The Big Life of “Little” Lowell Mason, the World’s Smallest Gospel Singer
By Eric Waggoner
Reading time 48 Minutes
For almost seven decades
For almost seven decades his name had appeared on album covers and 45 labels, on church marquees and tent revival announcement boards around the nation. He’d been introduced from pulpits, from indoor and outdoor performance stages the world over. He’d been heard on radio and television back in the days when NBC and CBS were breaking ground as the first commercially-licensed broadcasting media conglomerates. Once, it tickled him to note, his name had appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records, in whose 2013 volume he was listed as the world’s “Oldest Living Dwarf”—forty-six inches tall, aged 74 years, six months, and two days.
At 78, Lowell Mason still received emails and Facebook messages from people around the world who’d met him somewhere on his 65 years’ worth of travels, writing to share the story of when they’d crossed paths. It might have been in Canada, India, Russia, Asia, the West Indies, or any of the other parts of the world in which he’d ministered and sung. It might have been somewhere along the American highway, in a home church or under a festival tent, at one of the thousands of events where he’d hosted or performed on the revival circuit. At his busiest, Mason’s singing and preaching schedule saw him and his family covering roughly 100,000 miles a year. Around the world, among the faithful, Lowell Mason was known.
Then in 2016, after all those years of constant motion, Mason began to detect numbness in his hands, arms, and legs. A series of escalating tests landed him in spinal surgery, for which a specialist surgeon had to be brought in.
In the days immediately following what became a two-week procedure, the medication he’d been prescribed during the rehab process began to cloud his brain. He hallucinated; he slept erratically. He awoke in the night with no idea where he was, or why. He couldn’t recognize Judy, his wife of 53 years and mother to their four children, who sat with him all night during his recovery. For a time, he even forgot his own name.
But back when he was a small boy, long before he’d ever thought of singing professionally, his name had been entered into eternity—in the Lamb’s Book of Life, in which the redeemed of God were listed. From the time he was a child, Lowell DeForest Mason had never known anything other than that solid Christian faith, the one his parents had taught him, the one he and Judy had taught their own kids. He’d seen the truth of that faith time and again, seen it work to stay death and rescue the perishing. As the hymn said, it was an old, old story, and one he loved to tell. And he’d told it, as loudly and as far as he’d been blessed to, for nearly seventy years.
“Go ye into all the world,” the risen Jesus had said to his disciples, “and preach the gospel to every creature.” The evangelical community referred to this charge, repeated in all four Gospels and the Book of Acts, as the Great Commission. Whatever else might be said of him, Lowell Mason, not four feet tall, a self-described old Pine Run boy from rural Michigan, had taken those words precisely and exactly to heart.
“My parents never taught me to be different”
“My parents never taught me to be different,” says Lowell Mason. “Mom was small, like I am, and she was educated. She was the kind of person who was right on top of stuff. They both did a good job of raising me.”
Billed variously through his career as “The Singing Midget,” “Little Lowell,” and “The World’s Smallest Gospel Singer,” Lowell Mason was, in terms of his Christian faith, a young man to the manner born. His father Lewis and mother Delia (nee Welch) were both Kansas natives who had passed their childhoods elsewhere—Lewis in Mankato, Minnesota, Delia in St. Louis, Missouri. It was in St. Louis that Lewis and Delia met, during the summer following Lewis’ freshman year at Tennessee’s esteemed Johnson Bible College near Knoxville, where he was preparing for the ministry. Delia, too, was embarked on her own career, having received formal musical training at the St. Louis Opera Company.
The pair were married during Lewis’ sophomore year. Delia moved to Tennessee and began teaching piano and voice professionally, as well as taking classes at JBC. In the second year of their marriage, on 14 August 1937, Lowell was born. He would be the couple’s only child.
Familial achondroplasia, the bone-growth disorder that causes most common cases of dwarfism, is characterized by shortened limbs, particularly the upper portions of the arms and legs, as well as shortened fingers. It is a dominant trait: If one parent has the condition, the chances are 50-50 that a child will inherit it, resulting in possible delayed gross motor skill acquisition in infancy, and increased risk of spinal/neurological issues in adulthood.
By medical standards, throughout his life Lowell Mason’s size ran somewhat smaller than average, even for persons with achondroplasia. His adult height of 46 inches came in well below the across-the-board mean of 51. But though small, Lowell was not bashful, nor even very prone to slow down. From childhood he was a glad and busy participant in his family’s deeply involved Restoration Movement faith.
“I never knew anything but Christianity,” says Lowell. “My parents weren’t demanding in any way. But I was directly involved from the day I was born. Mom would be preparing music, and she’d have me help get something together. That was just me. They always had something for me to do, and I did it.”
The young Mason family moved around for a few years—from Tennessee to Michigan, then to Minnesota, then back to Michigan—before Lewis accepted a pastorate at the Arbela Church of Christ, just outside of Millington, Michigan.
It soon became clear that the traits Lowell Mason had inherited from his mother included not only a love of music, but a natural talent for making it. His voice—in youth a clear, smooth treble, later a high- and forward-placed baritone—was warm and expressive, his articulation crisp and precise. Lowell sang regularly in his family’s home church, and as an invited guest performer at special events at several churches around the Millington area, which served as a bedroom community for both Saginaw and Flint. The most fateful of these was a 1946 performance by the Children’s Bible Hour singing group, at the Millington Nazarene Church.
The Children’s Bible Hour was a vanguard mass-media children’s ministry enterprise, first broadcast over Grand Rapids radio station WLAV. The program was directed and emceed by a series of “Aunt” and “Uncle” adult hosts—most famously “Aunt Bertha” Shook, who directed it for 14 years and oversaw its development for television. Each CBH show featured retellings of bible stories, quiz segments, and young soloists and children’s choral groups performing standard and contemporary gospel music.
Begun in 1942, the show was an immediate success. Within a year of its first broadcast the Children’s Bible Hour, and its Wendell P. Loveless-penned theme song “Boys And Girls For Jesus,” could be heard around the globe via the Quito, Ecuador-based HCJB Radio (“The Voice of the Andes”), the first Christian witnessing outreach station in the world, founded in 1931 by American radio missionary Clarence Jones. (CBH’s success was both immediate and long-lasting: The program continues today as Keys For Kids Ministries, producing radio, print, and web- and app-based religious media for children.)
“I listened to the Children’s Bible Hour every Saturday,” says Lowell. “When we found out the group was coming to Millington, my parents agreed to make the trip so I could hear them.”
Chaperoned by then-director Carl “Uncle Bill” Bihl, the CBH choir arrived for their Millington Nazarene Church performance. Prior to the show, the church’s home pastor asked the organizers whether a local boy named Lowell Mason might bring a song as well, before the evening’s official program.
“The pastor had heard me sing at a wedding at the church not too long before. So I did. And after the CBH performance Uncle Bill introduced himself to my folks, and he asked if I could come sing at the annual CBH Convention that year at the Civic Auditorium in Grand Rapids.”
Two thousand people were in attendance at the 1946 Children’s Bible Hour Convention — the largest single audience for which he’d performed to that point. Shortly after the Convention performance, at the age of nine, Little Lowell Mason joined the Children’s Bible Hour as a regular, sometimes featured performer.
“The CBH went out every Saturday morning at 11:00am, on about a hundred and fifty different radio stations,” he recalls. “I’d go to Flint early in the morning, then take a Greyhound bus an hour and a half out to Grand Rapids, where members of the program would meet me at the bus station. And after the show was done they’d take me back to the station, and I’d go back home the way I’d come.”
Mason remained with the Children’s Bible Hour as an ensemble and solo singer for six years, leaving the show in 1952. At 15, he was three years past the program’s supposedly firm participant cutoff age of 12; but he was a popular performer, both on the airwaves and in the studio, and the CBH’s directors kept featuring him until he was ready to enter high school. (“I guess they liked me,” he laughs.)
By the time Lowell left the CBH, the Masons had relocated to Clio, a small town 13 miles north of Flint. He was entering his junior year when a letter signed by a young man named Cecil Todd arrived at the house, addressed to Lowell, asking about his availability to sing as part of a traveling ministry.
Cecil Todd, then a 21-year-old student at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri had never met the Masons. He’d been supplementing his education with frequent trips to a bible bookstore in town. In discussion with the husband-and-wife founders of that bookstore, it came out that they’d moved to Missouri from small-town Michigan, where they’d attended a church with a great preacher, Lewis Mason. Lewis had a son, the owners told Cecil Todd, a little guy, just a dynamite singer. They passed along the Masons’ address.
“So in 1952 I get this letter,” says Lowell. “‘Hello, my name is Cecil Todd; I’m going to be an evangelist, and I’d like to hear you sing,’ and so on. Well, I laid it on a table in my room and forgot about it. And there it lay for about a year. Then my mother came in one day and saw it, and said, ‘What’s this?’”
Lowell initially brushed his mother’s question off. But she encouraged him to consider Todd’s request. He thinks it may even have been Delia who finally answered the letter, though he can’t quite recall. But however it happened, in the early summer of 1953, with their son still a year away from his high school diploma, the Masons piled into the family car in Michigan and headed for Kansas, where Cecil Todd was preaching a revival about 30 miles inside the state line.
“My folks somehow found the town, found the church, and put me out,” Lowell laughs.
At 16, Lowell Mason had gone from singing for home congregations of under a hundred people, to conventions of 2,000 attendees, to singing for several thousand listeners at once around the world every Saturday morning. The audiences were about to get bigger still.
“They dropped me off with Cecil, then turned around and headed back to Michigan,” says Lowell. “I didn’t know I was going to stay for 65 years.”
Born in Nashoba, Oklahoma in 1931
Born in Nashoba, Oklahoma in 1931, Cecil Todd was part of the second wave of evangelical preachers to combine traveling ministry with telecommunications outreach. Todd’s name isn’t as well-known outside the community of faith as the most famous (or infamous) members of his profession. But as of today he’s arguably outlasted them all: Todd’s “Revival Fires” ministry, comprising in-person, radio, television, and online projects, and now headed up by his son Tim, has run continuously since its incorporation in 1964.
American evangelical Christianity had a long and established tradition of organized on-the-road ministry work by the mid-20th century, a tradition whose logistics were rooted in the so-called Great Commission. The 19th-century “circuit rider” preachers were dispatched from home denominational offices to found churches and oversee multiple rural congregations throughout the Western frontier territories. Across the wide middle-third of the lower 48 states, sparse but increasingly centralized populations and a few heavily-travelled trade and travel routes created opportunities to expand the kingdom of God on earth, whole villages at a time. Radio and television, far from replacing that in-person model, augmented it, providing traveling evangelists with a second, mass-media conduit through which to reach rural and far-flung communities—and, just as often, to announce an upcoming revival location to broader regions of potential attendees.
A “light the fires” preacher with a notable gift for audience involvement, Cecil Todd had, even in the beginning of his ministry, a vocal delivery uncommonly well suited to broadcast. His most striking oratorical talent was an easy rhetorical style that stayed colloquial and conversational, in both its register and its rhythm, until he approached the “good news” portion of his sermon. At that point, his firm tenor would rise in pitch and assume a dramatic vibrato, its long vowels widening as though his very voice strained to bear up the glory of which he spoke, eventually glissando’ing back where it had begun, like a bird softly returning to the wire from which it had flown.
Like all evangelical preachers, Todd could wax poetic on the temptations of Satan and the consequences thereof. His first, startlingly-titled Revival Fires sermon LP was called Four People I Would Like To See Go To Hell (the reason—shrewdly unstated in the title—was so that they might return to earth to choose salvation). Unlike most blood-and-thunder preachers of the day, though, Todd was at his most engaging not when lecturing on the perils of sin or calibrating degrees of hellfire, but rather when speaking of the mysteries of grace and enjoining others to Christian service. Even before a crowd of thousands, Todd managed to sound as though he were speaking to each audience member directly and personally. It was a plain but appealing style, one that kept Todd in demand for personal appearances up until very recently; health issues forced him to take a sabbatical from preaching in early 2018.
Lowell Mason joined Cecil Todd’s startup organization, then called the Todd Evangelistic Team, on the spot, at that Kansas revival in 1953.
“I’d never heard anybody preach like him,” says Lowell. “He was strong. I joined up with Cecil for about two weeks, doing music for those Kansas revival services. After that revival was up, we went down into Oklahoma and did a two-week stand there. Then we headed on to the next town, and the next town, and the next. I spent that whole summer on the road with Cecil.”
After that first leg on the road with Todd, Lowell returned to Clio to finish his high school degree. “But we kept in touch—by letter, in those days. As soon I was finished with school, I went back out. Didn’t even stay for any of the graduation programs. I got in the car and headed to Wisconsin to meet back up with him.” At 17, Lowell officially took on the duties of Music Director for the Todd Evangelistic Team, which included song leading and soloing, in addition to arranging for musical talent for the organization’s scheduled revival dates.
For the next several years Lowell Mason would travel with Todd, taking two short breaks to attend Manhattan (Kanas) Bible College and to cover his father Lewis’ pastorate up in Michigan while Lewis was in ill health, and a longer sabbatical to assume a pastorate of his own in northern Kansas.
“Even during that time, though, Cecil would call me—‘Lowell, you have a night or two you could come down to such-and-such town and join us?’ And I would.”
When Mason returned to full-time employ, as the comfortable 1950s bled into the countercultural 1960s, the fires would be truly lit.
In the early 1960s the scope of Revival Fires
In the early 1960s the scope of Revival Fires—President Cecil Todd, Vice President Lowell Mason—was growing almost geometrically. The “Revival Fires Tent Cathedral,” bought special for their traveling dates, was built to accommodate 2,000 people. Todd and Mason and their crew would roll into town as announced, unload the tent from their 18-wheeler truck, set it up, and settle in for a two-week stand of preaching. Preaching, and music: Each night there’d be music, brought by some local and many nationally-known acts. Over the years Todd and Mason would host groups including the Blackwood Brothers, the Chuck Wagon Gang, the Speers, and a promising young act called the Oak Ridge Quartet (who, under a slightly revised name, the Oak Ridge Boys, would in 1981 score one of country music’s biggest crossover singles with “Elvira”).
Most nights Todd and Mason filled that tent, and many nights they went over capacity. On one memorable occasion in Cecil Todd’s Oklahoma hometown, over 3,500 people showed up for the opening night performance; the local sheriff hired to direct traffic, Lowell recalled, had sweat dripping off his chin while the performance was still an hour off.
(It was during that Oklahoma revival that Lowell found himself again credentialed, but in the strangest way: “In those days I always had a gun with me. And traveling around as much as we did, I wasn’t always clear on what I needed to carry it. So when we got to Clayton, I got with Deputy Sheriff Conley, who we knew, and I said ‘Look here, we’re here for two weeks, do I need a license for this gun?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘hop in the car and we’ll run down and talk to the High Sheriff.’ So we drove down to the County Sheriff and asked him. County Sheriff looks at me and says, ‘Well… would you like to be deputized?’ And I said, ‘Er… I guess so.’ And he deputized me right there. I just ran across that card again the other day. As far as I know I’m still a registered deputy in Pushmataha County, Oklahoma.”)
For the next two decades and more, Cecil Todd’s Revival Fires would keep a consistent touring and broadcast schedule. Todd and Mason stayed on the road more or less continuously from 1960-1970, and regularly after that. “Revival Fires Radio” began its national broadcast in 1964, and later developed into a weekly television program carried by 153 stations across the country. Over the years the television show’s featured guests would include Pat Boone, Art Linkletter, Anita Bryant, Dale Evans, Apollo 15 astronaut James Irwin, and Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North. Eventually Revival Fires extended its ministry into India, Europe, and China.
“Cecil and I traveled the world in those days,” says Lowell. “You’ve got to remember, at a certain point he was on television every single week, over a hundred and fifty channels. I think almost every televised crusade we did, there was someone wrote in to say, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about starting up a church out here, would you all come and help us out?’ We always would. Many times we’d overflow that tent. The area churches would organize and advertise and get people out for it. People were watching.”
And you never knew who. When California Governor Ronald Reagan, preparing his White House bid, sought the endorsement of the evangelical community, he contacted not Billy Graham but Cecil Todd, whose Revival Fires television show Reagan watched faithfully. It was Todd, in fact, who was the point man for Governor Reagan’s famed Atlanta meeting with a select group of prominent American evangelical figures, Graham included, prior to the 1980 campaign. (President Reagan would later appear as a guest on the Revival Fires television program. He and Todd remained friends until Reagan’s death in 2004.)
Then as now, for all its inroads into radio and television, gospel music of the mid-20th century, live and recorded, moved within its own peculiar sphere of star systems and market dynamics—parallel to and mirroring certain aspects of the mainstream music industry, but appreciated mostly within its own community of aficionados. The fledgling chain records stores of the 1950s and 1960s largely shunned gospel music in favor of more broadly popular styles. Major labels took little note of gospel as a profitable genre until the “Jesus people” movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Christian music at midcentury had neither a centralized industry city (though Nashville made a small space for country-inflected gospel) nor a network of established labels and distributors with much in the way of experience or credit. Thus, Christian performers interested in making records relied on a loose community of private studio owners and independently run labels, the latter of which were sometimes nothing more than a catchy twist on the performer’s or entrepreneur’s name. Distribution was virtually nonexistent outside of on-site sales at personal appearances, or via mail-order for more determined artists.
Lowell Mason’s parents, as he often said, had never taught him to be different. Yet even within the niche market of Christian music, Lowell undeniably had a hook few performers could claim. And he’d been idly kicking around the idea of doing some recording when, in Arkansas in 1961, he encountered a man who owned a studio and offered to set him up.
“I went into a church in Little Rock, and that’s where I did my first 45 record.”
Lowell Mason’s first recording was “God Leads Us Along”—a quiet, unassuming statement of faith through adversity, the sort of standard hymn he was known for on the road and on radio. Lowell would later re-cut the song for a second single, the B-side of which was the upbeat call to glory “You’d Better Get On That Road.”
Once begun, Lowell Mason’s recording career progressed rapidly. During a revival stand in Texas in 1962, Revival Fires brought in an up-and-coming family gospel quartet called the Crusaders. Sisters Mary Ann Vaughn and Delores Harris, and their respective husbands Jim and Ray, operated a small music business from their homes in Illinois. An ambitious and smartly-run organization by the standards of the day, Crusade Enterprises boasted both a robust label—Crusade Records—and a home studio, “Sonic Sound,” in Flora, Illinois, where the Crusaders cut their own albums, as well as those of other performers. The company also provided light A&R assistance to artists, and the Crusaders themselves frequently served as the “house band” for many of the singers whose albums their label released.
Crusade’s connection with Revival Fires quickly expanded their catalog. The label would produce three LPs of Cecil Todd’s sermons, including a live album of his autobiographical testimony, God Calls A Mountain Boy To Preach. Crusade also released several LPs throughout the 1960s and 1970s by “Little” Lowell Mason, now billed on record as the “Singing Midget.”
Lowell Mason’s albums for Crusade, recorded in Crusade Enterprises’ Flora studio, comprise some of the most eye-catching covers in all of micro-label music history. Lowell Mason and the Crusaders Sing For God And Country features a full-body shot of Lowell in a dark suit, sporting an Errol Flynn pencil mustache, flanked by the U.S. flag and the Christian ecumenical flag (white field, red cross, blue canton). The album’s sides are divided between established hymns and Crusader compositions (“It Is No Secret” and “Mansion Over The Hilltop,” but also the Mary Ann Vaughn-written “At The End Of This Journey”); and patriotic standards from the public domain (“The Star-Spangled Banner,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”), even more Crusade Enterprises material (“My God Is Everywhere”), and a closing performance of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” (mistitled “This Land Is Our Land”).
Kiamichi Mountain Favorites is Western-art-designed album of gospel material named for the site in Oklahoma where Kiamichi Mountain Mission and annual “Men’s Clinic” evangelical gathering has been homed since the 1940s. The back cover shows Lowell Mason astride a small pony, ranch hat raised in his right hand. The tracklist, again, is heavy on standards (“Victory In Jesus,” “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” “I’ll Fly Away), but also contains an album-themed song, “In The Kiamichis,” written by A.B. “Brother Mac” MacReynolds, founder of the KMM.
Colorful Stylings by the Crusaders of Illinois and the Singing Midget boasts perhaps the most visually arresting cover of all the Mason-Crusaders collaborations. Decked out in a bright red sport coat and two-tone loafers, his hair cut in a sharp flattop, Mason stands flanked by Ray and Delores Harris and Mary Ann Vaughn. Under his check-stripe patterned gray blazer Ray Harris wears a red vest, matched to his pocket square; Delores and Mary Ann are in identical powder-blue dresses with chiffon puff sleeves, and wearing bright red shoulder corsages. The quartet is surrounded by a saxophone on a stand, a bass fiddle, and an accordion. Playfully scattered on a small shag rug in front of the group are record albums, LP covers, and printed-graphic 45 sleeves. Even among collectors who know nothing of Lowell Mason or the history of gospel records of the period, Colorful Stylings has, on the strength of its cover alone, become something of a prized gem in the online vinyl and “strange music” community: Sale copies of it crop up only rarely, usually priced in the neighborhood of a hundred dollars.
For Lowell, the business of making and selling records, which he did wherever and whenever he could, was largely a matter of securing financial health for himself and his growing family: “We were traveling all over the United States. My wife Judy and our two daughters were on the road with me. We didn’t really live anywhere in particular through much of that time, didn’t really settle anyplace until we moved to Ohio, where Judy was from, in the early 1970s. Records were a way to earn a little income.”
It was the road, in fact, that brought the couple together. Lowell and Judy had met in Lexington, Kentucky in July 1962 at the North American Christian Convention, an annual gathering of representatives from Restoration Movement churches, colleges, institutions, and mission programs. Lowell had rented a booth in the NACC hall to sell records, standing on a shipping box to raise himself above the tabletop. Judy, daughter of an Ohio tobacco farmer, had traveled with a group from her home church to Lexington to attend the Convention.
“I saw Judy,” says Lowell, “and I thought, ‘Boy, I’d really like to get to know her.’”
He got his wish. The preacher who’d led the group trip from Ohio to Kentucky invited Lowell and Cecil to hold a revival at their home church. Lowell spent the bulk of that fall in and around southern Ohio. “I finished up at that church, then went to another about 20 minutes away, and I asked Judy if she’d like to come with me. After that, we decided whenever we were able to get together, why, we would.” He laughs: “The only dates Judy and I ever had, before we got married, were dates to church.”
The courtship was brief but fruitful: Lowell and Judy were married on February 18, 1963, and eventually had four children. The first two, daughters Kelly and Kathy, were featured on yet another Crusade release, Lowell Mason Presents Kelly And Kathy, in 1970. Son Lowell Mason II—“The Duke,” as his father dubbed him in infancy—came third, and daughter Kristy rounded out the pack. All the children logged time on the road with Lowell and Judy at some point or another, and all sang either in church or on stage.
Of the four children only Duke Mason has gone on to make a career of music, but that career has been substantial: A little person like his father, Duke is a rich and expressive baritone who has performed on multiple occasions since 1997 with the Jordanaires, as well as alongside country legends including George Jones and Faron Young. For several years Duke was Director of Music at the fabled Precious Moments Chapel in Carthage, Missouri (where Lowell himself for a time also performed the character of “Little Timmy” for visiting tour groups). Duke keeps a packed schedule throughout the Midwest and beyond, and in early 2019 the Duke Mason Band will host a Caribbean Cruise with port stops in Honduras and Mexico. (“Duke’s gone farther than Daddy ever did,” Lowell notes proudly.)
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Lowell Mason kept releasing albums on Crusade, but also through other labels, both small and established. The most established of these was Diadem, a gospel label out of Grand Rapids, Michigan that had released “Aunt Bertha” Shook and the CBH’s Storytime for Children LP some years earlier.
“Diadem was the only label I was ever actually contracted to, and that was originally only for a single album. They’d agreed to help distribute the record, in addition to releasing it. Every other record I just packed and carried around myself, to my personal appearances. They contracted to help get it out, like I said, but I don’t believe they ever did.”
In all, Diadem would release three albums by Lowell Mason. At The Corner Of Amen Street And Hallelujah Square was done up in vivid yellow and red, featuring a shot of Mason standing at a bullet microphone wearing a string bow tie, right hand raised and index finger extended. Lowell Mason Sings The Old Time Religion And Other Gospel Favorites presented the most traditional selection of hymns on any of his albums, including “The Old Rugged Cross,” “How Great Thou Art,” “Have A Little Talk With Jesus,” and a rendition of “Jesus Loves Me” on which then-two-year-old Kelly Grace—named for Grace Kelly—joined her father in a duet. The cover of The Old Country Church, which album was manufactured and pressed by RCA Victor, now billed Lowell as both “The Singing Midget” and “The World’s Smallest Gospel Singer”; that record blended barn-burners (“I’ve Been Changed,” “Keep On The Firing Line”) with statelier hymns (“Amazing Grace,” “I’m Bound For That City”).
Given the ephemeral nature and inconsistent release practices of the gospel recording industry during the period, a firm count of Lowell Mason’s recordings in the 1960s and 1970s is difficult to reach. A conservative estimate of albums and 45s puts it at least at a dozen separate recordings—far more than most of his contemporaries of the day. All of these releases exist in the world today as collector’s items, sought by fans of off-the-beaten-path popular music. Only a single track from a single album has to date found its way online—“Take That Frown Off Your Face,” from the early-1970s LP Little Lowell Sings Praise The Lord! on Rite Records of Cincinnati.
What sustained Lowell—and Judy, and the kids—through all those years on the road, through all the recording and performing and personal appearances, was an element of the faith community that few outside that community would fully understand. No matter where the tent was set up, the shared belief that brought the congregants together allowed them to interact with each other as though they were old friends—which in a sense they were, having been called by the same charge to serve, and to witness. In a very real sense, no matter where Lowell Mason and his family stopped along the American highway or around the world, they met not strangers, but brothers and sisters.
“Judy and I have been married for 55 years,” says Lowell, “I was on the road for ten years before that, and then she and the kids joined me. That’s 65 years of going out on the road at least once a month, solid. Sometimes I get a message that’ll say, ‘We met you and Judy back at such-and-such a place,’ and for a second I can’t remember even when or where that was. You come to that point, you have a lot of places behind you on your journey. There’s been so many.”
Carthage, the seat of Jasper County, Missouri
Carthage, the seat of Jasper County, Missouri is a small city of 14,000 about fifteen miles northeast of the city of Branson. Home to the Precious Moments Chapel and related attractions, Carthage sits close enough to Branson to be a secondary destination for the thousands of tourists the larger city hosts each year, but far enough away to retain a small-town feel—main street, shops, a town square, civic monuments. Local barbecue, slow-smoked in the St. Louis style, arrives sweet and sticky and heavily sauced. The Precious Moments Quality Inn and Suites plays local Christian radio around the clock at its entrance at a respectful volume. Of the 27 Kansas and Missouri radio stations within Carthage’s listening range, just under a third are gospel.
No written profile can fully communicate Lowell Mason’s enormous personal charm, nor the quiet good humor of his wife Judy. They are kind and gracious hosts, recommending destination spots and hotel accommodations, leading a tour of the Precious Moments Cathedral and grounds far more personalized and reflective than any guide could manage. At lunch, they even come on something like a show-me-state George and Gracie: In the middle of a recollection of their first meeting at that 1962 NACC conference in Lexington, when asked what it was about the dashing, pencil-mustachioed young Lowell that caught her attention, Judy cuts a dry, skeptical glance at her husband. He waggles his eyebrows playfully. Judy’s mouth forms a straight line and she says, calmly as a practiced comedienne, “That’s where my memory ends.”
Seated in Iggy’s Diner, a retro-style eatery in downtown Carthage that serves up excellent catfish, barbecued ham and onion rings, Lowell Mason observes that despite the pace of his travel and ministry work over 65 years, he never felt old, physically, until October 2016, the date of his spinal surgery. The active schedule he kept up well into his late 70s was drastically curtailed by that procedure, which was not only complex on its own merits, but became even more so, unexpectedly, on the table.
In early 2016 Lowell had gone to an old doctor friend, an osteopath, with complaints of numbness in his hands, arms, and legs—a symptom common among achondroplasic adults, and one that can be an indicator of spinal complication. The doctor informed Lowell he needed to be seen by a specialist; an adjustment on an undiagnosed deteriorating spinal system could easily render him quadriplegic.
“So I did; and my doctor said, ‘Lowell, there’s not a doctor in Joplin that’ll touch you.’ No one nearby had any experience with neurosurgery and dwarfism, that we could tell.”
The problem was serious: Lowell’s neck vertebrae had started to become “kyphotic”: His upper cervical vertebrae had developed a pronounced forward curve behind the larynx, tilting the skull backwards slightly. To compensate, in order to keep his head and eyes level, the lower portion of his cervical spine had begun to bow backwards, resulting in what neurologists and orthopedists call “swan neck deformity” of the spine. Surgery would be required, and soon.
A trip was planned to Johns Hopkins Medical Center. Lowell and Judy’s daughter Kelly, a registered nurse then living in Joplin, sent out the word on her father’s condition. Soon a call came in from a doctor in Texas who was on the Board at Johns Hopkins, who volunteered to help find a qualified surgeon.
That call led the Masons to Dr. Daniel Hoernschemeyer, an orthopedic surgeon practicing in Columbia, Missouri who, as luck would have it, specialized in the treatment of little people, both children and adults. Consulting Lowell’s x-rays, Hoernschemeyer, initially confident he could help, determined that the progression of Lowell’s spinal deformity was even more severe than his specialized training could allow him to correct. Finally, a neurosurgeon was flown in from Canada; Hoernschemeyer would be present in the operating room during Lowell’s surgical procedure, but she would perform the work.
“When the surgeon explained it to me,” says Lowell, “she said, ‘Now, I’m going to open your throat, and we’ll take some vertebrae out and replace them. That’ll take about four hours. Then we’ll turn you over, and we’ll go in the back, and do the other repairs.’”
The first half of the surgery went as expected. But when they turned Lowell, his heart got badly out of rhythm, and the surgery had to be halted.
“Two weeks I lay on my back waiting for them to do the second four hours,” he says. His spine stopped working completely. Judy was there every night at his bedside.
“I hallucinated. I went through a horrible experience. That first set of rehab was awful,” he says. “These days they still put me to work, but I’m a lot better. The toughest thing I take now is a half a Tylenol PM at night.”
After he left the hospital, Lowell and Judy bought a refurbished panel van, outfitted with an electronic ramp and a network of ratchet straps, to help him get around town on his Go-Go scooter. But get around Lowell does: Two days a week of physical rehab and exercise tend to put him through the wringer, but on off days he’s active. His wit is sharp, his energy good, and he likes his morning coffee hot. And his nonprofit ministry outreach is still up and running steady.
Lowell Mason never once thought that his boyhood desire to honor the Lord through song would lead to all it has. “Never. We’ve been all around the world. Not all at once: We came around this way, then went around that way. But we’ve been all around it several times. Every once and a while Judy and I will take a moment to sit down and think about stuff that we’ve done. Something will happen somewhere in the world—‘Hey that’s over in so-and-so; we’ve been there, haven’t we?’ And sure enough, we have.
“We tried to raise our kids like we were raised. When we were on the road traveling and the kids were in correspondence school, Judy was their teacher. I’d teach them little bible verses and songs. But you never know how it’s going to turn out, do you? Things just happen. I never thought it’d go like it has. Never once.”
The food arrives; Lowell asks Judy to bring the blessing. We bow our heads and give thanks for having been brought safely through the miles behind. Outside the early springtime sun is full and strong, bright as it must have been on that first long-ago morning, when out of the chaos a voice spoke, and light and joy came into the world for the first time.
Eric Waggoner is Associate Professor of American Literature and Cultural Studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where he also teaches Creative Nonfiction courses in the MFA in Writing Program. He has been a music writer since 2000, and is currently Contributing Editor and Writer for MAGNET magazine. He is the founder and managing editor of Latham House Press, a micro-press devoted to publishing first books by promising Appalachian writers in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.