“The way I got started with shape notes is I grew up with it,” Neil Oliver says. His great-grandfather traveled around the region on horseback with a tuning fork and a musical chart written on a bed sheet, teaching singing schools at rural churches. His father led the choir at Mabel Baptist church for about 35 years, and his mother was the piano player. Outside of church, the Oliver family continued to sing. “We went to singings all over the country,” Neil recalls. “We’d sing at church half the night, go to somebody’s house and sing the other half of the night.”
When his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Neil took over as the director of the Mabel Baptist choir. He says the transition was natural. “I had some practice leading the choir when my dad was on vacation, and it was sort of expected that I would take over the choir,” he says. His mother continued to play piano for the church until Neil’s daughter, Amanda was ready to take over the duties. Shape note singing also continues into the next generation of the Oliver family with Neil’s son, who is an active singer in the church choir.
Neil helps keep the shape note tradition alive by teaching singing schools for rural churches, and he serves on the board of directors for the Tri Cities Gospel Music School, an annual two-week camp in Kingsport, Tennessee, centered around shape note singing. He has also written and published several songs in the shape note tradition, including one for which his daughter Amanda wrote the harmony parts.
“The reason shape notes are meaningful is not only the shape notes and the music that comes along with it,” Neil says, “it is my way of uplifting my voice in praise.” Neil also notes that it is a great way to learn about how to read music, and he likes the simplicity of it. “I don’t know much about standard notation,” he says. “But I can get a new songbook, stand in front of the choir, and sing those songs without the help of accompaniment.” Most of all though, he says, “I love to sing. It is my way to praise God.”
Neil Oliver leads the Mabel Baptist Church choir, and he is available to teach shape note singing at regional churches and events.