Archive Fun: The Hopeful Gospel Quartet

Archive Fun features are put together by David Edin for A Prairie Home Companion

The Hopeful Gospel Quartet was formed when four friends discovered their shared interest in gospel music. They were standing around backstage before a performance of A Prairie Home Companion, and one of them began to sing. The others joined in. Original members were Garrison Keillor, Kate MacKenzie, and Robin & Linda Williams. They performed concerts across the country, recorded two albums, and appeared at Austin City Limits.

The earliest show in A Prairie Home Companion's online archive featuring the Hopeful Gospel Quartet is from 1997. In 1992, Chet Atkins gathered them together and produced the companion CD (Get the CD) featuring the Quartet singing gospel standards such as "Jordan," "My Rock," and "Softly and Tenderly." Here is a performance of the song "My Precious Children" from one of the APHC cruises,  where Kate came out of retirement to sing a few tunes with her old friends. It's a slow ballad featuring Kate on lead vocals along with some fine group harmony.

Robin and Linda Williams have been with A Prairie Home Companion since the early days of the show--back when there were 18 radio listeners and 12 people in the live audience. Since then Robin & Linda Williams and Their Fine Group have performed in a remarkable variety of venues, from coffee houses, churches, and outdoor stages to the Grand Ole Opry, concert halls, and Austin City Limits; during the course of a year they'll put on as many miles as many truckers. And no matter where they travel, their voices and harmonies still amaze, no more so than on this album featuring the PHC house band and produced by Garrison himself.  'Visions of Love' (Get the CD) is a beautiful, simple album allowing the lyrics & harmonies to shine. Here, Linda takes lead on an Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem set to music.

Kate MacKenzie served as the producer of Climbing Up on the Rough Side (Get the CD), which gathered together some of the best performances of the original Hopeful Gospel Quartet. After Kate's retirement, the group took a small hiatus, and returned a few years later with Mollie O'Brien.

Kate is back with new music after a recording hiatus of 20 years.  Read our guest interview >>>

Hopeful Gospel Quartet 2

Mollie O'Brien joined the group after making three solo appearances in 2001. Mollie O'Brien sings Jazz, R&B, blues, gospel, southern mountain, and traditional music. She has recorded four solo albums, three albums featuring her with her brother Tim, and one album with the Hopeful Gospel Quartet. She has a strong voice and can really belt out a tune.

The culmination of Mollie's time with the group was captured on the recording 'Over the River and Through the Woods,"  (Get the CD) which was a Thanksgiving-themed concert with VocalEssence in 2004 at Orchestra Hall. Here are a few songs from the show:

'Rivers of Babylon' 

"Will the Circle Be Unbroken"

Hopeful Gospel Quartet 3

Newer member Carol Elizabeth Jones hails from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She has made her mark as a singer of traditional mountain music and as a writer of new songs in the old tradition. She has recorded several acclaimed albums of original material.

Prudence Johnson filled in as the fourth voice in the below song for the Robert Altman-directed movie, A Prairie Home Companion (Get the Movie). Prudence's 25-year career in music has taken her from nightclubs and honky-tonks to Carnegie Hall; from the theater stage to the silver screen (see: Robert Redford's A River Runs Through It); and from the Middle West to the Middle East. Here is "Let the Light from the Lighthouse Shine on Me."

Heather Masse has filled in as the fourth voice recently. She grew up in rural Maine and currently makes her home in New York state. She frequently appears on A Prairie Home Companion, often with her band the Wailin' Jennys or as a duet partner with Garrison. Garrison and Heather recently recorded an album of duets called "Beautiful Dreamer" (Get the CD).  During our cinecast performance, she performed "Done found my Lost Sheep." (Get the DVD)

Even with some changes in the lineup, the Hopefuls keep making great music. Here's hoping they take the stage together soon in any combination!


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  • I love PHC! I recently had the pleasure of watching the adapted screen film..if you have not seen it, I would recommend not only stars the likes of Garrison, but also entertained by the talented Meryl Streep, and the the lol funny Lilly Tomlin, also a very early film for Ms. Lindsay Lohan who also sings a tune at the shows wrap. Give it a view and perhaps like me you will be moved by “the gospel” once again!

    Daniel Swarts

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