Every July for the past forty years, the Southern gospel group The Inspirations has hosted Singing in the Smokies, a festival that now draws 35,000 people to their native Bryson City. The quartet itself formed two years before the first gathering, in 1964, when Swain County High School chemistry teacher Martin Cook and three of his students began to meet weekly to sing gospel songs.
Today, The Inspirations are considered one of the most important groups ever to sing and record Southern gospel music. Southern gospel is a form that, despite its generic-sounding name, actually refers to a very specific quartet-based style, featuring carefully orchestrated harmonies. It originated in 1910 with the popularity of quartets who made records and toured the South, sponsored by the Stamps Music Company and Tennessee hymn-writer James D. Vaughn.
A seven-member “quartet,” the Inspirations are still led by Martin Cook. Cook was inducted into the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2003, and was awarded the Marvin Norcross Award in 2002—the two highest honors in the Southern gospel industry. Tenor Archie Watkins is the other singer who was one of the original Inspirations. Newer members are Melton Campbell, Matt Dibler, Myron Cook (Marvin’s son), Jack Laws, and Mike Holcomb. They are the most recent in a line of fourteen former and current group members, considered by the Inspirations as a sort of fraternity.
The Inspirations describe themselves as “an enthusiastic, sincere, clean-cut group of fundamental conservative Christian gentlemen with a desire and an objective to witness to a needful and sinful world through the medium of Gospel Music.” They have sold more than one million copies of their sixty albums. Their sound is now known in the world of Christian music as the Smoky Mountain style of Southern gospel quartet singing.
The Inspirations tour extensively, throughout the South and beyond. Their homecoming festival, Singing in the Smokies, is held each July at Inspiration Park, between Bryson City and Cherokee.