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Karen Peck and New River: Watching The River Run
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For 22 years now Karen Peck Gooch and “big sister” Susan Peck Jackson have been traveling and recording together — always with a talented male vocalist — as Karen Peck & New River. The perky blond fronting the trio that has included tenor Jeff Hawes since 2010, started her full-time Southern Gospel career in 1981 with the Rex Nelon Singers. A decade of performing with that venerable group (previously the LeFevres) endeared young Karen to audiences across America and around the world. Still almost as young as they used to be, both sisters have often incorporated their own families into the KPNR touring team, which at times still includes the acclaimed New River Band.

“My children are with me all the time.” Karen says of 21-year-old Matthew and 16-year-old Kari. “I homeschooled both of my children, and still do with Kari. She and I are in the 11th grade.” That’s an old homeschooling mom’s joke, and Karen nails the timing. “But now Matthew is in his third year with Liberty University, online, as a religion major. He also has a Christian rock band called Parachute Parade.” This is not to mention Matthew regularly playing guitar onstage with KPNR … or to leave out Karen’s husband, Rickey Gooch, the band’s road manager and sound-tech, whose longtime presence on tour means Karen’s entire family is on the road.

Susan also home-schooled her son Joseph up through 6th grade. But she and husband David decided to let Joseph pursue sports, which meant public school would be best for him. “It was a very hard time for me to have him off the road and go back home. So I was crying and he said to me, ‘Listen Mom, God has called you to do this — to be on the road and go out and sing — so I know I’m gonna be fine.’ And that made me feel so much better.” (Though there’s always room on the bus for 16-year-old Joseph when he gets homesick for the road.) Susan’s husband is founder/owner of Jackson Steel Guitar, and minds the store back in north Georgia while Susan logs those 200 days of KPNR touring every year.

And three years ago, Jeff Hawes became the new kid on the bus: “As a young boy I only wanted to do two things in life — either be a schoolteacher or a gospel singer.” He got the first part of his dream early on, teaching English in northeast Alabama. But since school let out mid-afternoon and stopped for three months in the summers, Jeff got busy chasing his second dream. He entered talent search competitions and before long, found himself onstage with KPNR. “I love this. It’s a dream come true for me.”

“That is so nice of you to say. Thank you.” Karen replies to the observation that KPNR’s body of recorded songs contains so many original compositions, recorded in so many different styles, and that even their selection of vintage gospel songs veers off the beaten path. “We never planned for it to be that way. We never plan for our albums to have any kind of theme. Y’know, if we don’t get the goosebumps, we don’t record the song. And when we’re done, it’s like the Lord has just placed everything where he wants it to be.” And that’s just the way they roll down New River.

Karen has spoken of rededicating her life to the Lord at age 15 at a Hoppers concert and telling the Lord, “If you give me a chance to sing, I’ll never stop.” Thirty-two years and counting almost makes one think God took the teenager up on her offer. But this self-confessed “blonde” has such a sanguine personality that long-term strategic planning couldn’t possibly be part of the recipe. Even the name “New River” was famously derived from a decorated sweater worn by a pianist friend. But it’s a name which has grown to mean what Karen and Susan have made of it — staying in the flow.

How many artists have an original tune about Lazarus as their signature song? “Four Days Late,” recounting Jesus’ inexplicable delay in coming to aid his sick friend is far and away, KPNR’s best-loved recording. And now they’re doing it again on the new Revival CD with “Dancing Like Lazarus,” a sly melody built to a stunning crescendo with sweet abandon by tenor Jeff Hawes.

Or those Bible chapter songs. There may be some gospel tunes that include the name of a book of the Bible, but other than the 23rd Psalm, it’s extremely rare for a lyric to mention both a book and chapter. We’re not talking about quoting a verse, but actually singing the name of the book and a particular chapter number. KPNR named their 2008 CD Ephesians Chapter One. And here they go again in the new recording "I’m Saved", singing: If you’re young or old, or rich or poor, you can start in Romans three...

Karen laughs out loud at the thought that KPNR would be the only Southern Gospel group with two songs about Lazarus and two songs featuring the name of a book and chapter from the Bible. “That is so funny. Nobody has ever mentioned that before.” And not many SoGo stars have appeared in a major Hollywood motion picture (Joyful Noise with Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah). “I’d been prayin’ over the past several months that the Lord would give me a chance to be in another one.” And lookee here: late this summer she was invited to play a role in an upcoming film entitled Redeemed.

You can’t make this stuff up, folks. In fact, Karen Peck Gooch wears such serendipity like a badge of honor: “When we’re in fellowship with the Lord, then we don’t worry. That keeps us on track, and that fellowship with Him is the main thing we focus on.”

Like the rivers of water
The Lord turns it wherever He wishes..

(Proverbs 21:1)


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