The country’s oldest gospel-singing competition is this weekend.
The 94th State Annual Singing Convention will be held June 20-22 in the Singing Grove on Main Street in downtown Benson. The competition began in 1921.
The event is free for both the audience and the singers. This year’s headliners are Karen Peck and New River on Saturday and The Harvesters Quartet on Sunday.
About 3,000 people fill the Singing Grove each year.
“It is a unique experience to come out not only to hear the music but just to be a part of the fellowship,” said Dennis Jernigan, one of the event’s organizers. “We just feel like we’re a public, friendly, big Christian family.”
This year’s event starts at 7 p.m. Friday. Six groups from last year’s competition will each sing for about 30 minutes. They are Them4Him, The Hinshaw Family, Carroll Cooke and Determined, The Dunns, Fortress and The Griffins.
The singing resumes at 10 a.m. Saturday when any group can perform one or two songs in what the organizers call round-robin singing. This is a chance for competitors to become familiar with the stage and sound system and for groups to perform that don’t want to compete, Jernigan said. “It’s also a chance for people to highlight their songs, their talents and what they can do,” he said.
The competition starts at 2 p.m. Saturday. Jernigan won’t know how many groups will compete until that weekend: groups sign up between Friday evening and Saturday at 1 p.m.
After Saturday’s competition, round-robin singing returns at 5 p.m. Then The Montgomery Family will perform at 6 p.m. The headliner, Karen Peck and New River, will perform from 7 to 9 p.m. Then it’s more round-robin singing.
The schedule is similar on Sunday. Round robin goes from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and then the competition runs from 2 to 5 p.m. The Harvesters Quartet will perform until the winners are announced at 6 p.m.
To win, groups have to compete on both Saturday and Sunday, Jernigan said. Three judges will rank the competitors each day, and the groups with the highest overall scores win Loving Cups. The competition has a number of categories, including choir, duet and family.
Groups will put up tents around the Singing Grove with CDs for sale. Also, a vendor will sell hot dogs, hamburgers, french fries, onion rings, chicken sandwiches and other fare. Homemade ice cream will be available too.
As far as anyone knows, the Benson sing is the oldest gospel competition in the country, Jernigan said. “There is one that started prior to us, but they actually took a break,” he said.
People come from all over, including Florida, Virginia, South Carolina and many North Carolina towns.
“It is an honor to be part of the tradition of this singing convention,” Jernigan said.
He especially enjoys sharing his passion for doing God’s work with like-minded people. “To be able to do that in a public forum and to share that with people who are there for the same reason, to either sing or to hear it ... it is a fabulous experience,” he said.
Parking in downtown Benson is free. The Singing Grove has bathrooms in the back. For more information, visit gospelsingingconvention.org.