For Tim Kerr the first Thursday of the month means he’s setting up for Beer and Hymns at the Silver Cow, a bar in Jacksonville’s Riverside well known for its long list of ever-changing craft brews and moody lighting.
But the bar has also become a hangout for singing gospel hymns.
“Beer and Hymns is kind of an Irish pub tradition where you get together and you do just what it says, you drink beer and you sing old gospel tunes,” Kerr said. “It’s a lot of fun — kind of karaoke.”
And just like karaoke, Kerr says a few beers loosens people up.
He says everybody is welcome.
“We really don’t want it to be a quote-unquote church night,” Kerr said. “A lot of the folks in this area have probably — I don’t want to say been harmed by the church — but don’t feel necessarily welcomed by the church so we’d like it to be a safe space.”
Donnie Kusic was tuning up his bass guitar. He accompanies the vocals with a range of instruments.
“I’ve got an electric guitar, acoustic guitar, a banjo, a mandoline,” Kusic said. “My brother Larry’s got a bass, and [we've] got a couple more guitars coming.”
He says he plays in church every Sunday. But there’s no reason worship music needs to stay there.
“You know there’s something kind of nice about taking Jesus to places where you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find him,” Kusic said. “And it’s really exciting for that reason.”
He classifies the style as Southern gospel. As he says “rip-snortin,’ toe-tappin' stuff.”
Beer and Hymn nights are happening across the country and it’s all because of the Wild Goose Festival. Organizer Vanna Fox, says the annual gathering in the North Carolina mountains combines spirituality, social justice and music.
“One of the things that just sort of happened was the beer tent was beside the main stage and we were just doing some hymn-singing and it just became this huge warm fuzzy for everyone to sit around and drink a beer and sing old hymns,” Fox said.
But she says Beer and Hymns isn’t everybody’s idea of worship.
“In the south you’re going to get kickback particularly from the Southern Baptists and the more conservative within all the denominations about the beer,” Fox said. “So pretty much we just smile and say we would love to have you but if you’re not comfortable, I understand.”
Tim Cassidey and his wife Patti are thumbing through the hymn booklets at the Silver Cow. They’re familiar with the place.
“It used to be called the Grand Valoon,” Tim said. “Patti and I met here in 1976.”
Patti says it’s their second time at Beer and Hymns.
“We go to a contemporary church now so we don’t really usually sing these songs,” Cassidey said. “So it’s going back to a time and a moment in my life that is a good memory and brings we closer to God and closer to friends and fellowship.”
That’s what a lot of people said, hymns are nostalgic.
“I’m not religious, spiritual maybe,” Frankie Lee, a Beer and Hymns attendee said. “I’m not a member of any church.”
She was sipping a brown ale, that she put down next to a skull with googly eyes in the cobweb, Halloween-decorated bar. She says there’s not pressure at Beer and Hymns.
“[It’s] a very accepting, loving community,” Lee said. “Which I think if more churches were like that I think they’d be a little bit more popular.”
Beer and Hymns is every first Thursday of the month at the Silver Cow.