The 2015 Diamond Awards are swiftly approaching, and to re- acquaint you with 2014 winners, we are re-posting features from these artists. In 2014, Brian Free and Assurance were the recipients of the Diamond Award for Quartet of the Year. We hope you enjoy this feature on Brian Free and Assurance from the SGN Scoops issue of August 2014.
By Craig Harris
Finding Their Voice: Stability has led to success for Brian Free and Assurance
Half of the male quartet Brian Free and Assurance didn’t grow up singing Southern Gospel Music. In fact, half of Brian Free and Assurance didn’t even grow up singing. However, the “quiet” guys have found their voice and now appear to be as extroverted as they come.
“I grew up very insecure,” lead singer Bill Shivers says. “I grew up with an inferiority complex. That’s something that God has really reached down and helped me with. I never dreamed in a million years that this is what my life would be.” Shivers didn’t sing until he was 20 years old.
“I guess the transformation for me was when I started with Heaven Bound,” Shivers explains. “I had never actually stood on stage. I had always played the guitar before that, with family groups, local groups. “I would have to introduce a song, and I had to let God use me and get out of the way. When I completely depended on Him, He showed up in my life. It gave me a confidence, on stage and off stage.”
That confidence is evident in Shivers’ personable demeanor both on and off stage. “I never had a plan in my life,” Shivers notes. “God has opened the doors. He has made a work in me. Today, I am very much a people person. I love and try to meet as many people as I can. In my younger years, I was afraid to step up and meet people. That’s a God thing, not a me thing. I thank him for that.”
Shivers has been the lead singer since Free moved from being a soloist back into a group setting, in 2000. “Phillip Hughes called me and told me that Brian was putting the group back together,” Shivers remembers. “He told me that he had thrown my name in the hat. It was close to Convention (the National Quartet Convention). Me
and Craig (Singletary, who Shivers sang with in Heaven Bound before he became the baritone for Brian Free and Assurance) sought Brian out and spoke with him at his booth (at NQC). We said that we’re interested in the position and said what’s the next step.
“We did a showcase at convention. When we walked in our showcase, we were about to walk on stage to do our three songs. Craig says, ‘Don’t look now, but Brian Free is back at the sound board.’ I said, ‘Thanks Craig for telling me.’ After the showcase, Brian approached Craig and I and said, ‘We need to have a conversation.’ We went down (to Atlanta), and he had the bass singer at the time there (Bill Lawrence). We sang three or four songs around the piano. We went on the bus, and he said, ‘The job is yours.’ I said, ‘Done deal.’”
Shivers and Free have been inseparable ever since. “He understands his responsibilities and what his job is, and he does it,” Free says. Free himself broke into Southern Gospel Music as the tenor singer for the Gold City Quartet before departing the group at the end of 1993. “You can’t be on the road 13 ½ years without being close. After a couple of years, you start to know each other. There’s a fine line there between being the boss and being a friend. There’s ups and downs in anything. It’s his dedication to what he does, my dedication to making sure everything works … it’s all of us together. Everybody chooses whether they want to be here or not. Any kind of music is one of those things where if you really love it, you’ll stick with it.”
Shivers adds, “I am a very loyal person. I just felt a kinsmanship with Brian. I knew we clicked. I knew our sound together meshed really well together. Our personalities just clicked. This is my calling, and I know it’s definitely his calling. I’m not one of those guys where the grass is greener on the other side.”
Forty-four-year-old Shivers admits to having learned a lot from Free. “He’s like my mentor,” Shivers explains. “He has taught me so much – about singing, about life in general. He is a man who is very firm and who stands firm on what he believes. He’s
very serious about his convictions. He’s been a great example for me. We’re very tight.”
Fans have understandably adhered to the veteran lead singer. “People love him,” bass singer Jeremy Lile says of Shivers. “People come just to see him. He’s good with people. In my opinion, his role is just to be the best lead singer out there. I think he is the best lead singer.” Lile adds, “He could be a tenor with any group.”
Shivers admits that it can be difficult singing the part below a man who is arguably Southern Gospel’s highest tenor singer. “To sing right under Brian night after night is a challenge,” Shivers admits. “Brian Free is a freak. I mean that in a positive, great way. He pushes me, but it’s a good push. It’s a drive to be better. It challenges me. I love a challenge.”
However, it’s not just the relationship between the elder statesmen that functions well. The whole group seems to click. “We’re brothers,” Lile points out. “We’ve never had a falling out. They’re hilarious. They’re always making me laugh.”
Free adds, “We have a good time on the road together. We enjoy each other’s company. Truly, as much as you can enjoy being gone from home 190 days a year, we make the best of it, and we are close.”
Bus activity is what many might expect for an all-male contingent. “It can be routine at times, but we always make a joke that you have to be half-crazy to be out here on the road like we are,” Shivers shares. “We get along so well on the bus. Thank the Lord, we are like a big family on the bus. We just have a great time. We play the Wii (video game system). We play Mario Cart, but we have times of great discussion and debate. We complement each other very well. That’s what keeps it fresh. We’re friends. We’re family.”
Rogers has been with the group for slightly more than a year at this point. “They’re great guys,” Rogers says. “We’re pretty much cut from the same mold. It’s comfortable. It’s been good. I just jumped in there and went with it. Everything is
smooth. It’s been different singing a different part. The baritone part was different, but I love it.”
Rogers walked in after Derrick Selph had spent nine-and-a-half years with the group, which came in two different stints. “He’s fitting in good,” Free notes. “He’s young, green, but he’s learning. He’s got an amazing voice. He’s good with the people. He has a good attitude. He’s a hard worker. It’s been a very good relationship.”
In some ways, (baritone singer) Mike Rogers can relate to what Shivers has experienced. “I didn’t start singing until I was 20,” Rogers points out. “I did some musical theatre stuff. I didn’t know Gospel Music existed until I heard a couple of voices. I heard Jason Crabb. When you hear Jason, you can’t help but to ease into a little Michael English. That’s right up my alley. I researched a little bit. If you listen to Michael English, you get into the Gaither Vocal Band. Then, you run into Wes Hampton, David Phelps and Mark Lowry. You run into Marshall Hall, who is a beast.”
Rogers eventually ran into the Southern Gospel industry himself, starting his career with the Dixie Melody Boys. “Brian Free is pretty progressive for our genre,” Rogers notes. “I was like, ‘hey, that’s pretty good music.’ I saw where the Dixie Melody Boys were looking for a lead singer and I thought I’d love to get into that. Then, this job came open.”
Rogers admits that he’s still learning about the genre. “Not even an ounce of me is Southern Gospel,” Rogers points out. “I had never listened to it. This fits me better stylistically. I am into more contemporary stuff, progressive. I listen to a ton of black gospel, like Smokie Norful. I dial it back to fit our genre. It’s been great. There’s no better quality than Southern Gospel music. To be blessed enough to have an opportunity to do it at 25 years old … people go their whole life and would give their right arm to be blessed enough to do what I am doing.”
Like Rogers, Shivers prefers a more progressive brand of music. “This is a little more my style,” Shivers says. “I’m definitely not traditional. I can sing that, but I love the soulful sound … and I love the more country stuff.”
The group’s sound is not something that the group made a concerted effort to move toward. “It’s my preference,” Free notes. “I like music that’s challenging. The simple stuff is not as challenging to me. Each album, I want it to be more challenging. That helps me. More than setting out for a style, it just happens. It’s not like we set out and say, ‘Let’s make this choice progressively.’ I choose songs lyrically, but you have to stay within certain parameters obviously.”
The style progression was initially a concern for Lile. “When I first joined, the stylistic part of it was going edgy,” Lile shares. “I’ve always been a fan of the old Statesmen stuff. I’ve always loved singing the old stuff. Through it all, I was afraid they were not going to utilize the bass singer as much, but they’ve always made it so that I was still doing my thing.”
The group’s current project is entitled Unashamed, which released in April 2014. “It falls in the pattern of the last five or six albums,” Free explains. “I think our society today within the church needs a shock. They need a wake-up call. We need to remember the times we live in and remember how important it is that we do what we’re supposed to do. There are so many things that are trying to dilute our stand as a Christian and the word of God. There’s no compromise. Sometimes, we’re more interested in presenting a meek message. We want to do it with love, as Christ did. There’s also a line that you kind of cross when you compromise. If you dilute it in any way, you’re not taking on the message of the Lord. These songs are a wake-up … know where we stand, what we stand for and don’t back up an inch.”
Unashamed is the sixth project that Ricky Free – Brian’s son and the group’s former drummer – has produced for the group. “I like to sit back and watch him and let him go,” Brian says. “His creativity and the direction he takes and the ideas he comes up with are much better than any of mine. I may insert something here and there from time to time, but I kind of get out of the way. He knows how I think. I know how he thinks. There’s been a real release and peace in just handing him the reigns and letting him go.”
The first radio single from the project, “Say Amen,” has rocketed up the charts. In fact, the group filmed its second concept video for “Say Amen,” after having previously comprised one for “I Want To Be That Man.”
“I Want To Be That Man” was the first short-form music video to win the video of the year award at the National Quartet Convention Music Awards. “We did it on the Pedestrian Bridge in Nashville,” Free remembers. “We did it in February or March. We were frozen, but it was a lot of fun.”
“This was my first album ever,” Rogers said. “It’s fun to be doing this with people who have been doing this for so long who are the best. I love being with a group where I just have to walk on stage and do my part. Everybody pulls their weight, off stage, on stage, vocally.”
While Rogers is the newest addition, the other three have been together for more than seven years. They all view that stability as instrumental to the group’s success. “I personally think it’s very important,” Free emphasizes. “It’s important to me and the other members of the group. The less turnover, the better. The better attitudes, the better. People like consistency and continuity. It means a lot.”
Lile believes that Free is the key to that stability. “I think it has a lot to do with Brian,” Lile says. “He’s been out here so long. He knows what he’s doing. He’s good to us. He’s always consistent on everything. We don’t have to worry if we’re going to get a paycheck. It really goes back to Brian being consistent and being a good person. He genuinely cares for us. Once I had been here a few years and I saw how things were … I got married once I had been here and had a child. Brian loves my wife and my child. I know we’re always going to be taken care of. It is hard to see myself in another group. I know I’m going to be taken care of here in every way. ”
Witnessing the stability that trio has developed has prompted Rogers think about his long-term future with the group. “I do feel like I could be (in it for the long term),” Rogers explains. “I’m a really big dreamer. I’m always looking to grow, to get better, to do better. I definitely see this being my career, music in general. It’s been very good. It’s been a very good step in the right direction for me. I’m just soaking it up. It’s been good, and I’m learning from the best. Brian knows this inside and out. If I plan to make this my career, the best thing I can do is just sponge it all up.”
Shivers admits to being humbled at the number of notable settings that the group has been fortunate to sing, including three consecutive years that the group performed at the Dove Awards. Brian Free and Assurance won a Dove Award for the song “Long As I Got King Jesus.”
“The first song I sang with Brian Free, ‘For God So Loved,’ the first time we sang that together, I was like, ‘Wow,’” Shivers says. “Singing on the Dove Awards was a huge opportunity, singing on Gaither videos, singing on the Grand Ole Opry stage… We didn’t go out there and sing country music. We sang Gospel Music. It’s very humbling. I never dreamed in a million years this is what I would be doing. God is an amazing God. Every door that He’s opened for me has been just that much more grand. I couldn’t praise Him enough. I don’t deserve it. For some reason, I have favor in God’s eyes. I thank Him every day for it. The lives and the people we touch is what it’s all about. It’s not about me. It’s all about Christ. I can’t praise Him enough for allowing me and trusting me enough to do it.”
Rogers added, “Sometimes, I have to take a step back. You get used to it. You take a step back and look at the platform you have, and never in a million years would I have imagined singing Gospel music even four years ago. Sometimes, God does that. He put the desire in my heart and made it happen in about two years time.”
The 25-year-old Rogers admits that it can be tough at times, especially having five-year-old daughter Coraline and two-month-old daughter Everlee at home. “When you have a week-old baby girl who just made it home and you have to leave home, that’s difficult,” Rogers explains. “If it wasn’t for having family at home, you would be on cloud nine. You have to make it work the four days a week when you are not at home. Our families are just as big a part of this as we are.”
The 34-year-old Lile echoed those sentiments. “My wife (Nikki), when we were dating, she knew what she was getting into,” Lile says. “We got married and it was hard leaving her. I have a three-year-old son. His name is Logan. It’s 100 times harder leaving (now). He’ll hang on to my leg and cry and say, ‘take Lo with you.’ I’m home Monday through Wednesday. I can spend from seven in the morning until he goes to sleep. I can spend more time with him now than if I had a nine-to-five job.”
The motivation for Lile is the life-changing message in the music the group conveys. “It’s seeing people saved,” Lile points out. “We’ve been seeing a lot of people saved. We did a trip to Texas. We were out three days and saw 20 people saved. That’s really what is keeping me out here.”
Shivers adds, “It’s really tough. With a family, I’ve been married 16 years (to his wife Michelle). I have a 14-year-old daughter (Brittany). I have a nine-year-old daughter (Sarah). She just got saved (in June). I have a three-and-half-month-old little boy (William Brent Shivers III). God gives me peace in knowing that He has everything under control, that His hand is upon my life and that this is my calling … not only my calling, but also my family’s calling as well. If that had not been the case, I would never have been out here all that time. My wife is my biggest fan. She is my biggest supporter.”
Both of Brian’s sons – Ricky and Bryce – are adults, forcing him to leave only his wife Pam each week. “It’s 33 years full time (singing),” the 51-year-old Free notes. “(The reasons for traveling to minister) it’s a lot of things. It’s the challenge of the music, the vocals. It’s presenting them on-stage, watching the response. It’s seeing how the songs change lives. Even more important than that is when people are saved, when the Holy Spirit uses them. As far as the travel, I hate it. That’s just part of it.”
As for the future, Free’s hope is simple. “I just would love to see God use us in a greater capacity in the church,” Free says. “I’d like our music to be put in front of a lot more people.”
For more information on Brian Free and Assurance, please visit their website.
Photographs courtesy of Brian Free and Assurance and Craig Harris.
Written by Craig Harris.
Published by SGN Scoops digital magazine in August 2014. For current issues of SGN Scoops visit the mainpage.
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