As a lad in rural Macon County in the 1940s, Key Dillard slightly hesitated when faced with which of his God-given gifts to pursue with gusto: basketball or music.
His first love proved to be basketball, which rewarded him with an athletic scholarship to Cumberland Junior College, but decades later, the sweet sound of Southern gospel harmonies, a birthright from his parents, reclaimed his energies and pulled him back into the musical fold.
For the past 18 years he has presided over the Do Re Mi Gospel Music Academy, which normally meets the middle two weeks of June on the singing school’s 22-acre campus in Trousdale County, a few miles southeast of Hartsville and 15 miles north of Lebanon.
Dillard, 80, also is in the process of establishing the Do Re Mi Shape Note Museum, which takes its name from the shaped musical notes that represent the eight syllables from the scale: Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do.
The school is a tribute of sorts to the all-day singings of yesteryear, featuring Southern gospel vocalists, often talented quartets, which performed for thousands who congregated inside and on the grounds of courthouses and church houses.
“The academy’s purpose is to educate, preserve and promote shape-note gospel music,” said Dillard. “We’re establishing the museum for shape-note music because there is not one in the country. We have not done a very good job of capturing the history of our music here in Middle Tennessee.”
Last year the singing academy attracted more than 120 students, ranging in age from 4 to folks in their 70s. The median age of its pupils, who mostly come from across the Southeast and Midwest, is 17.
Murfreesboro’s Isabelle Rood, 16, a rising senior at Redeemer Classical Academy, had never heard of shape notes until attending Do Re Mi Academy in 2017.
“I was not sure if I wanted to go. My grandmother had heard about Do Re Mi and knew some of the people who taught there and suggested it. I had always been into music and learning about it,” said the alto singer.
“I’ve learned a lot about basic music theory and piano theory and how to direct congregations in songs. My singing has improved. Now, instead of singing using my head voice, I use my diaphragm and am breathing a lot better when I do sing,” said Rood, who has been to the academy the past three years and plans to return in 2021.
The academy was set to convene June 7-20, but it’s a different world in the spring of 2020.
“I’ve been doing this 35 years now and never experienced anything like this,” Dillard said of the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s just a terrible time we live in when we can’t accomplish what we would like. The board has decided not to open the academy this June.”
The Do Re Mi Gospel Music Academy originated on the Cumberland University campus in 2002 and shifted to its present site in 2010.
“I was looking in Trousdale County because it was the focal point of all the Do Re Mi students that were attending in the early days. I drove down every littler rabbit hole in Trousdale County and then saw a for-sale sign for 22 acres,” recalled Dillard. “I could see the forest around like God was telling me, ‘This is where I want you to be.’ ’’
The music man was born and raised in the Macon County community of Galen, where his parents farmed and ran a country store.
“My mom and dad were always singing and teaching the shape-note music: Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do. Shape-note music was in its heyday, and every little country church would have a singing school, primarily to teach church members how to sing. These were mainly Baptist, Presbyterian, Church of Christ, Church of God and Methodist churches.
“A lot of the little country churches would come together in spring and fall and hold a singing convention. They were mainly held in county courthouses in towns like Lafayette, Lebanon, Carthage, Hartsville and Gallatin. Everyone would come to the singing convention to see their friends and family, and it became like a homecoming, a great day for worship and family reunion,” he said about the gatherings.
Dillard noted that since most attendees couldn’t get into the packed courthouses, large speakers would be placed in the windows so those outside could hear the featured vocalists.
(The Smith County Singing Convention of June 7, 1925, attracted about 5,000 to the courthouse in Carthage.)
The Southern gospel music enthusiast said many of his earliest memories were of accompanying his parents when they taught shaped-note music lessons in country churches.
“I had no interest in it,” he confessed. “Dad and Mom wanted me to learn to play the piano, but when I was 4 or 5, Dad bought me a basketball, and that basketball thrilled me to no end. Mom taught me a new gospel song when I was 5 and had me make my first performance at the Macon County Singing Convention in Lafayette while I stood on the piano bench and she played the piano.
“As a child I would go and participate with the singings, but my heart wasn’t there. I probably took piano lessons for five years off and on. Finally, Mom and Dad gave up on it. I continued to go with them to these singing schools and attend the singings and sing at church. When I was a junior in high school, the county singing convention elected me as vice president of the county convention, and they rotated the administration of the convention, so I was voted president of the Macon County Singing Convention as a senior. But I was playing basketball more than singing. It was like God was saying, ‘I won’t push you on the music, but I’ll get you later.’ ”
A return to singing
Dillard completed his college degree at Middle Tennessee State University and taught school and coached basketball and football in Lafayette, Portland and Cookeville before beginning a 26-year career with the state department of education. He and his wife, Shirley, met at a singing convention, have two children and five grandchildren, and are longtime members of Murfreesboro Missionary Baptist Church, where they served 26 years as music directors.
Organized in 1934, the Tennessee State Gospel Singing Convention is still rolling along and is set this year for Sept. 11-12 at Murfreesboro Missionary Baptist Church.
It was in the late 1970s that Dillard re-entered the world of singing conventions.
“My mom had passed away, and we were living in Murfreesboro. Mr. Oliver Jennings, a singing friend of the family, called and invited us to a singing in Franklin County. We rode with them down there and that’s where the burning desire hit me. From 1977 until 1983, my family trailed all over the Southeast to singings and singing conventions on the weekends,” he reminisced.
“In Georgia, they had just held a comprehensive singing school where the kids lived on a college campus for two weeks. I saw what was happening in Georgia and the thought came, ‘Why couldn’t we do something like this in Middle Tennessee?’ ”
Dillard shared the notion with like-minded friends and approached Cumberland Junior College president Ernest Stockton Jr. in early 1983. The group decided to organize a singing school. That summer, on the same campus where Dillard concluded his basketball career, he helped found the Cumberland Valley School of Gospel Music. He presided over the singing school for 14 years.
In 2002, Dillard started a new gospel music venture at Cumberland, and more than 150 students participated that first year. In 2005, they named it the Do Re Mi Gospel Music Academy and in 2010 relocated to Trousdale County.
“The way we approach it, we want to take a person and identify where they are with their music, and we place them at that level and teach them all they can learn in a two-week time,” he said.
The campus, which features a deck offering a panoramic view of the Cumberland River, boasts two dormitories, a lodge, classrooms, an office/museum and manager’s home. When in session the school offers an 18-member faculty and a volunteer support staff of two dozen or so. Eighty percent of the students stay in the dorms. The classes run 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m., with breaks for meals and recreation, and then classes go again 6-9 p.m.
A night program also operates concurrently for people who work day jobs and reside in Wilson, Sumner, Macon, Trousdale, Smith, Rutherford, Putnam and Allen counties
The non-profit school rents its facilities for weddings, corporate retreats, business and education seminars, family reunions and birthdays. Its lodge seats 100.
As for the shape-note museum, he said, “It is born out of our mission of preserving this music. We’re still in the beginning phases. We have received a number of donations and memorabilia from folks near and far. Our goal was to open it during our session in June but now we’ll probably look forward to open it fully next year.”
Ideally, Dillard would love to find an old church building no longer in use that could be moved to the campus and converted into the museum.
The former basketball star and long-time champion of shape-note singing said, “I love this music and how God has really blessed us. We just want the next generation to know how precious this music is and how inspiring it has been to peoples’ lives.”
DO RE MI GOSPEL MUSIC ACADEMY
This singing school, which has a mission to educate, preserve and promote shape-note gospel music, opened in 2002 at Cumberland University and began meeting on its own campus overlooking the Cumberland River in Trousdale County in 2010. The school typically convenes the second and third weeks of June but will be closed this summer due to the coronavirus. Students range in age from 3 to 70-something and are served by a mostly volunteer staff of 40 with 18 faculty members. The academy is in the act of establishing the Do Re Mi Shape Note Museum. To donate shape-note memorabilia go to doremigospelmusicacademy.com.