The Marksmen Quartet


The current group of the Marksmen consists of Earl Wheeler, Mark Wheeler (Earl’s son), Will Wheeler (Mark’s son), Darrin Chambers, and Tommy Dutton

The Marksmen Quartet – Forty years of marking a new path in gospel music

By Randall Franks

If there were one group from whom many performers in Southern Gospel, Bluegrass and Country Gospel music learned about singing and the way to excite an audience it would be from The Marksmen Quartet. The dean of that group is the talented Dr. Earle Wheeler.

Earle Wheeler’s singing ministry began when he was just 14 years old at Wahoo Baptist Church in Murrayville, Ga. when he sang solos and with a quartet at the church. His father Dr. Marvin Wheeler served as pastor at Wahoo Baptist Church. Although he remembers making his debut at the age of four for his grandfather J.O. Gilstrap in the Methodist Church.

“When I was a boy Robert Hefner had a bluegrass gospel quartet and use to practice in my parent’s living room,” Earle said. “Robert was my hero.”

Along with Hefner were Dean and Marie Bence playing guitar and mandolin and Lester Cantrell on upright bass. The Bence’s also appeared with WSM Barn dance host Cotton Carrier.

It was from this group that Wheeler gained his love of singing and in 1961 when he embarked on a career of his own; it was with his hero Robert Hefner at his side. The Gospel Hearts featuring Earle Wheeler (lead), Robert Hefner (baritone), Lloyd O’Kelly (tenor), and Little Roy Abee Jr. playing piano joined the elite of gospel music as they toured from Ohio to Florida, South Carolina to Alabama.

“We worked date after date with Chuck Wagon Gang, Oak Ridge Quartet, appeared with the Kingsmen, The LeFevres,” Earle said.

The Blue Ridge Quartet, Wendy Bagwell and the Sunliters, the Harmoneers were some of the other acts which shared the stage with Earle’s Gospel Hearts.

“Happy Edwards of the Harmoneers use to carry Mark (Wheeler, Earle’s son) around and get him to sing,” Earle said. “Happy said ‘I’d make a million dollars if this boy was mine.'”

Earle gained his initial television exposure with this group appearing several times on a syndicated gospel program hosted by Bob Poole from Greenville, S.C. as well as another show taped at Atlanta’s TV 46.

“We did quite a bit and had it going pretty good,” he said. “We had a bus, had three different buses. We had Lee Roy Abernathy’s old bus.”

The group performed for about six years and recorded three albums.
“Robert and Lloyd were quite a bit older and they decided it was time for them to retire,” Earle said.
Earle didn’t wait long until he was putting together a new group and in 1967 he formed The Marksmen.
“One night that name came to me,” he said. “I got up and looked it up in the dictionary and it said ‘One who shoots straight and comes to the point.'”

That new group included Earle Wheeler (lead), Frank Grindle (baritone) and Sonny Seabolt (tenor), and Little Roy Abee, Jr. (piano) and after trying out several bass singers Bobby Barnes was hired.

We started out for a short time going to dates in cars the we bought the Sego Brothers and Naomi old bus,” he said.
The new group’s first album was ‘Singing in Gloryland” in 1968 recorded at Mark Five Studios in Greenville, S.C. The staff studio band with the Huffmans added steel guitar, guitar, bass and drums to the recording.

When Little Roy Abee went to Western Carolina College, Earle hired Jerry Phillips to play piano.
That group made two albums “I Want to Go There” on Songs of Sharon label, recorded at LeFevre Sound Studios in Atlanta, Ga. in 1969, produced by David Young using studio musicians to add bass, guitar and drums.
“That is where we first recorded the song ‘I Want to Go There’,” he said. “We still sing that one.”

That group also recorded “Gold City Gospel” in 1970 at Mark Five Studios, with studio musicians from which came one of the group’s signature covers songs “Get Away Jordan” which Earle drew from Hovie Lister and the Statesmen.
“There were really no gospel charts at that time or a focus on trying to send out a single; we’d fix 400-500 albums and mail them out to radio stations,” he said. “Anytime you do that you get sporadic airplay on a variety of songs from the project. That’s how we got started playing farther out in places like Little Rock, Arkansas.”

Earle continued to rise in the level of the gospel circuit playing larger events such as Singing in the Smokies.
When bass singer Bobby Barnes left in around 1971, Earle hired Swayne Brown to fill the role.
Also about that time Earle’s six-year-old son Mark recorded his first release a four song 45, at Mark Five with the staff band and Jerry Phillips on piano including “Daddy Sang Bass, Mama Sang Tenor,” “The Night Before Easter,” “Jesus is Coming Soon” and “Try a Little Kindness.” .

“He got airplay on it and sold a lot of them,” Earle said. “He’d come out and sing with us at several places and do one song.”

Earle Wheeler (lead), Frank Grindle (baritone) and Sonny Seabolt (tenor), Swayne Brown (bass) and Jerry Phillips (piano) the made up The Marksmen.

“That was the group that did what we did Southern Gospel,” he said.

From 1972-1978, this configuration of performers made the Southern Gospel sounds of the Marksmen a favorite not only to the public but fellow performers.

Among the albums released were “Let the Spirit Descend,” “Just Me and My Lord,” “On the Firing Line for Jesus,” “Mountain Gospel Marksmen Style,” “I Want to Live Beyond the Grave,” all recorded at Mark Five studios in Greenville, S.C. and “Salvation Has Been Brought Down” recorded Kingsport, Tenn. at Tri-State Recording Co.

In addition to their pianist, studio musicians were added on drums, guitar, bass and steel guitar.
From “On the Firing Line for Jesus” came one of the groups most requested songs “Payday.”
“We had to sing it everywhere and still have requests for it,” Earle said.
Also their version of “I’ll Have a New Life” became a popular hit for the group.
The Marksmen success on the concert circuit placed them as regulars on Southern Gospel Music Hall of Famer J.G. Whitfield’s “All Night Sings” in cities across the country appearing monthly with the other top names in the industry.
“We sang four straight years at Atlanta’s All Night Sing,” he said. “We worked everywhere with everybody who was anybody.”

Their work alongside the Florida Boys on the concert stage won them numerous appearances with the group on their historic syndicated television show “The Gospel Singing Jubilee” with the Florida Boys, The Happy Goodman Family, the Dixie Echoes and The Inspirations which aired across the country on Sunday Mornings.
Earle recalls the Marksmen made around four trips to tape several episodes with this version of The Marksmen.
“Usually they put two songs on each show and sometimes they’d tape two or three shows when we started taping,” he said.

“The Gospel Singing Jubilee” guest appearances brought The Marksmen regularly to a national television audience and broadened the group’s appeal to a larger geographic area.

The group also appeared on “The Warren Roberts Show” from Atlanta, Ga. and “The Huff Cook Gospel Sing” from Bristol, Va. on 11 stations in Virginia and West Virginia.

The group’s popularity garnered them an invitation to appear for The Grand Ole Opry ® in the mid-seventies on the Grand Ole Gospel Show at the Ryman Auditorium broadcast live over WSM.

One of their turntable hits “The Prodigal Son” caught the ear of The Cathedrals, who originated on the Rex Humbard Show. The Cathedrals, after requesting a copy soon had the song out and gained a hit even selling the song through sheet music.

The Hoppers looked to Earle for his song “Redemption Day” as another major act mined the Marksmen repertoire to find gold.

The group’s touring reach was now from Texas to New England. Pianist Jerry Phillips left and Earle hired David England to replace him recording two more albums. With the departure of David England Earle hired Keith Chambers to play piano but soon moved the multi talented instrumentalist to bass and hired Mike Brooks to play piano and added his now 12-year-old son Mark to the group on guitar in 1977.

The group now included Earle Wheeler (lead), Frank Grindle (baritone) and Sonny Seabolt (tenor), Swayne Brown (bass) and a full stage band. The quartet and full band did one album “He Is Coming Back” at Mark Five studios in Greenville, S.C. in 1979 adding Lee Malan on drums, Pee Wee Melton on lead guitar, and Larry Orr on bass.

The group continued touring and appeared on “The Gospel Singing Jubilee.

Frank Grindle and Sonny Seabolt had expressed to Earle an interest in leaving the group due to the strain of travel and trying to maintain work at home, Earle said.

In anticipation of the change Earle began rehearsing with son Mark; band member Keith Chambers and the final day came at a concert at Augusta, Ga.

“So that night the old group sang first round and the new group sang the second round and then on new group did it,” he said.

The new group included Earle Wheeler (lead), Mark Wheeler (baritone), Keith Chambers (tenor), and Swayne Brown on bass.

Earle said after pianist Mike Brooks left he had a period that included a number of fill-in piano players until finally one quit during a weekend on the road.

“Swayne just said get Mark to give us the key and we will sing like the Chuck Wagon Gang,” Earle said. “When we got done with the first verse Mark plays a turn around and we all were as surprised as he was. We’d go back to singing. By the third song he was getting brave and he kicked the song off. We went over that day better than we ever had.

“As we left the stage, Swayne tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘Earle, We don’t need no piano player do we. The is rest history.”

The Marksmen did one album with that configuration entitled “Ride That Glory Train” at Perfection Sound Studios in Smyrna, Ga. with J.W. Crisp as producer and engineer, Jack Flowers playing drums, and Garland Nash playing steel. Earle called on friend Burt Ashe to add piano on a couple of songs.
From that album “Ride That Glory Train,” and “Roll You Over the Tide” gained tremendous radio airplay.
Swayne Brown left after some health problems and Earle hired Darrell Bagwell to sing bass and Doug Freeman to play bass.

Next came an album entitled “What Would You Do” recorded at Perfection Sound Studios in Smyrna, Ga. in 1981 and then “Marksmen Favorites,” a collection of most requested songs, in 1982 also at Perfection Sound Studios. Producer Jim Crisp put piano on two or three songs on that album.

This would be the last of the projects that held the group in the Southern Gospel market.

With the departure of bass singer Darrell Bagwell and bass player Doug Freeman, Earle hires his cousin from Ohio Rob Gillentine to sing bass and play bass guitar. With that addition, Keith Chambers, now fondly called “Granny” for his unique tenor voice, moved to mandolin.

The dye is set Earle Wheeler leading a quartet featuring his son Mark Wheeler playing guitar, Keith Chambers playing mandolin and Rob Gillentine on bass.

This group of men began the Marksmen meteoric rise in the genres of Bluegrass and Country Gospel music.

Bluegrass opened up to the group when Dahlonega Bluegrass Festival promoter Norman Adams asked them to perform at his event.

“We had never performed at anything like this,” Earle said. “The covered shed was almost full of people and folks were all over the parking lot. Right before we came on there came a big crack of thunder just as the emcee said ‘The Marksmen.’ Everybody from the parking lot area started moving in under the building. Keith looked at me and said what do you want to do. I said sing ‘Amazing Grace’ A ccappella. We tore that crowd apart.”

From that one show Earle found his group booked on major festivals across the South and with each appearance like a wildfire their notoriety in the industry spread. Other entertainers flocked to see what they were doing on stage, seasoned professionals dreaded following them on stage as they received up to five encores from the adoring crowds.

This unique opportunity allowed them to pave the way convincing promoters there was a market for numerous gospel quartets to come in the genre who now make a living in an industry where there once was only one – The Marksmen Quartet.

The group recorded several albums through the next few years such as “Country Gospel Hits,” “Kneel at the Cross,” “Weapon of Prayers,” “Life’s Railway to Heaven,” and “On the Road Marksmen” recorded at the High School Auditorium in Travelers Rest, S.C. Their break through Morning Star album “Saddle to the Ground” released in 1985, a company owned by Southern Gospel Music Hall of Famer Eddie Crook came from a marathon session in Asheville, N.C. that yielded three separate albums but the last rose to the top.

Morning Star promoted “Saddle to the Ground” which reached the top 30 in some radio charts and “Amazing Grace on the Jukebox” which also charted. “There God’s Men” from that album was the first song of his career that Earle said he actually picked up a magazine and saw the group’s name on a national radio chart when it reached #29.

Another project from this period was a two-album set entitled “Country Gospel Hits” recorded at Perfection Sound Studios in Smyrna, Ga.

Earle added an award-winning fiddler Randall “Randy” Franks to the group in 1984 as well as Keith’s son Darrin on guitar in 1985. Both joined Earle, Mark, Keith and Rob to record the group’s second Morning Star album “Cookin’ Now” from 1986 at the Oak Ridge Boys studio in Nashville, Tenn. Producer Eddie Crook played piano, Mike Johnson played steel and Dobro and Gene Crisman played drums.

From that project single releases included “What Would You Think of Him” (chart #51), “Angels Walking Around” (chart #61) and “Train Song #1.”

While the Marksmen on a touring level stepped away from the Southern Gospel arena to become the first all male gospel quartet in Bluegrass and included among the top groups of Country Gospel, their Southern Gospel friends had not stopped looking to Mark and Earle for new songs.

Wendy Bagwell and Sunliters found a turntable hit with Mark’s “Heaven Heavy on My Mind,” the Kingsmen recorded his “Land Called Heaven,” and Gold City found a gem with “Move Back Old Jordan River.”

Earle also continued to be active in the field becoming a charter group member in the Southern Gospel Music Guild and serving on its board.

Earle moved to MBM Records in Atlanta, Ga. for his next project in 1988, “Back to Basics.” Recorded at Perfection Sound Studios in Smyrna, Ga. Kingsmen owner Eldridge Fox produced and made a special appearance on the project. Multi Singing News Musician of the Year Steve “Rabbit” Easter served as engineer and played several instruments.
From this record Earle and his group finally broke the Top 80 on the Singing News charts with Mark’s original song
“Meet Me in Heaven,” which reached the top 40 on the U.S. Gospel Music News charts.

Mark also spread his wings at MBM Records producing a self-entitled solo project of some of his favorites and original material.

The historic Martin Guitar Co. looked to The Marksmen to help them launch their acoustic bass providing Darrin Chambers with one to play on stage; The Gibson Co. followed suit when they launched the Flatiron mandolin asking the group to endorse and Keith Chambers to play the instrument as the played in front of larger and larger audiences.

Through fiddler Randall Franks, The Marksmen were garnered another invitation to appear for The Grand Ole Opry in 1987 for the Early Bird Bluegrass Show during it annual 62nd birthday celebration. Franks began appearing for the Opry with his own group The Peachtree Pickers in the early ’80s, when group members left to go to college in 1987, he saw it as a perfect opportunity to showcase The Marksmen. That fall the group also received its first cover feature on the Singing News magazine, The Printed Voice of Gospel Music.

The Marksmen were featured on the Legends of Bluegrass Show by the International Bluegrass Music Association at its Fan Fest event in 1988 along side Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and other notable trendsetters. The group also saw its first inclusion on the cover of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine, considered the industry standard.

With Earle’s increasing involvement in bluegrass, he became a major proponent for the creation of a Bluegrass Music charting system modeled after the one’s used in Southern Gospel music. While charting initially started in other smaller publications, Bluegrass Unlimited eventually began what became the industry standard opening the opportunity for the rise of news stars such as Alison Krauss, IIIrd Tyme Out, Mountain Heart and others in an industry with no star making mechanism since the abandonment of country music radio charts including the field in the 1970s.

When Rob Gillentine decided to leave the road, Earle moved Darrin Chambers to bass vocals and bass guitar.

Two fathers and two sons would carry the vocal sound for more than a decade on numerous top-selling albums. Fiddler Randall Franks also appeared adding musical and vocal features to the show and on recordings intermittently after the fall of 1988 as he added to his resume his role as internationally known actor joining the cast of TV’s “In the Heat of the Night” as “Officer Randy Goode” and returning to his own solo career.

Old Homestead of Brighton, Michigan released the group’s next project “Nothin’ Fancy” recorded at Treetop Studios at Bremen, Ga. It was followed by “Southern Gentlemen” recorded in part Treetop Studios at Bremen, Ga. and Wayde Powell’s studio at Young Harris, Ga.

It was during this period that Earle’s years of hard work begun to pay off in the form of national awards and nominations. The group began appearing on most major industry nomination lists, their songs and projects among the top offerings of their years.

“We had one time we were even nominated in Coca-Cola Awards with pop artists including Elton John and others,” Earle said.

The Marksmen visibility increased 10 fold when they signed with K-Tel and their music began an even wider distribution level than ever before. The first release “Sacred Sounds of The Marksmen” recorded both at Perfection Sound Studios in Smyrna, Ga. and Asheville, N.C. was marketed in major trade publications with full color full-page ads helping their releases to fly off the shelves and their standing in the Bluegrass and Country Gospel community to rise.

“Movin’ Ahead” came out on K-Tel in 1990. Producer Al Perkins brought the project together three studios in Nashville, Tenn. featuring The Marksmen and some of the most talented acoustic studio musicians.

From that project came “Wagon Tracks” and “Grandpa Was a Farmer.” The video for “Grandpa Was a Farmer” won Independent Country Music Association’s “Video of the Year” and the video for “Wagon Tracks” won a Telly Award.

“Grandpa Was a Farmer” became the group’s first Singing News Top Twenty charting song.

The group shared one more release with K-Tel “Country Gospel Hits.”

Franks included the group on one of the year’s top Southern Christmas sellers in 1991 and 1992 when they joined his “In the Heat of the Night” cast mates on the MGM/UA Sonlite CD “Christmas Time’s A Comin'” The group performed vocally with series star Anne-Marie Johnson on her rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” and then again with Carroll O’Connor, Franks, a host of Country Music Hall of Famers and other cast members on “Jingle Bells.” Both recordings were done in Atlanta.

The Marksmen won Bluegrass Gospel Group of the Year in 1993, ’94, and ’95 at the Society for the Preservation of BlueGrass Music in America National Bluegrass Awards.

Working with K-Tel helped to solidify the group as a seller in most retail chains so when they marketed their next project “Potter’s Wheel” on their own Wahoo Creek label it sold easily through Wal-Mart and K-Mart outlets as songs from the CD yielded two #1s “Potter’s Wheel,” and “Preach the Cross,” a #2 “It’s All Coming Back,” and a #6 “Andrew” in the U.S. Gospel News Country Gospel Charts.

The group worked with Horizon’s Mountain Home label to release “He Is I Am” charting the title cut in the Singing News charts.

Earle said that the recognition in the Country Gospel field just added to the airplay the group was getting opening more doors.

On another project “Quality Mountain Time” the group were joined by special guests Grammy ® award winners The Cox Family.

After more than 20 years on the road with The Marksmen Keith Chambers retired due to his health in 2000 and since Earle has worked to add to the sound hiring Nicky Powell (mandolin, tenor) and John Shook (bass, lead or tenor), recording one album on Wahoo Creek “Oh Happy Day.” Jeremy Shuler also worked with the group following Keith’s retirement.

After John and Nicky left and Earle hired Tommy Dutton to sing tenor and play mandolin. He joined the group on their “Grassroots Gospel” CD for California’s Rural Rhythm recorded at the group’s Tour Bus Studios in Murrayville, Ga.

From that project the group yielded another #1 song “He Still Set My Place At The Table.”

When Tommy Dutton left the group and Earle hired David Waller to sing tenor and play mandolin and since he added Mark Autry to play the bass guitar.

Earle Wheeler, Mark Wheeler, Darrin Chambers and Davey Waller recorded “God’s Masterpiece” at Tour Bus Studios Murrayville, Ga. in 2005 adding fans and friends Barry Abernathy playing banjo, and playing fiddle Jim Van Cleve from the award winning group Mountain Heart musicians to the project.

“Timber and Nails” from the project in Oct. 2006 is #2 on the Country Gospel charts and # 73 on the Singing News Charts.

The group added their fourth Contemporary Bluegrass Group of the Year award at SPBGMA in February 2007 and a Country Gospel Band of the Year Award from the Country Gospel Music Guild in October 2007.

Rural Rhythm Records released “God’s Masterpiece” as a CD/DVD release to Wal-Mart stores across the country in Oct. 2007. The song as a single reached #1 in the national country gospel charts in 2007. The album garnered a 2008 Dove award nomination for the group.

Mountain Heart has also recorded several Mark Wheeler’s songs on three of their five CDs. Several major bluegrass and gospel artists are including Marksmen songs on upcoming projects.

The CD “40 Years” featuring seven new recordings and a song selected from each configuration of the group throughout its history was completed in time for a debut release at the 40th Anniversary Singing in Carnesville, Ga. honoring the group. The group’s latest member Mark Autry joined the group in time to participate in the recording.

The group was honored in May 2007 by joint resolutions of the Georgia State Senate and House honoring its 40 years of reflecting a positive light on the state of Georgia through their spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ through their music.

The Marksmen are inductees in the Lone Star State Gospel Music Hall of Fame and in November 2007 were inducted in the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame alongside Dottie Rambo and the Klaudt Indian Family.

About the author: Randall Franks, a former member of The Marksmen, is an award-winning journalist and photographer and syndicated columnist. He is also an award-winning author with his “Stirring Up Success with a Southern Flavor.” Randall Franks, P.O. Box 42, Tunnel Hill, Ga. 30755,

Awards and Accolades:

Bluegrass Awards in Nashville (Society for the Preservation of Blue Grass Music in America)

Nominees: 1987-1989

1990: Bluegrass Awards in Nashville (Society for the Preservation of Blue Grass Music in America)

Gospel Bluegrass Band of the Year – Overall

Bluegrass Male Vocalist of the Year (Contemporary) – Mark Wheeler

1991: Bluegrass Awards in Nashville (Society for the Preservation of Blue Grass Music in America)

Gospel Bluegrass Band of the Year – Overall

Gospel Bluegrass Band of the Year – Contemporary

Bluegrass Lead Guitarist of the Year – Mark Wheeler

Independent Country Music Video of the Year “Grandpa Was a Farmer”

Telly Awards for Music Video “Wagon Tracks”

1992: Gospel Bluegrass Band of the Year – Overall Mid-West Bluegrass Awards

Bluegrass Lead Guitarist of the Year – Mark Wheeler Bluegrass Awards in Nashville

1993: Gospel Bluegrass Band of the Year – Overall Mid-West Bluegrass Awards

1995: Bluegrass Group of the Year – International Country Gospel Music Association

1996: Southern Country Group of the Year Christian Country Music Awards

1999: Country Gospel Quartet of the Year Country Gospel Music Guild

2000: Country Gospel Quartet of the Year Country Gospel Music Guild

Bluegrass Awards in Nashville (Society for the Preservation of Blue Grass Music in America)

Gospel Bluegrass Band of the Year – Overall (Three time winner)

Gospel Bluegrass Band of the Year – Contemporary (Three time winner)

Gospel Music Hall of Fame Lone Star State Country Music Association

2002: Country Gospel Quartet of the Year Country Gospel Music Guild

2004: Country Gospel Quartet of the Year Country Gospel Music Guild

2007: Bluegrass Awards in Nashville (Society for the Preservation of Blue Grass Music in America)

Contemporary Bluegrass Group of the Year; Country Gospel Band of the Year Country Gospel Music Guild

Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame inductees

2008: Dove Nominee “God’s Masterpiece”

Country Gospel Quartet of the Year Country Gospel Music Guild

Bluegrass Awards in Nashville (Society for the Preservation of Blue Grass Music in America)

Contemporary Bluegrass Group of the Year nomination

2009: Bluegrass Awards in Nashville (Society for the Preservation of Blue Grass Music in America)

Contemporary Bluegrass Group of the Year nomination

Front Porch Fellowship Bluegrass Music Awards: Artist of the Year; Mark Wheeler Male Vocalist of the Year

Album or CD Releases:

Three releases with The Gospel Hearts

Singing in Gloryland

I Want to Go There

Gold City Gospel

Let the Spirit Descend

On the Firing Line for Jesus

I Want to Live Beyond the Grave

Mountain Gospel Marksmen Style

Salvation Has Been Brought Down

Just Me and My Lord

Redemption Day

Final Journey

He’s Coming Back

Ride That Glory Train

What Would You Do

Marksmen Favorites

On the Road with The Marksmen

Country Gospel Hits (2-record set)

Kneel at the Cross

Weapons of Prayer

Life’s Railway to Heaven

Saddle to the Ground

Cookin’ Now

Back to Basics

Mark Wheeler

Nothing Fancy

Southern Gentlemen

Bluegrass Marksmen Style

Moving Ahead

Sacred Sounds of the Marksmen

He Is I Am

Quality Mountain Time with special guests The Cox Family

In Performance

Glory Cloudv

Potter’s Wheel

Oh Happy Day

Grass Roots Gospel

I’m Going That Way – Darrin Chambers

God’s Masterpiece

40 Years