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Local choir director has dedicated over half a century to music

Ray Bowman, choir director for Ninth Street Baptist Church, has taught music at multiple high schools in addition to his service to the church. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

Ray Bowman has now acquired 60 years experience as a choir director, but he isn’t slowing down one bit. His opportunity to inspire and uplift the congregation keeps him going.

He is currently the choir director for Ninth Street Baptist Church in Erwin, where he has served for nine years, but throughout his career he has directed choirs in several other Tennessee churches in addition to teaching music at a few high schools.

“I just love teaching new music and seeing it become ready to perform,” said Bowman. “It’s all a learning process and I like to see choirs achieve as much as they possibly can.

“I truly enjoy working with people and interacting with them while doing something that I love. Being able to share my experience to help the congregation in worship is what it’s all about.”

Bowman’s passion for church music began at an early age. He began attending Unaka Avenue Baptist Church regularly at the age of 12. Soon after the choir director asked him to join the adult choir. In 1957 he got his first paid position at Midway Baptist Church in Johnson City. He then returned as choir director to his home church of Unaka Avenue Baptist Church in 1958.

His wife of almost 60 years, Dorothy Jo, is currently a pianist and organist at Bethany Presbyterian Church in Kingsport and the two met at Unaka Avenue Baptist Church in Johnson City. They have three children together, five grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Bowman grew up in Johnson City and comes from a family of 12 children, many of whom are also musically inclined. In fact, his father and a few of his brothers actually sang for President Herbert Hoover in 1927. One of his brothers also worked at Ninth Street Baptist as a young musician about 50 years ago.

“The way that I’ve been able to see people grow musically over the years is wonderful,” Bowman said. “For me, it’s a weekly thing that I get to look forward to. I love the satisfaction of getting to lead people in music worship.”

Bowman started directing music for the first time at the age of 17 and attended Science Hill High School. He graduated from East Tennessee State University with a degree in choral and instrumental music in 1964. Following graduation, he started working full-time as a choir director at First Baptist Church in Lewisburg, Tennessee, and then First Baptist Church in Sweetwater, Tennessee.

Bowman also directed music at Sevier Heights Baptist Church in Knoxville before he began a 30-year stint teaching music to high schoolers in Knox and Sullivan counties. Bowman has taken high school choirs on trips to New York, Washington and Atlanta for competitions in the past.

“The TN Men’s Chorale gives me a break from directing a choir to be able to sing in a choir myself,” he said. “The chorale sings about six times a year all across the state. It’s work, but I just love going and singing with those men. They’re always so professional and it’s just a tremendous choir.”

The TN Men’s Chorale is an organization of the Tennessee Church Music Conference and is made up of men who are music ministers, worship leaders or worship pastors. Bowman has been a member since 1964 and recently travelled with the Chorale to Hendersonville, Tennessee, for the Summit Convention where they also visited a homeless shelter in the area.

Bowman is looking forward to Ninth Street Baptist Church’s choir joining with the First Baptist Church of Erwin for the third consecutive year to prepare for their upcoming cantata, a Christmas musical that will be performed on Dec. 10.

“We do it every year for Christmas,” Bowman said. “We do a cantata at our church the second Sunday of December and then we go to First Baptist Church on the third Sunday for their candlelight worship service.

“I’m really excited for it, and this has helped our choir as well as theirs. We would both be weaker if we hadn’t teamed up to work on this together.”

Bowman believes that putting in a little extra effort can go a long way, and tries to make each hour of practice count.   

“I enjoy giving many hours each week in preparation,” he said. “I put a great deal of effort into it and I like to plan way ahead. I’ve been listening to all of the songs that I plan to do through December.”

He believes all church music should be scripture based, and his favorite aspect of his role as choir director is getting to see the choir’s hard work pay off during rehearsals. Even though the Ninth Street Baptist adult choir only consists of about 22 members, their talented voices carry and they sound much larger than they are.

“Everyone says that the choir sounds so much bigger than they are. We may be small, but they sound so good and they really do such a good job,” Bowman said.

Bowman sees the choir as being vital to the church, and his main goal is to prepare the congregation for the message the pastor will deliver during church.

“When I look out over the congregation, I don’t know what kind of day or hardships they may have encountered,” he said. “But I try to see that the music ministers to them, and knowing that they could be going through difficult times, I just want the music to uplift and inspire the congregation.

“I’m thankful to have been able to last this long working with music, and I have intentions to stay with Ninth Street Baptist Church as long as I am able.”