In their graves near the old country church
And sometime I may rest, with the friends I love best
In a grave near the old country church.
– “The Old Country Church”
BURNWELL – The rural church that gave birth to the Happy Goodman Family celebrated its homecoming and Decoration Day on Sunday, June 1.
Tanya Goodman Sykes, daughter of singer/songwriter Rusty Goodman, and her husband, Michael, revived some familiar hymns as well as Goodman classics for the crowd that gathered at Bible Church of God.
Kris Goodman, son of Sam Goodman and pastor of Victory Church in Madisonville, Kentucky, delivered a sermon on the inviting heart of God.
The widows of Rusty and Sam Goodman were also in attendance.
“We have sung in cathedrals, in Israel and in concert halls around the world, but there is something special about coming here. I always get sentimental because even though I didn’t grow up here, it just feels like home,” Sykes said.
The eight Goodman siblings – Rusty, Sam, Howard, Bobby, Gussie Mae, Stella, Eloise and Ruth – were raised approximately a mile from the church. In their youth, they attended what was then known as the Original Church of God.
After gaining worldwide fame, the Goodmans returned to Burnwell each year for Decoration Day. The service had to be held on the grounds rather than inside the church because hundreds of people would come out to hear the group sing.
“They were the happiest bunch you have ever been around. You wouldn’t believe how happy,” said Dan Nix, a first cousin of the Goodmans through his mother.
The eldest child, Howard, felt a call to preach when he was 15 years old. His first revival was held in 1939 in Carbon Hill.
Although the family could not afford formal music training, Howard Goodman practiced on church pianos throughout the county. He would later be famous for flailing his arms up and down while pounding the piano keys on the Goodmans’ signature up-tempo tunes.
Goodman organized his musically-talented siblings into the Happy Goodman Family in the 1940s.
The version of the group that gained the most popularity was formed in the mid 1960s with brothers Howard, Sam, Rusty and Bob along with Howard’s wife, Vestal.
Their album “The Happy Gospel of The Happy Goodmans” won a Grammy in 1968. They earned a second Grammy 10 years later.
Rusty Goodman penned many of the Goodmans’ biggest hits, including “I Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now,” “Leavin’ on My Mind” and “I Believe He’s Coming Back.”
Goodman died in 1990 of cancer. In 1997, he became the first of his family to be inducted into the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
Vestal and Howard followed in 2002 and 2003, respectively.
Rusty Goodman is buried in the cemetery near Bible Church of God along with four of his siblings and their parents, Drew Sam and Gussie Mae Goodman.
Although the Goodmans lived all over the United States throughout their career, Sykes said there was never a question where her father’s final resting place would be.
“They always had a kinship with this place. They had a real affinity for the red clay of Alabama. This was where they grew up, where they found their faith and where they started singing,” Sykes said.
Sykes has fond memories of her family making the trek to Alabama each summer when she was a child, and she continued the tradition with her own daughters.
“Once they got old enough to understand funerals and cemeteries, I wanted them to understand the sweetness in it and not to be scared,” Sykes said. “So I borrowed from Disney and talked to them about how this is part of the circle of life. Poppy, their granddad, is buried here, and now he is in heaven. One day we’ll be in heaven and then our children will be here thinking about us.”
According to a 2012 Baptist Press article, Southern families have been gathering in the late spring or early summer to honor their dead loved ones since before the Civil War.
“Southern Christians…tended to reject the autumn observances of remembering the Christian dead that focused on All Saints Day or All Souls Day (Nov. 1 and 2) as practiced by some faith denominations. Instead, they placed Decoration Day in the late spring at a time that nature itself symbolized resurrection,” the article stated.
Typical activities include cleaning up the church cemetery, placing fresh flowers on the graves, the return of family and church members who have moved away from the area and a dinner on the grounds.
Nix said he recently read an article that explained why Decoration Day is no longer as widespread an observance as it once was in the South.
“The people who go to decorations are the ones who believe in the resurrection of the body and everlasting life. Modern generations don’t believe in that. They want closure, to bury them and forget them,” Nix said.
During his sermon, Kris Goodman noted that the afterlife has always been at the forefront of the minds of his family members.
“The Goodmans knew there was a heaven. They wanted to go there and they wanted everybody to go with them,” he said.