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The Martins’ big dream entails gospel music that glorifies God

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (BP)–For southern gospel’s The Martins, whose new album is titled “Dream Big,” the brother/sister/sister group knows how big dreams can grow, considering, for example, the 800-square-foot rural cabin without electricity or other modern conveniences where they formed close family bonds — and a musical style that has earned them Dove Awards and a Grammy nomination.
“A lot of people called them hard times,” recalled Joyce Martin McCollough, of her years at Hamburg, Ark., with brother and sister Jonathan Martin and Judy Martin Hess.
“For us as children, we didn’t see it as such at the time because we had loving parents. We were the only people we knew that didn’t have electricity, but we weren’t like, ‘poor so they cut off our electricity;’ it was a choice Mom and Dad made when we moved to the farm.”
Their last project, 1997’s “Light of the World,” earned the trio a Dove Award for Gospel Album of the Year and a Grammy nomination for Best Southern Gospel, Country Gospel or Bluegrass Gospel Album.
In 1996 and 1997, they also received Dove Awards for Southern Gospel Song of the Year for the singles, “Out of His Great Love” and “Only God Knows.”
The group tours nationwide and are frequently seen on stage with Bill Gaither during his “Homecoming” events.
And recently they were honored in their native state with the Governor’s Award for Excellence, presented in a ceremony at the Arkansas state capitol. Gov. Mike Huckabee proclaimed “The Martins Day” as part of the recognition.
The brother/sister/sister group acknowledged the honor and their pride in their Arkansas — and Arkansas Baptist — heritage, from their earliest singing at Tillou Baptist Church just across the Louisiana border and, later, Temple Baptist Church in Crossett, Ark.
Accepting the award as “a great honor,” McCollough said, “When you win an award from the Gospel Music Association, it’s your peers, from people who appreciate you because of the talent you have.
“When you’re presented with an award like this, from someone who doesn’t do what we do, but recognizes that as something honorable and that it is above and beyond, it’s a great honor.”
“We never felt underprivileged,” McCollough said of their childhood home, in which light was provided by coal oil lamps and a Coleman lantern and the family stored food in a kerosene refrigerator. “We actually were popular in school because we were ‘cool — those kids that don’t have any lights.'”
The three credit their parents, J.W. and Wilma Martin, along with Tillou Baptist Church, with developing their musical talents.
“When we were children,” McCollough said, “I can remember Mom and Dad making us get into the music room. We loved the singing part, but we hated the discipline of having to do it right. Several times throughout our growing up, at least one of us detested the practice thing or didn’t want to do it anymore — especially Jonathan, because Mom loved making us cute little outfits to sing in.”
“The little ribbon bow ties never really was me,” he admitted.
“When our gift was being nurtured at home, it was also being nurtured at church because we were in Sunday school and you always sang in Sunday school,” McCollough said. “Church was where we sang the most. The songs we sing (as performers) are influenced by the songs we sang at church and at home.”
At first, their musical performances were informal, usually part of their home church’s “special music times where anybody who wanted to sing could,” Martin explained.
Others soon noted the harmonies being produced by the youngsters were something special. “I remember the first time anyone saying out loud that nobody else can do this at this age,” McCollough recalled. “There was a lady in Louisiana who played piano for a local group, The Civils. She was playing piano for that group and they said the Martin kids are here and they can sing.
“I was 10, Jonathan was 8 and Judy was 7,” she said. “She told my mom, ‘They sang three-part harmony!’ That’s the first time I realized, ‘Every kid can’t do this?'”
The siblings began traveling locally on weekends with The Civils to fifth Sunday singings.
During the summer of 1985, the trio made a commitment to full-time ministry and were commissioned by their local church at that time, Temple Baptist in Crossett.
“We don’t consider ourselves professionals, even now,” said Martin. “We pretty much surrendered to the full-time ministry is how we feel about it. I was 14 years old. We had to quit public school because of the travel schedule and began home school.”
Jonathan began traveling with The Mix-out Boys gospel group. McCollough recalled that following a performance, “he came home and said, ‘This is what I want to do. God gave us a gift and I think I can do this.’ Both of us (sisters) had felt like this is what we’d like to do, but we wanted to be a trio and when Jonathan said, ‘Let’s do it’, we said, ‘We’re ready.'” Their dream to spread the gospel as The Martins was born.
Although their talent could have been used in secular music, the three stuck with southern gospel “because it was so much a part our lives,” Hess said. “The church and God’s people, that’s what we knew and grew up with. We never really have been exposed to anything secular in the music field. We don’t have anything against secular music, but we have a yearning in our hearts to reach people and we know the best way to do that is to speak our convictions and let them know about the hope, the peace and the love everyone is searching for.”
While many Christian artists may see themselves as performers, The Martins emphasized they are ministers. “Scripture tells us some plant seeds, some water and some harvest those seeds,” Martin explained. “We do a lot of watering in our ministry. That is very important to us. God sent songs our way that spoke to us. If God speaks to us, then maybe someone else’s story is different than mine, but their needs are the same and it will speak to them, too.”
After a total of seven albums, the awards and nominations and resulting fame, did any of the three dream they would achieve the success they have? “No,” Hess answered. “We definitely didn’t have a direction in saying, ‘We want to be known or sell this many records or be famous.’ Our focus since the beginning has been reaching people. We didn’t know if that was going to remain regional or how God was going to use us. We never saw it as something huge.”
But they are huge, performing 160 to 180 concerts a year and with a fan mail database of about 50,000 names. Fame, however, can have a negative side, they acknowledged.
“The down side is that Jonathan is away from his family all the time and I’m away from my husband some of the time,” Hess said. “It’s almost like a contradiction of what we’re speaking and encouraging people to do and what we’re actually living. We’re trying to tell people how to achieve that and we’re not achieving that ourselves.”
“Since we’ve been on the Gaither videos, there’s not been a lot of places we’ve been where somebody doesn’t recognize you,” Martin said. “It’s a neat thing, but at the same time, you feel like you have to be ‘on’ all the time.”
“Fame is a weird thing in the Christian community,” McCollough agreed. “If it’s not balanced with God’s graciousness, it can get out of balance. Sometimes you wonder, ‘Did they (make a decision) because we’re The Martins or they wanted to be seen coming to the altar or did God really do a work in their life tonight?'”
The young trio has reached what may seem the peak of their careers. What’s in The Martins’ future? “We don’t know,” Martin said. “We don’t want to put God into a box and say, ‘Here’s where I think the Lord wants us to go.’ God has blessed us with godly direction before.”
Regardless of the group’s future plans, they must listen to him for direction, McCollough added.
“God’s dream is for the world to acknowledge Christ as Savior of the world,” she emphasized. “Not only through a chosen career but a God-ordained ministry, God is giving us the opportunity to get in on what he’s dreaming. Our part is to be faithful to do what he’s dreaming.”

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  • Russell N. Dilday