“I Wouldn’t Take Nothin’ For My Journey Now”The Queen of Gospel Music was laid to rest on New Year’s Day in Nashville, Tennessee. It was a dignified, even stately service. There were proclamations made and tributes read from the governor of Tennessee and the President of the United States. But since the queen being honored was Vestal Goodman, the service was also full of laughter, stories and lots of good music. The beloved, hanky-waving icon may have indeed been royalty — but she was also, in the words of one of her favorite phrases, “a darlin’.”
More than 1,000 people gathered at Christ Church, and they bowed their heads as the pink rose-covered casket entered the sanctuary. The plaintive sound of a steel guitar playing over the church speakers raised a few of those heads, as people tried to figure out why the male voice singing “Mansion Over The Hilltop” sounded so familiar.
Country music legend George Jones, seated in a pew with his wife Nancy, smiled with pleasure when Vestal’s unmistakable tone rang out as she joined him on the chorus of the duet they recorded together just last year.
There were other celebrated faces among the many mourners — Dottie Rambo, Vince Gill, Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith — as well as almost every single one of Vestal’s Home-coming friends, who completely filled the massive choir loft.
The Rev. L.H. Hardwick, pastor of Christ Church, began the service with the invocation and Scripture reading. His brief, affectionate remarks set the tone for the proceedings as he observed, “Vestal was always talking about heaven… This is a tender hour, without question. But it is not an hour of tragedy.”
Homecoming artist Joy Gardner, whose husband Landy directs the renowned Christ Church Choir, read a message from the family. She then led the congregation in a soaring version of Vestal’s favorite hymn, “Blessed Assurance.”
Dodie Osteen, the widow of well-known Houston pastor John Osteen, walked to the platform next. She is a small energetic woman, a preacher herself, and it was easy to see why she and Vestal would have been drawn to each other. She described with great fondness her encounters with Vestal over the years, describing her friend as “just so much fun, and the most loveable person I have ever met.” She ended by saying, “I bet Howard met her at the gate and said, ‘Baby, what took you so long?’ ”
Beth Chapman is Alabama’s State Auditor and a longtime fan of Vestal Goodman. Obviously moved by the service so far, she stood behind the podium, looked up and said with a smile, “I’m a Southern Baptist so I’m not really allowed to do this, but…” To the delight of everyone present, she raised both her hands in the air and shouted, “HALLELUJAH!” Ms. Chapman presented the family with the flag that had flown in Vestal’s honor at the Alabama courthouse and announced plans to rename Highway 75 near her birthplace of Fyffe, Alabama the Vestal Goodman Highway.
As Janet Paschal approached the microphone, the soundtrack to her self-penned song “How Are Things At Home” began. She sang it with elegant simplicity, and quietly left the stage.
The Rev. Martin Gorman was next, an old friend who spoke of Vestal’s abiding love for her family, especially the littlest ones. Babies, she once told him, were “the best thing since sunshine!” Rev. Gorman also recalled a difficult time in his life in which Vestal flew to his side. She offered encouragement, but in her usual no-nonsense style. “Vestal always spoke her heart,” he said, “and I respected her for it.”
The Homecoming choir, featuring a stunning solo turn by Kim Hopper, swung into a spirited version of one of Vestal’s classics, “What A Lovely Name.” In true Homecoming fashion, it fclt so good they just had to keep going, so Kim’s voice raised the rafters again, and the song ended with tears and smiles all ’round.
Bill Gaither then walked to the podium. He began his tribute with a story that had happened only two weeks ago, when he had gone to Vestal’s house to pick up one of her famous coconut cakes that she had made just for him.
Bill spoke honestly of his dear friend, describing her “like all the rest of us — on a good day, we’re fantastic. And on other days, we leave a lot to be desired!” He continued, “In a way, I think I appreciated the spiritual side of Vestal even more because I got to know her human side. I loved her humanness, because it surely gave me hope for my journey.”
Next, country superstar Vince Gill spoke respectfully of Vestal’s musical artistry, and her rare ability to move people with her voice. He stood alone with his guitar and sang his achingly beautiful song, “Go Rest High On That Mountain”, with the Homecoming friends softly backing him on the chorus.
When Rev. Johnny Minick, a lifelong family friend who sang with The Happy Goodmans for many years stepped up to the microphone, he began by saying, “I’m torn between weeping and shouting — I just might do both!” Minick shared memories of the entire Goodman family, directing special words to several seated in the sanctuary. The crowd also laughed uproariously as he made a veiled reference to Vestal’s habit of concealing her money and valuables “on her person.”
Tanya Goodman Sykes, Vestal’s niece, provided one of the most sweetly poignant moments of the day as she performed her father Rusty’s song, “Look For Me.”
Rick Goodman was the final speaker. Obviously struggling to compose himself at first, he grew steadily stronger as he temporarily abandoned his notes and spoke from his heart. He shared personal moments from the last weeks of Vestal’s life, and his tears and laughter were reflected on the faces of everyone present. Rick then gratefully acknowledged by name many, many of the special friends throughout her life and ended by pledging, on behalf of the remaining Goodman family, to continue his parent’s lifetime commitment to ministry.
Vestal Goodman’s memorial service concluded, appropriately enough, with glorious gospel music. The Homecoming choir sang their hearts out. A reverent version of “Amazing Grace” was followed by an explosively joyful “Living in Canaan Land.” And as everyone began to file out, the last sound they heard was Vestal’s own irreplaceable voice filling the sanctuary, with song after jubilant song of praise to the God she so faithfully served every day of her life.
NOTE: At Homecoming concerts, Bill and the Homecoming Friends share a lovely tribute to Vestal and Jake. At a concert in Florida recently, a complete out-of-the-blue thing happened. Suddenly, as Vestals songs were sung, large white handerchiefs came out of purses and pockets, and all over the auditorium and there was a flurry of white. You’ll want to bring your hankies next time you attend a Homecoming concert in honor of Vestal!
Bill Read The Following Tribute At
Two weeks ago today I came to Nashville to spend a day of a
combination of fun and business — more fun than business.
Vestal had told me that preceding weekend, “Now let me know
when you are in town, because I’ll have ‘your cake’ ready.” You
know you have reached a certain level of success when you have
created something so fantastic, so phenomenal, that all you do is
to refer to your creation as, “the cake.” Of course,
she was talking about what has now become internationally
known as her original Vestal Goodman
Vestal did indeed share her coconut cake secret — she gave her recipe to Gloria Gaither who then shared it with the world. Click here to see the recipe for Vestal Goodman's Famous Coconut Cake!