ORIGINALLY WRITTEN LAURA CAMPBELL
It began years ago with a cast-off fiddle that young Charles Woelk found in his neighbor’s trash bin.
Six months later he bought a guitar for $3 and taught himself to play his beloved bluegrass.
Now, the father of the Brothers & Sisters of Goessel plays on stage with his four children and their spouses in a band known for the “homegrown gospel” style he taught them.
“My dad has always liked the good ol’ gospel songs,” said Anita Goertzen of Goessel, the only daughter in the Woelk family and a vocalist in the band.
The sounds of “old-time gospel with a bluegrass twist” were commonplace in their Goessel home, she said.
“When we were younger, my dad would always play guitar and on Sunday afternoons, we’d play and sing,” Goertzen said. “We never really did anything for anybody, though, just around home.”
While Goertzen played the piano growing up, her three brothers-Mark, Bob and Rick-initially had little interest in playing their father’s style of music, she said.
“My brothers didn’t have too much interest in guitar,” she said. “Then as they got older, they each started to learn how to play.”
Now the brothers can each be found on stage with a different stringed instrument in hand-Mark on rhythm guitar, Bob on mandolin and Rick on lead guitar.
Joining them on instrumentals for the Brothers & Sisters are Goertzen’s husband, Arlen, on the upright bass, Rick’s wife, Denise, on the banjo and Charles on the dobro, or slide guitar.
Mark’s wife, Harriet, and Bob’s wife, Kathy, join Goertzen on vocals, although all the band members sing except for Charles and Mark, said Goertzen.
Their mother, Mary Ann, played steel guitar for years, although never with Brothers & Sisters.
But her contributions to the group still have been crucial.
“She’s our key babysitter,” Goertzen said. “And she runs the sound board.”
The family began singing as a group for people outside their family in the early ’80s, Goertzen said, mostly for the nursing homes and churches around Goessel that continue to comprise the bulk of their performing schedule.
The older people in these places tend to appreciate the group’s traditional repertoire, she said.
“When we do a lot of the old gospel songs in some of the (nursing) homes, it brings tears to people’s eyes,” Goertzen said.
Cousins of the Woelk family originally played in the group as well, at times bringing the number on stage up to a dozen or so.
Eventually the band was whittled down to just the immediate family members who are now in it, Goertzen said.
“It just got too hard to get everybody together to practice,” she said. “It was hard enough with just our family-extended family was even more difficult.”
Now the close-knit group not only performs on the road as a traditional bluegrass gospel band but also leads Sunday morning contemporary worship at its home church, Goessel Mennonite.
“That’s been wonderful because that’s a whole separate style of music, and it’s a totally different mission,” said Bob, who lives in Hillsboro with wife Kathy but joins his family in Goessel on Sunday mornings.
“What we try to do here at the Goessel church is that we try to bring that contemporary feel to our service,” he said. “More and more are really interested in that style of service.”
When the Brothers & Sisters do hit the road, their schedule takes them to nearby Kansas towns as well as out of state for bluegrass festivals.
Events like the Kansas Sampler Festival allow the group to share the gospel message of their songs with those who might never come to a church to hear it, Bob said.
“That’s a really wide open mission for us,” he said. “We don’t really like to think of ourselves as entertainers as much as messengers.”
The group has even had opportunity to take their music and message “off Branson,” Bob said.
“We play Willard, Mo.-just outside of Springfield, just outside of Branson,” he said with a laugh. “That’s as close as we’ve gotten to the big time.”
The band will head back out to Missouri this fall to play at the Garden Valley Jamboree Bluegrass Festival Oct. 6-9 at Lester Foster’s Park in Clinton.
They will join 13 other groups in an annual festival that Charles and Mary Ann have faithfully attended for years, Charles said.
“We got invited to that, which is quite an honor,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll do a good job there.”
He said the group takes a lengthy trip like this one about once a year, funded by what little donations they receive at their concerts.
Charles said he enjoys traveling outside Kansas to parts of the Midwest-such as Arkansas and Missouri-where bluegrass music has always been more popular than in his hometown.
“You go to some other towns where that’s all they do,” he said. “It just wasn’t here, and it still isn’t that much.”
But Charles said there’s still a demand in this area for the music of the Brothers & Sisters, even some people who will join in with the “clappin’ and hootin’ and hollerin'” they love to hear.
“Some people are really hungry for this type of music,” he said.
The group’s repertoire of more than 40 songs includes versions of such classic hymns as “I’ll Fly Away” and “The Love of God” as well as other gospel songs such as “Standing on the Solid Rock” and “Life’s a Railway.”
“We really have hours of music that we can play,” Bob said. “And there’s so much good music out there that we can add to it.”
He said the group would like to do another recording of the music they have added since their latest album, “Standing on the Solid Rock” which they recorded five years ago at Krehbiel Recording in Newton.
This album and a previous one are both available on CD for $16 and on cassette for $10 at their concerts or by calling 620-367-8373.
Rick also has a solo album, “Taken by the Wind,” of songs he wrote and recorded at home on his computer, available free of charge at their concerts or at 620-367-8307.
Bob said the group has a fairly busy schedule this summer and fall, compared to past years when careers and kids have kept the Brothers & Sisters from performing as much.
Most of the band members hold full-time jobs in Goessel and Hillsboro, except for Charles, who does part-time maintenance work for son Mark, head of environmental services at Bethesda Home in Goessel.
Rick also works maintenance at Bethesda, while wife Denise serves in the Bethesda kitchen as baker.
Anita is Goessel’s city clerk, and husband Arlen is ground supervisor at Schowalter Villa in Hesston.
In Hillsboro, Harriet works at Emprise Bank, Kathy at the post office and Bob teaches English at the high school.
They will make time in the their work schedules for several upcoming performances- at an outdoor worship service in Durham Sunday, July 3, at the Chisholm Trail Festival in Mulvane Aug. 19 and at Spring Lake Resort near Hutchinson Aug. 20.
Family ties have kept the band together over the years when others have disbanded, Bob said.
“One of the reasons we’ve lasted this long is because we have to put up with each other no matter what,” he said.
“And that’s been a good thing.”