News Articles and Releases > We're Making Music in Nashville (Music at Welch College)

1 Feb 2013

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We're Making Music in Nashville by David Williford Joe Dean, former athletic director at Louisiana State University who also served as an analyst for Southeastern Conference basketball games, was famous for his expression “string music.” That’s what Joe called free throws that fell cleanly through the rim touching nothing but the net—string music. While broadcasting a game in Nashville, he said of a player who was a proficient free throw shooter that he was, “playing a little string music in Nashville, Tennessee!” Music City, USA, is home to a wide variety of music. Best known for country music, Music Row recording studios champion artists from diverse fields. One Nashville institution that has been creating its own brand of music for more than 70 years is Welch College (formerly Free Will Baptist Bible College). After seven decades, we’re still making melody and playing music on Nashville’s storied West End Avenue. Early Years From the college’s earliest days, music has been a staple of the educational experience for students. Choirs, quartets, trios, vocal ensembles, mixed choruses, instrumental ensembles, and more have been a vital part of the Welch College culture. There is a cherished tradition of our students serving Christ and being a blessing to Free Will Baptist churches. Old timers remember the close harmony of The Gospeliers Quartet featuring Bobby Jackson, Robert Picirilli, Eugene Waddell, and James Earl Raper. They were among the earliest groups that traveled on behalf of the college. That tradition continued through the years with groups like The Gleaners, Rejoice, New Mercy, and Judah. The Music Department has been led by an array of professional musicians—Don Clark, David Randlett, Abe Berg, Vernon Whaley, and others. Today’s leadership falls into the capable hands of James Stevens and his music faculty. Today’s Music Dr. James Stevens is highly respected in the field of gospel music and a frequent recipient of the ASCAP Standard Award in Composition. He holds a music degree from Samford University, a Master of Church Music degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Musical Arts in Composition from the University of Kentucky. Well-known as an author and composer, he has published more than 200 original pieces with LifeWay, Shawnee Press, Brentwood-Benson, Hal Leonard, Warner Brothers, and others. Choirs in more than 50 countries around the world have performed his works including China, Japan, Germany, France, and South Korea. His most popular piece, “Without Love…We Have Nothing,” became an international sensation and has been recorded on more than 200 projects. Highly regarded as a clinician, Dr. Stevens has taught piano/improvisation performance for LifeWay, the Baptist Conventions of Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Mississippi; the National Association of Free Will Baptists where he is a member of the Music Commission, and with Sunmin Music in Seoul, Korea. He brings to the campus classrooms more than 20 years of experience as a successful local church music minister in Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Dr. Stevens joined the college faculty in 2004, the longest-tenured Music Department chairman in almost 40 years, and he has dramatically impacted the program. Forty-two percent of music ministry majors since 1987 graduated in the years Dr. Stevens has been with the college. Likewise, half of the male music ministry majors in the last 25 years graduated during his tenure. We continue to see a higher rate of young people enter the music program and graduate than at any time in recent history. Dr. Linda Shipley, accomplished pianist and organist, joined the college faculty in 2001. A former faculty member at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (1979-1994), she is highly regarded as both a music theorist and performer. Faculty and administrators at a number of institutions have commented on Dr. Shipley’s widely acclaimed reputation as a church music instrumentalist and theorist. Her music education background includes a Ph.D. from Florida State University, a master’s degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a bachelor’s degree from Carson-Newman College. She has directed the Allegro School of Music since 1996 and has served as church musician at Inglewood Baptist Church (Nashville) since 1995. Program Impact But as impressive as these credentials are, the key element remains the impact of the faculty on the lives of students. Welch College exists to provide well-trained and equipped workers for Free Will Baptist churches, including musicians. So the question is: Does our Music Department meet the needs of students and the churches where they minister? The answer is a resounding, Yes! Josh Owens, 2008 graduate said: “The Music Department at Welch College helped me develop a strong foundation for biblical church music ministry. The professors expanded my knowledge of musicology while deepening my love for rich theology and excellence in local church worship.” Josh serves as assistant pastor and music minister at Sylvan Park Free Will Baptist Church (Nashville) where every Sunday he uses the principles learned at Welch College. December 2012 graduate, Rebekah Ayers, said: “The Music faculty at Welch College is staffed by intelligent and gifted musicians. They are role models as well as friends, and they exhibit remarkable Christian character. Whether it’s extra tutoring, a kind call, or a gracious smile, I’m thankful for the opportunity to learn from them, both musically and spiritually.” And our students are well received in local churches. As choirs and singing groups travel throughout the denomination, their reception is overwhelmingly positive. For example, Pastor Steve Trail from Dothan, Alabama, recently wrote: “I wanted to let you know how much we appreciate our friends at Welch College and particularly the musical groups we have had with us over the years. I can say without reservation that they have been a blessing in every way possible. The young people and their adult sponsors maintain the highest standards in everything they do. Their deportment and devotion to excellence in ministry have been an inspiration. Our people embraced them with open arms and look forward to having them in their homes and in their hearts. These young people are a credit to Welch College. They serve as examples to the young people of our local church, and I recommend them to any church or pastor.” It is encouraging to hear reports like this and know that our students are impacting lives as they sing and minister. One unique feature of the college’s music program is the excellent faculty-to-student ratio, giving students the opportunity to know their professors and interact on a personal as well as professional basis. Rebekah Ayers said about this dimension of the Music Department: “Welch College’s Music Department uniquely offers intimate classroom environments. With low teacher-to-student ratios, students learn and converse with gifted professors. In classes such as Music Theory, the close classroom setting provides instruction directed to particular student needs. This environment is a wonderful way to learn about music and get the unique instruction one needs.” The Future As churches reach out for trained, qualified, and spiritually discerning musicians, we are convinced that they will find those qualities in graduates of the Welch College music program. The college offers a refreshing blend of biblically rich music, both traditional and modern. If you want to study music in a gospel-saturated environment, taught by eminently qualified professors, Welch College is the place for you. Become part of our college family and make music in Music City! For more information about studying music at Welch College, contact Debbie Mouser in enrollment management at or Dr. James Stevens at

David Williford