BRISTOL, Va. — Traffic hummed speedily along Interstate 81 on a recent Tuesday evening.
Inside nearby Redeemer Lutheran Church on Island Road in Bristol, Virginia, a band of women dressed in matching outfits gathered. In two rows, they stood shoulder to shoulder. Jane McKamey faced them. A pitch pipe in hand, she raised the small device to her mouth, and blew.
Thus began a rehearsal of The Hills Are Alive Chorus. Comprised of women from throughout Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, the chorus has entertained for decades in the barbershop style of a cappella singing.
“Mama sings bass,” said John “Pappy” Hawthorne, of Bristol, Tennessee, who drives the chorus to their shows.
His wife of 55 years, Lula Ray Hawthorne, joined the chorus 35 years ago. On Tuesday, she anchored the group on such songs as The Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to do is Dream.”
“I love the music,” said Lula Ray Hawthorne. “I love to sing. Most of us, our paths would not have crossed if not for this chorus.”
Chartered in 1971, the all-female Hills Are Alive Chorus competes and has won various awards in the Sweet Adelines International regional competition. The chorus often performs locally and regionally in such locales as churches and assisted-living facilities and for Honor Flight.
“We’ve been to nursing homes where people are totally not there,” Lula Ray Hawthorne said. “They liven up to the music. Sometimes they can’t talk to you, but they can sing that song.”
The Hills Are Alive Chorus resulted upon the dissolution of two choruses, Johnson City’s Mountain Empire and Bristol’s Highlands Harmony. Director for 31 years, Dondra Warden’s membership in the chorus traces back for 35 years.
In addition to serving as its director, Warden also sings baritone as a member of the chorus’ quartet, The Entertainment Company.
“We’re just like sisters,” said Warden. “Marla Edwards is our lead singer. Susie Pratt is tenor. Lula Ray Hawthorne is bass. We’ve been together in the quartet for 26 years. We do songs like ‘Unchained Melody’ and The Beatles’ ‘When I’m 64.’”
Ages among members of The Hills Are Alive Chorus vary wildly.
“I have a member who is 92 years old, Doodle Tipton, still singing like an angel,” Warden said. “She was a school teacher in Elizabethton. I have another member in her 80s, and she’s been a Sweet Adeline member for I think 53 years. We’re members of something big.”
On that note, The Hills Are Alive Chorus is actively in search of members. They want to grow their current membership.
“Honestly, we’d love to have a rock solid 10 new members,” said Marla Edwards, a member of the chorus for 26 years. “We’re always looking for new voices. All you have to bring is your voice.”
Their repertoire canvases incredible terrains of music. The Hills Are Alive Chorus explores material from rock ’n’ roll’s extensive past for tunes including “Let’s Go to the Hop” by Danny and the Juniors. Into deep wells of gospel they immerse themselves to revive such gems as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
“We’d love to sing the national anthem for Bristol Motor Speedway,” Edwards said. “We have such a large repertoire, a broad list of songs, that we can tweak it for your event.”
They’re as apt to delve into Tennessee Ernie Ford’s pop-country classic “Sixteen Tons” as they are to mine patriotic fare for Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”
“We do a lot of patriotic songs,” Warden said. “We could do an hour of gospel music. We have a ’50s program complete with costumes. There’s a men’s chorus in Gray, Tennessee, and we love doing songs with them sometimes, too.”
Arrays of choreography and props often accompany performances of particular songs. For instance, they employ umbrellas when summoning The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men.”
“We do a lot of choreography,” Warden said. “We’ll do (Hank Williams’ ‘Hey Good Lookin” and (Shania Twain’s) ‘Any Man of Mine,’ which has a lot of dancing.”
Frankly, The Hills Are Alive Chorus qualifies as a sisterhood of entertainment. Love bridges whatever years exist between them and whatever gulf may divide them from an audience. For when they sing, lines melt away.
“It’s for the love of music and people,” Lula Ray Hawthorne said. “I love the girls I sing with. They are my sisters.”