Beer, Hymns And Fellowship

Beer, Hymns And Fellowship

Simple concept heals hearts, creates community


The Bentonville-based group Beer and Hymns is definitely on to something. Led by Ken Weatherford, Bentonville’s First United Methodist Church’s director of Music and Worship Arts, Beer and Hymns has taken a simple concept — gathering a group of people to sing together around food and drinks — and turned it into an effective fundraiser for other area nonprofits. In fact, Beer and Hymns is on track to donate more than $50,000 this fiscal year to organizations like the Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter, the Samaritan Community Center and various area food pantries.

As it turns out, the reason for the popularity and success of Weatherford’s venture is based in science. Research has shown that communal singing offers a wealth of social, emotional and physical health benefits. The nonprofit organization Sing Up Foundation’s website is a clearinghouse of peer-reviewed research that shows that, among other things, singing with other people lowers cortisol, reduces stress, releases oxytocin, boosts confidence, promotes mindfulness and encourages social connections that help stem depression and feelings of loneliness.

I knew this to be true long before I read the research. I first experienced the power of singing with strangers at a Chicago performance of “A Prairie Home Companion” in the late 1990s. My parents had come to visit me for Thanksgiving, and the tickets were a treat for all of us. At the end of the show, Garrison Keillor led the audience in a sing-along, and I never forgot the power of that moment — raising my voice with thousands of other strangers, my mother’s sweet alto on my left, my father’s tone deaf but enthusiastic deep voice on my right, as the words of the song soared to the roof of the grand Chicago Medinah Temple auditorium. Were people a little more polite on the way out of the aisles? Did I smile a bit more at the random strangers I walked side by side with out the doors to the bustling Chicago streets? It seemed like it, and that impression was cemented into fact a few years later when, in the harrowing, grief-filled days following the Sept. 11 attacks, I gathered together with a couple dozen other citizens of Evanston, Ill., to sing patriotic songs on our lunch hour. It seems like such a silly thing now, looking back, but as I sang, sobbed and hugged people I didn’t know on that street corner, it was the first time since I heard the news that I felt like there was hope that we could emerge from that dark time with our spirits still intact.

Hymns And More

Weatherford says he first became aware of the power of communal singing when he was traveling with his wife, Casey, as the acoustic duo The Weatherfolk. They lived in Scotland for a time, where communal singing is popular. According to a census completed by the group Voices Now in 2017, the United Kingdom boasts around 40,000 choirs in which 2.14M UK citizens are active.

“You can find Beer and Hymns groups all over the world — Chicago, Hong Kong, Australia,” he says. “Our iteration is a little bit different than a lot of the others. Most start out as ‘Let’s get together and drink and sing,’ and we started out that way and loved that, but we found it to be fairly insular in its concept.”

When Weatherford’s Beers and Hymns first started out a little over three years ago, the gatherings were small — maybe around 30 people — and primarily comprised the community surrounding First United Methodist, where Weatherford works. He wanted it to have more of a reach and to be more inclusive so, he says, he started to tweak the original concept. Today, events draw in large crowds, swelling to over 400 at last year’s Beer and Carols event at Bentonville’s Record, their largest event of the year.

“We still sing old hymns,” he says — songs he calls “universal standards” like “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “I Saw the Light” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” — “and then we have themes every month. For example, January is The Beatles, February is love songs, March is ‘Luck of the Irish’. If you’re not into hymns or the whole Jesus thing, cool, just stick around — the next song is Tom Petty. That makes it more of an inviting thing for folks to get involved with.”

They also started playing outside of Bentonville and now have regular gigs at several different bars in the Northwest Arkansas area. But perhaps the biggest change Weatherford has made since the group originated is its philanthropic focus.

“We don’t do cover charges, it’s purely donation-based,” he says. “We try to make sure all of our events are free. It keeps it very open. We invite the charity of the night to come and speak a couple of times throughout the evening, and that’s the only speaking that takes place. There’s no prayer time, no bait and switch, it’s just, ‘Let’s sing.’ That way, anybody can feel welcome. We pass buckets about midway through the night, but it’s purely on the audience to say, ‘Yeah, we like this charity, and we want to support it.’ And all of our venues are giving 10% of their proceeds to the charity right now — but the lion’s share of what we collect are donations.”

Reasons To Sing

There was a Beer and Carols performance scheduled for a few days after I spoke with Weatherford on the phone, and I immediately made plans to be there so I could check it out in person. With my husband, 8-year-old twins and mom in tow, I headed to the picturesque Tontitown Winery, arriving just in time to get one of the last tables as the room rapidly filled with folks. Weatherford and his wife, Casey, were at the forefront of an impressive eight-piece band, and lyric sheets were waiting on the tabletops. The crowd was slow to join in as the band kicked off the night with a beautiful arrangement of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” but they warmed up considerably a few songs in. We were all singing together, full force, by about mid-show. It was as fun and as beautiful and as meaningful as I remembered: a crowd, many of us strangers, experiencing the spirit of cooperation, the satisfaction of creating something beautiful together and a shared love of music. Though not as tone deaf as my father, I can only hit about one out of three notes, but there’s no room for worrying about being in the right key at a Beer and Hymns night — sing out, sister, because everyone else is too busy having too good of a time to notice that you are no Enrico Caruso.

The band only took two brief breaks during a two-hour period, and that was so the night’s nonprofit beneficiary, the Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter, could give its pitch in a one-two punch that hit us right in the giving bone. The first representative from the organization gave us the stats: The shelter houses more than 400 children a year from 19 different counties in Northwest Arkansas, and less than 20% of its budget comes from the state — so donations are critical to the bottom line. The second speaker was a young woman who admitted she was nervous — this was her first time speaking in public — who then began haltingly, carefully reading her prepared notes to the crowd. She told us a story about a 13-year-old girl brought to the shelter in the middle of the night, rescued from a dangerous situation, who was surprised to realize that the shelter workers were kind and supportive — she thought she was being brought there to be punished. The young woman stopped at this point in her story, unable to go on, struggling against tears. Finally, she explained that she was telling us her own story, why she now supports the shelter as a volunteer and why she hoped we would help support the shelter with our donations. The spirit of the night and, especially, the young woman’s story, were full of heart and impact, and near the end of the show, Weatherford announced that the room had donated nearly $2,500 to the shelter.

“To me, we’re fostering community — that’s what I’ve loved the most about what’s happening,” says Weatherford when I ask him what effect he thinks the events have on participants. “Singing, drinking, all kind of have — I hesitate to use the word ‘magic’ power, but they really can help break down some barriers for people. We live in such a divided world today. Nothing hurts my heart more than that, and so that’s what I love about Beer and Hymns. You can look out and see people who voted one way or another or didn’t vote because they felt they couldn’t — and they’re all hanging out, drinking a drink, whether that’s beer, wine, water, and they’re singing songs and giving back to their community. When I see this, I feel like all this bitterness, all this division, all this hate that we see around us today — I feel like we’re going to be OK. We’re going to get through all of this.”

I, on the other hand, would not hesitate to call the particular alchemy of group sing-alongs magic. To be perfectly honest, I haven’t enjoyed the Christmas season since my father died four years ago. Christmas carols are particularly excruciating, especially since most of them bring memories of my father putting on records as we decorated our tree. But that night at the Tontitown Winery, I sang along with gusto; at the end of the night, as we closed “Silent Night” with a final acapella verse and then rose and sang “O Come All Ye Faithful,” swaying side to side, shoulder to shoulder, the songs of the season brought me peace instead of pain. Every Beer and Hymns event ends with the folk song “All of the Hard Days Are Gone,” a boisterous melody with a gentle message: “Life has been cloudy and gray/Take the bad memories and put them away/For the sun has come out, we have waited so long/All of the hard days are gone.”

“Do you want to sing some carols on the way home?” asked my son as we got in the car to leave. And for the first time in four years, it sounded like something I might like to do.



Beer And Hymns

WHAT — Beer and Hymns: An evening of classic hymns and secular audience favorites

WHEN — 5-7 p.m. Dec. 31

WHERE — Bike Rack Brewery, 801 SE Eighth St., Bentonville

CHARITY — Benefiting Beer and Hymns


Categories: Cover Story