If I had to pick just ONE album as my absolute favorite by the Nelons, this would probably be the one I would pick. I saw the Nelons in concert on October 25, 1987, at Living Waters Church here in Durham, and this album had probably only been out for about a month or so, and they sang all but one song from this album that night. I don’t know if seeing them perform these songs in person has anything to do with my feelings towards this album, but I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to it for over 35 years now! It’s a very happy and upbeat album, and after 2 pretty progressive offerings, “Thanks” definitely leans more towards the traditional side. Also, I always loved the cover shots (front and back), as they also convey a very cheerful and upbeat vibe.
The Nelons’ long-time producer, Ken Harding, who has been producing their albums for the last 9 years, had departed Word/Canaan to form his own successful record company, New Haven Music Group (which is still very active today). With that departure, Lari Goss stepped up to the plate and “Thanks” is the first album in a long time of Nelons recordings that bear his name as Producer and his signature sound. Lari handled all the production aspects of this recording, as well as all vocal, music and orchestral arrangements for the album (also playing piano/keyboards), and essentially, became a crucial part of the Nelons’ sound going forward.
Despite the title, “Happy Ending”, is a song all about beginnings and was written by both Jerry and Kelly and was a fantastic opening song for this upbeat album. As they come around to the bridge, which features the chorus of the hymn “Everybody Will Be Happy Over There”, the group is backed by a choir, and I love the big feel of the song. This is one of the first songs I remember where they used another song as a bridge, and I thought it was one of the coolest things! Of course, it’s done all the time nowadays, but back then, it wasn’t commonplace. I remember they sang this song when I saw them in October 1987, and they had a good time singing it and the crowd seemed to really enjoy it as well. If time permitted a 4th single to be released from this album, this would have been a perfect song to release to radio!
Slowing the pace down, Jerry steps up to sing “Holy Land”, which ranks as one of my favorite Jerry features. I am not sure if it’s an oboe, flute or penny whistle during the opening of the song, but I like it and I also love the steel guitar accents throughout as well. Written by Niles Borop, Dwight Liles and Karen Henley, it’s a little different for the Nelons. It’s definitely one of my favorites from this album, and I also love the soaring harmonies at the end of the song.
Rex, always on the lookout for great songs, discovered and published a couple of songs by up-and-coming songwriter, Carroll McGruder, and “I Lean on You Lord”, which feature both Kelly and Karen (with some step-out lines by Jerry), is the first of two songs that he wrote that are included on this album. The Florida Boys also recorded the song around the same time and eventually took the song to #1 in July 1988, but I always preferred the Nelons version over the Florida Boys’. Of course, Carroll and his group, the McGruders, took the industry by storm just a year or so later, and the Nelons and Florida Boys played a big role in getting Carroll’s music out there initially!
Ronny Hinson penned the peppy, electric guitar and harmonica driven “Let Go and Let God”. Featuring Rex, the group used this as their opening song when I saw them in October 1987. It’s a great “feel good” song and was the perfect concert opener for the group.
As side one comes to an end, the tempo slows down a bit as Karen sings the easy flowing, medium tempo tune, “He Is the King”, which is a song she wrote with Danny Crawford. When Karen left the Nelons in 1990 and started her group, Karen Peck & New River, Danny was a founding member, playing piano and arranging their music. The song is an enjoyable tune and good song to round out the first side.
Side 2 kicks off with the first of 3 power packed songs that are true Nelon classics…the first being the other Carroll McGruder penned tune, “Thanks”, which is my all-time favorite Todd Nelon feature. I love the black gospel feel of the song, and the piano intro with the orchestra coming in with a major swell was just magnificent. I love how the intensity builds with each subsequent chorus after the last verse, and the choir just creates a wonderful, massive wall of sound. The song is a classic and became one of the Nelon’s best loved songs, peaking at #4 in the Singing News chart in August 1988.
The tempo gets kicked into high gear with the Nancy Harmon penned, “I’ve Got a Right”. Featuring Rex on the first verse, Jerry on the second verse and Karen taking the lead on the chorus, the song was an exciting tune for the Nelons, peaking at #6 in April 1988 in the Singing News chart. Sung in the spirit of such songs as “We Shall Wear a Robe and Crown”, “Victory Shall Be Mine” and “Hide Me, Sweet Rock of Ages”, it’s another one of my favorite tunes by the group, and Karen sings the fire out of it!
Kelly’s big feature from this album is the Ronny Hinson penned, “I’ll Talk to the Father”, and I always felt it was one of her best performances ever. With its wonderful strings and steel guitar accents (I adore the steel guitar intro) and Kelly’s silky-smooth vocals and genuine performance, the song was destined for greatness. This was the 3rd single release from this album, and was probably the strongest, as it stayed in the Top 10 for 6 months, peaking at #5 in March 1989.
The tempo picks up as Jerry takes the lead for the song, “The Real People of God”, which also features some step-out lines by Rex. With its edgy feel, the song is a rallying call to the church to stand up and be heard. Honestly, given the overall feel of this album, I never felt this song fit on this recording. This is the only song from this album that the group did not sing that night I saw them in October 1987, and I don’t think the group ever staged the song either. It has a great message, but it just kinda sticks out and doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the songs.
With its wonderful steel guitar intro, Rex closes out the album with the testimony song, “I’d Do It All Over Again”, which was written by Jerry. At this point, Rex had been singing professionally for over 30 years, and if there was ever a song that fit him, this was it and the song was a perfect conclusion to a near perfect album.
I made mention of Stan Whitmire in my last article, and I want to call out another pivotal member of the group at this point, Jeff Stice. Jeff joined the group in late 1986 when Stan departed the group, and Jeff played piano for the Nelons for several years until he joined ranks with Danny Funderburk in 1990 when Perfect Heart was formed. Jeff eventually went on to play for the Kingdom Heirs and was an original member of the Triumphant Quartet in 2002, which is where he remained before going solo in 2014. While with the Nelons, Jeff was a fan favorite, winning the Horizon Individual Award at the 1988 Singing News Fan Awards. Like Stan, Jeff would return to the group (more in a limited capacity, as Jeff was performing solo dates by the time he returned) and continued to play an active role in the group when he was able. Jeff was an excellent pianist and arranger, as well as resident comedian and would add such a unique comedic dimension to the group’s live performances that would leave the audience (as well as members of the group) in stitches. Sadly though, Jeff passed away September 14, 2021.
At the 1987 National Quartet Convention, Karen, once again was crowned Favorite Soprano and Kelly won her first Favorite Alto award during the Singing News Fan Awards (Kelly had won Favorite Female Singer 3 times earlier in the 80’s). Kelly and Karen were the “Sweethearts” of Southern Gospel Music, and the Nelons were one of the top mixed groups at the time. Their biggest “competitors” at the time were the Hinsons, Hemphills and the Hoppers, with a few newer mixed groups following behind such as the Paynes, McKameys, Greenes, Freemans, Perrys and Talleys. Style-wise, the Talleys were probably the most comparable to the Nelons at the time with their contemporary sounds, which the Nelons probably had a big influence on anyway! As the Nelons were leading the charge for the last 7 or 8 years, more groups were being influenced by what they were doing and were hopping on the bandwagon. More unique stylings and sounds were coming on the scene with the abundance of mixed groups and even female groups like the Perry Sisters. It was a great time of growth for our industry during the 80’s, and the Nelons were a big part of that growth!
As I started at the beginning, if I had to nail ONE album by the Nelons as my favorite, “Thanks” would probably be the one. I love the overall upbeat vibe of the album, and while it was one of their more traditional recordings, it still had a slight progressive slant to it on some of the songs. It’s an amazing album that has stood the test of time for me, and it has solidified its place in the Nelon Legacy as one of their most popular albums, obtaining a rare feat with 3 songs topping out in the Top 5. The Nelons were in their prime, and “Thanks” showcased the Nelons at their absolutely best!
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