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Gaither continues gospel legacy

The man famous for his “Homecoming” tours will be making a homecoming of sorts this weekend at Packard Music Hall.

Bill Gaither is an Indiana native, but the gospel music icon recorded his first live album at the Warren theater about 50 years ago.

“We had already recorded ‘He Touched Me,’ ‘Because He Lives,’ some pretty big songs,” Gaither said during a telephone interview. “The producer said something about how there’s something special about singing them in front of a crowd.”

Gaither said they’d always had good audiences in northeast Ohio, and Packard was picked for the recording.

When asked what year that concert happened, Gaither joked, “Probably 1894.”

Gaither isn’t quite that old, but the 83-year-old singer and songwriter has been a leading figure in gospel and contemporary Christian music for more than a half century. The week after his local appearance, Gaither will be in Nashville for the 50th Dove Awards. He won songwriter of the year at the inaugural ceremony, the first of more than 30 Dove Awards he’s collected (as well as six Grammy awards).

The Gaither Vocal Band has been one of his primary musical outlets since early ’80s. The current lineup includes Wes Hampton, tenor; Adam Crabb, lead; Todd Suttles, baritone; and Reggie Smith, tenor, with Gaither on bass, but about 20 singers have passed through the group, including such gospel / contemporary Christian stars as Larnelle Harris, Russ Taff and David Phelps.

“It’s evolved that way,” Gaither said. “You go out and try to find the best singer you can find, and if you look at the alumni, we’ve had a lot of incredible singers … That’s one of the bonuses of singing in this choir. You’ll get exposed to some people you wouldn’t have had a chance to sing to.”

The group’s latest album is “Good Things Take Time,” released earlier this year. Gaither co-wrote the title track with his wife, Gloria, and Matthew Browder, and like many of the 700-plus songs he’s co-written, it draws upon his own experiences.

“Every project we do comes from living long enough and building up ideas we think could make a difference in people’s lives,” he said.

The song was inspired by all the times he’s told his children and grandchildren, “Be patient. Good things take time.”

Gaither said he’s lived in the same house for 55 years, and he planted just about every tree on the property.

“You can get fast growth on a willow tree, but it won’t last,” Gaither said. “If you plant an oak, it comes up slowly, but it will still be there 100, 200 years later. Take a look at nature; take a look at life. Don’t get discouraged. Good things take time.”

Saturday’s concert, which also will include performances by singers Charlotte Ritchie and Gene McDonald as well as guitarist / comedian Kevin Williams, will include songs from the new album, but Gaither said they also try to include many of those beloved songs that have made their way into church hymnals and into their listeners’ lives.

“Most nights we change up what we do to keep it fresh for the guys who are singing,” he said. “We don’t have set set every night, more of a basic outline.”

Despite a career that dates back to 1956, Gaither doesn’t talk like a man contemplating retirement. At one point during the conversation, he quoted the lyrics of “Love Like I’m Leavin’,” a song co-written by his son, Benjamin, that is on the new album.

“‘I’m gonna love like I’m leaving / Give more than I’m receiving / Laugh until it takes my breath away / I’m gonna say what needs saying / Pray what needs praying / I’m gonna love like I’m leaving today’ — Those are pretty good words to live by.”

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