you can hear the difference in his voice.
Billy: I could hear that. I could hear the different register. I’m not sure if it’s so much that he goes over a break.
DJM: Yeah, it may or may not be a break, but he’s definitely switching to a register where he’s using more head tones. If you get “Looking for a City,” and he gets up to a point, and he’s full voice, beyond what any lead singer or tenor singer could do. And he keeps going, and he can go above and above, but there’s a little bit of a difference.
Billy: There is, definitely.
DJM: We don’t hear it all with Brian Free or Jerry Martin.
Billy: No. Those guys are … you know, hello?
So anyway…for different people, it’s different things. Mine is at a certain spot. And I know a lot of other tenors, theirs are at different spots. When I asked my voice coach about it, he said, “Billy, it doesn’t matter where you flip”—and mind you, I’m learning to sing art music, I’m learning to sing opera—
DJM: Are you able to sing opera?
Billy: No, not anymore. I mean, I could. Back in college, I could. If you had a B-flat in an opera, that’s something. A B-flat’s a big note in opera.
The first opera I did in college, they said, “You sang your first B-flat.” And I was like, “Wow!” Now it’s like, “Lord, I sing a B-flat in every song, you know!”
‘Cause it’s different styles, it’s different mechanisms, it’s totally separate. Some of the core breathing and enunciation things are the same, but it’s totally different.
DJM: Well, straight tones compared to vibrato, for one thing.
Billy: Yeah, exactly.
And using a fully hooked up resonating sound versus driven head tones through the tops of my head, just to keep it right, that’s the difference. It’s all in technique.
As Dr. Lambert told me, “Either you have it or you don’t. You have it, for what you do.” And he said, “I have it for what I do.”
He could sit here and fill this room up.
He’d just get the fermata—that natural ring in their voice. We used to get the upright piano and push the sustain petal, and sing, and sing, and when you hit the fermata and it rings, and quit singing, and you’ll hear all the piano strings vibrate from your vocals.
I used to love to make the piano strings vibrate! It’s fun! I started doing it at the house. You know how a toaster has springs? I could make the toaster ring! Isn’t that funny? That’s how I learned to sing so loud! “I wonder what I can make ring!”
So voices have always been of interest to me. Learning how they work. The more you can learn about how something works, if it starts to go crazy or if you get sick, then it helps to know what you can sing and in what placements.
We sang “He Locked the Gates” last night, and at the end, I can use a real wide, straight open note—which I think is an B-flat or a B, not too high—but usually I use a mixed tone, ’cause no one can tell the difference.
It doesn’t matter where you flip—look at Pavarotti, he flipped, but I dare anyone to show me where it was.
So it’s all about what it sounds like, how good it sounds, how it works. Everyone has that mechanism in their voice and from day to day, from moment to moment, you just want to do your best.
DJM: Any other thoughts or comments? How can people get in touch?
Billy: I just want to add that I have really enjoyed to talking to you and talking “voice”. I love the guys I work with. I love Dollywood and am very grateful for allowing the Kingdom Heirs to sing the gospel to so many people each year.
Go visit www.kingdomheirs.com, go to www.dollywood.com to look at our schedule. Come visit us—we’d love to have you!
DJM: Thank you very much!