Members of a Western Pennsylvania gospel trio reluctantly turned down their first chance to sing at Dollywood. When a second chance came around, they took it.
“How many people can say they sang at Dollywood?” said member Michelle Tantlinger of Fairfield. “We’re all in our 50s now, so we said it’s now or never.
“We were going to do it two years ago, but we could only get a Wednesday date. And we all work full-time jobs, and singing with the group is just part time. It would’ve been too hard to take off work to go down in the middle of the week, missing time at work,” Tantlinger said. “Last year we were going to do it and covid hit and messed everyone’s plans up, so we just put it off till this year.”
Luckily, the date offered this year is a Saturday. They’ll do four or five 30- to 40-minute shows that day, singing in front of their own prerecorded background music.
The group, which formed in 2013, was contacted for the gig by a radio station in Knoxville, Tenn., which books acts for one of the Dollywood stages. They’ll take family members along and make a mini-vacation of it.
Along with Tantlinger, group members are her sister, Melissa Tressler of Mt. Pleasant, and their friend, Kelli Moore of Roaring Spring, Blair County.
Tantlinger and Tressler began singing at ages 11 and 9, respectively, with the Gospel Rays, a group formed by their parents, Ray and Audrey Eutsey. The sisters met Moore on the gospel circuit, where she began singing at age 3 with her own father’s group.
“We’ve been friends since we were kids,” Tantlinger said. “Melissa and I always loved Kelli’s voice.”
Tantlinger said that Moore also sang as a soloist at gospel festivals, where the rule was that a group would get a half-hour of stage time, but a soloist was only allowed two songs.
“We didn’t think it was fair that she only got two songs, so we formed a backup group to sing with her, so she would get more time,” she said.
Tantlinger said that work and family obligations caused her to retire from the Gospel Rays after 30 years. A few years later, she was talking with Tressler about wanting to sing again, when Moore invited them to sing with her at church.
They reformed as New Journey.
“We always say that the three of us have well over 100 years of experience, but this is a new journey for us,” she said.
In normal times, New Journey will have about 40 bookings between March and November and take the winter off. Last year, that number dropped to 15. They’re at 15 for 2021 and hope to add about five more, Tantlinger said.
They sing at churches and festivals and perform the national anthem and “God Bless America” for the Altoona Curve baseball team. They’ve been on call to sing the anthem for the Pittsburgh Pirates, which they hope leads to an actual date at PNC Park, Tantlinger said.
Their sound is progressive Southern gospel, which Tantlinger said mixes contemporary touches with a traditional gospel sound.
That’s what the Dollywood audience will hear, she said.
“The only stipulation, at Dolly’s request, is that all the songs are upbeat, so that means no ballads,” she said.
“People tell us, ‘If you girls sang secular music, you could make a lot of money,’” she added. “But that’s not what we’re in it for. It’s a ministry.”
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