KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — For nearly forty years, the McKameys have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles around the country sharing their strong Christian faith through Southern Gospel music.
The McKameys, whose real last name is actually Bean, credit God for taking them through it all safely from their home in Clinton, to places near and far.
"God's been good to us, we haven't had major accident," Peg Bean said. "We have a Coach out there that has over a million miles on it. We had 4 buses before that. God's been good."
Ruben and Peg Bean met at his church when Peg and her sisters visited for a singing engagement.
"I got saved when I was 11 years old and shortly after that, my older sister said 'I'm singing a song in church Peg and you are going to help me'. Here's your part Peg, and here's your part Carol'." Peg recalled. "I don't remember what year it was, but it was a long time. We three ladies went to Ruben's church and sang a a capella. He sang with his family and he played guitar. I was taken."
Ruben, Peg, and her sisters performed together for years. Then in 1980, after years of working during the week and traveling to performances on the weekend, Ruben and Peg Bean decided to become a full-time Southern Gospel group.
"We're not a typical male quartet which is what most think about," Ruben said. "We were in Arkansas shortly after we went full time. The next week a gentleman called me and in our conversation he said he majored in music in college and asked how I classified myself. I said 'You tell me, you heard us.' He says we sing a traditional gospel with Appalachian harmony. So, I like that, so I guess that's what we are."
The group would go on to have dozens of hit songs and records.
"Our first number one song was Who put the tears in the eyes of the lamb?, a lady in Nashville wrote it and sent it to us and we recorded it and send it in to radio and it became number one song," Peg said. "The second song was a song our daughter wrote, she's a wonderful songwriter, she wrote a song called Getting Used to the Dark, and it was number one in 1987. Then in 1988, a song called God On the Mountain just exploded. It was number one on the charts. Since then we've done 33 more number one songs. God's given us great songs."
The McKameys have changed over the years with the current line-up consisting of Peg, Ruben, daughters Connie and Sheryl on vocals, Connie's husband/musician Roger Fortner, and Connie and Roger's son/musician Eli.
The family raised their daughters in Clinton where they went to school, they also had 2 sons.
"We started as the 2 daughters, myself and Ruben," Peg said. "As time went on, Sheryl got married and married a preacher and came off the road. My sister Carol that sung with us years ago, she came and sang in her place for 26 years and Carol retired. We were praying on whether to be a trio. I called Sheryl and asked her to pray and get a word from the Lord.
She called and said "I will mom'. She's 2 hours away. All this time she's been commuting. Two hours here and then go home. She's been doing that for the last 10 years."
Connie Bean Fortner says life on the road could be a challenge but it was mostly a lot of fun.
"I never really thought about what I was missing, I just loved what I did. Getting homework on the road, back to school," Connie said. "Back then everybody I was friends went to church. They knew what I did. It was a normal lifestyle. I was just raised in it. I didn't know any different."
Connie admits that sometimes Monday morning came a little too early after life on the road,
"Some mornings it was tough getting up. I enjoyed school so it was hard getting up when we were out so late on Sunday nights. That was a different way of life. Normal for me." Connie said.
In 1987, a musician joined the group who would change her life forever: Roger Fortner.
"My dad hired him to play guitar with our group," Connie said. "We worked together for several years. We worked together before we got together. He came, they hired him to be part of a band and we became friends, working friends and then developed into what we are today."
Roger Fortner came to the McKameys after spending a few years playing with another band.
"I had no clue that Connie and i would marry. I had no clue that we would have a son. I had no clue I'd be with the group 32 years. I had been with groups before, relative short stints," said Roger. "It's turned out pretty sweet."
The family has spent countless hours on the road together and admit that it can be hard at times but the good outweighs the bad .
"We have daily struggles like everyone else. Folks think that because of what we do, that nothing ever happens with us but it does," Connie said. "I think you spiritually get yourself in a way where God helps us to be our best in spite of our circumstances. We leave that with Him for the moment and He helps us get through that."
Ruben and Peg agree that life on the road isn't for everyone but they made it work and found friends at their stops across the country.
"The hardest part is getting from one date to another. You never know how the vehicle will run," Peg said. "We traveled in a van and I don't know what year we got a bus, that was a Godsend. We could just park the bus and sleep travel together and we've come a long way. We did try to sleep in the van, it's not too smart."
It's not every family that spends a good deal of time together performing on stage, but the family has an undeniable chemistry and remarkable harmony on and off the stage.
"It's the best thing in the world because you understand one another and kind of read each other, more so than a stranger," Peg said. "We read each other and you know suggests songs and so forth. It works really well in the family group, I wouldn't know any other way."
"We can cover for each other, Ruben said. "If one of us has a bad throat or switch parts and cover. It works real good when you can. You got that family harmony. Not just harmony in singing, harmony in the relationship. It really works good."
In late 2018, the Beans announced they were ending their run as the McKameys and their lives became busier than ever.
"We announced it at the Quartet Convention, the week before," Ruben said. "I guess it caused some folks to say 'Hey, if I'm going to book them, I'd better do it'."
For the past year, they've traveled around the country, saying goodbye to their fans, or friends before their final concert as a family on Nov. 23 at Knoxville's Civic Auditorium.
"We're going to miss that," Connie said. "The routine of what we do. That's going to be different because we're so geared to us."
And as for what they're going to do on the Monday following that final concert, the family says they're waiting to see how God writes their new chapter.
"We'll have to see. People ask, 'What are you going to do?'" Ruben said. "We don't know... we'll just see what the Lord has planned."