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Sterling Cotton Patch Gospel set
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STERLING — The greatest story ever told – as the gospel is sometimes called – is also a great story to be retold in different ways. Just look at the bluegrass musical Cotton Patch Gospel, with music by popular songwriter Harry Chapin. Resetting Jesus’s life story to the American South, the show is the only production to be praised by both Rolling Stone and Christianity Today magazines and hailed as “A Joyous Triumph” by the New York Times. 

The show is being produced by and at the Encounter Church in Sterling. It will be presented at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 30 and Saturday, Oct. 1 and at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 2. The show will feature 11 cast and musicians, most from Sterling and vicinity. 

This entertaining musical features the reverential retelling of the Gospels of Matthew and John in a contemporary southern setting, set to bluegrass music. The award-winning musical is based on the book The Cotton Patch Gospel of Matthew and John by Clarence Jordan, a Bible scholar and Civil Rights activist. Tom Key and Russell Treyz adapted Jordan’s writings and worked with the late songwriter Harry Chapin to create this musical stage version.

The musical brings the far away places of Nazareth, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem closer to home – Atlanta and rural, Georgia. From his birth in a Gainesville, Georgia trailer to his Good Friday lynching and Easter Sunday victory, the story of Mary Davidson’s son, Jesus, is presented musically with zest and uninhibited joy.

Sterling Encounter Pastor Wayne Beaver is directing the show. He said, “Cotton Patch Gospel is delivered in the southern dialect for which it was written, and it contains moments of humor (we hope), but there is no sarcasm or insincerity in this presentation. Taking the familiar story of Jesus out the dusty past and away from distant lands, we are hoping it breathes with new life, that it hits closer to home in blue jeans and sneakers than it might in white robes and sandals.”

“We are blessed with the musicians we have on board. They’re amazing,” Beaver said. The trio of musicians is led by Randy Key on longneck banjo. Joining him are Bob Boltz on guitar and Ben Decker on bass. “Bob’s still a real student of the guitar,” Key said. “He’s never played a show before but he’s really getting into it. And that Ben Decker – that guy is just a genius on bass. He’s in his early 20’s but does he know how to play!”

Key has performed Cotton Patch Gospel twice before – once for Hutchinson Family Children’s Theatre in 1994 and again at Hutchinson’s Trinity Methodist Church in 1997. “This show is one of my absolute favorites. I love playing the banjo – which I’ve been doing for 50 years or so. But I just love the story, the humor, and those great Chapin songs. It’s wonderful,” he said.

This musical production is a continuation of what Encounter Church hopes will be an annual tradition presenting Broadway quality material which contains a clear presentation of the gospel. Last year’s production was Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming.