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Southern gospel in Northwoods

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For a little over a year now, the Northern Lights Gospel Quartet has been bringing the spiritually uplifting harmonies of authentic Southern gospel music to church gatherings and other community events in the lakes area.

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The foursome of Greg Hayes, Pelican Rapids; Norm Floden, Fergus Falls; Rich Treptow, Battle Lake; and Don Garber, Dent has more than 100 years of collective experience in quartet singing, including not only gospel but barbershop, vocal jazz and Broadway show tunes.

"We've got a lot of experience between the four of us," said Hayes, who sings bass with the group.

Floden sings baritone, Garber, tenor, and Treptow, lead. They try to get together at least once a week to rehearse, at the Methodist church in Dent.

Each of the men also participates in the Heart O'Lakes Harmony Barbershop Chorus, which rehearses every Monday evening in Pelican Rapids.

Coincidentally, the four also serve as section leaders in the chorus -- though Floden and Treptow's roles in the chorus are reversed, as Floden heads the lead section, and Treptow is the baritone section leader.

Hayes, Floden and Garber had sung in quartets together before; it was Hayes' idea to form a gospel-oriented group, and to invite Treptow to sing lead with them.

"Norm, Don and I had sung in a quartet called Tribute for about seven years," Hayes said. "I had been singing in quartets for about 30 years, but I had never been a part of an all male, Southern gospel quartet.

"I thought if we had the right voices, it would be fun to do some of those songs."

Enter Treptow, who had moved to Battle Lake from Indiana in 2008, after retiring from his job as a public finance advisor for cities, schools and counties -- and had also stepped back from vocal music after years of participating in the Barbershop Harmony Society, as both a singer and competition judge.

"In 2006, I had kidney cancer," he explained. "I re-dedicated myself to the Lord, and my focus was on spiritual matters.

"When I retired and moved here, I had intended to retire from singing also ... then out of the blue, Greg Hayes asked me if I wanted to sing lead in a gospel quartet. The idea of ministering through music lined up perfectly with my rededication (to spiritual matters). I could use all of my musical experience to further God's kingdom."

Since then, Treptow has gotten back into the barbershop aspect of singing as well, and joined the Heart O'Lakes Harmony Chorus along with his fellow quartet members.

Currently, he is in the process of producing the upcoming Heart O'Lakes Harmony spring concerts in Fergus Falls and Detroit Lakes.

The chorus of about 40 male singers from the lakes area will perform at Detroit Lakes' Historic Holmes Theatre on Saturday, April 14 at 7:30 p.m.; the same show will be presented at the Kennedy School Auditorium in Fergus Falls on Friday, April 13.

The Northern Lights Gospel Quartet will also be doing a song as part of that show, said Floden.

"We also have a quartet competition coming up in May in Fergus Falls," Floden added. "We'll be competing as a barbershop quartet, in the Barbershop Harmony Society's division contest. That's a first for me -- I've never competed (in a vocal contest) before, so that should be interesting."

Treptow, meanwhile, has a great deal of competition experience, as both a singer and judge.

"All of the barbershop singers in Minnesota known me, because of my judging and international quartet experience," he said. "I've sung in two international championship quartets, and I was one of the top judges in the Barbershop Harmony Society, where I judged international competitions until 2007."

It was his extensive experience in barbershop singing, as well as his status as a Southern gospel fan that caused Hayes to approach Treptow in late 2010 about singing with their new quartet.

The group began rehearsing and performing together in January 2011, Treptow said.

"When we get together and sing, it's rather exhilarating," said Floden. "We've got a good blend going -- and the better the music sounds, the more fun we have."

"There's a lot of laughter in rehearsals -- we have a good time," Hayes agreed. "We come from four different backgrounds, and we don't always agree on everything -- but that's kind of healthy. We bring a lot of diversity in this group."

Floden said the foursome has strong camaraderie, and the spiritual aspect of gospel singing is "meaningful."

"There's so much beautiful gospel music out there to perform," he said. "We also do some secular music -- depending on what's requested of us (for a concert), we usually do a mix of secular and gospel."

Though their religious backgrounds are quite dissimilar -- Treptow comes from a Baptist upbringing, Garber and Floden are Methodist, and Hayes in Lutheran -- "we do not have any disagreement on the essentials of Christianity," Treptow said.

"We'll sing at any Christian church within a two-hour drive radius of Fergus Falls," he added. "We also sing at community events and fundraisers."

On average, Hayes said, they try to keep their singing engagements to about two per month, though sometimes it doesn't quite work out that way -- the group has no less than three singing engagements lined up for today (Sunday), in Dent, Perham and Elbow Lake.

"That's unusual," Treptow said.

"We try not to do that too often," Hayes agreed. "When we do a concert it's fun to mix with the people afterwards.

"We're not out there selling a product, we're just enjoying the music with the congregation. We like to spend some time with them and show them some of that 'southern' hospitality."

Anyone who would like to schedule an engagement by the Northern Lights Gospel Quartet is welcome to contact them via the group's website at www.northernlightsquartet.com, or by phone at 218-205-5292.

The website also contains a complete schedule of the group's upcoming performances.

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