39th and Castleman

A friend of mine just bought a house in a part of St. Louis that, in order to get to, I have to drive past the Lester Family Music Store. It’s an old storefront, kept up well and classically, with a wonderful antique sign that looks retro (”Lesters Music” it says, simply), until you realize it’s probably original, or at least dates well before the craze for old-looking new things. The store is a handful of blocks away from the established Baptist church the family attends. After the most recent personnel changes with the group, I ended up reading the bios on the newest members, among them Brian Lester’s son, Jonathan, who splits time traveling and attending college, not at one of the big sprawling campuses out in the suburbs, but at the only public university in the city limits (it straddles the space between midtown and downtown St. Louis). For anyone who doesn’t live in or isn’t familiar with St. Louis, this may all seem hopelessly provincial and uninteresting. But I’m struck (and, I confess, oddly touched) by how steadfast the Lesters have remained int their commitment to a decidedly urban way of life despite what doubtless has been the enticements of communities and ways of living more like those from which most of their fans doubtless come - more rural, less urbane, more homogenous, insular. This steadfastness is all the more endearing because despite the fact that the Lesters have been and are a cultural fixture on the southside of St. Louis, they are as artists and gospel entertainers far better known, more recognized and in demand outside the city. Only a wispy handful of this year’s dates for the Ls are in the city or its suburbs, nary a public one in the city itself. This is too bad - for everyone involved, since the city would do well to more fully appreciate and celebrate the treasure it has in the Lester Family. I don’t, however, mean to suggest the Lesters need or want any pity. It’s to the Lesters’ immense credit that they have for decades and generations held down the corner of 39th and Castleman (just today someone told me of a friend who has lately been taking guitar lessons from the Ls) in an old and somewhat transitory neighbor that has and continues to evolve in the unpredictable, serendipitous and not always completely comfortable ways that living urban landscapes do molt and change. Gospel music rightly celebrates and esteems the Lesters as one of the legendary families of southern gospel. The other, less well-known facet to the family is the way it has kept an unspoken but obviously vital covenant with a community the average sg fan and performer likely would have abandoned years ago. Fort this commitment, I - as one with an affection for the city of St. Louis and southern gospel - am deeply grateful.

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