By KATIE EUBANKS
When Dick Tunney and Melodie Ware joined a gospel group called Truth on the same day in 1980, they were as different as could be.
Melodie was a rule bender, while Dick — “to a pharisaical degree,” he admits — was a rule follower. She grew up Southern Baptist in Texas, while he grew up Assembly of God in Ohio. She was a sophomore in college, while he’d been done with college and living away from home for five years.
They weren’t even friends at the time. They had no idea God would bring them together for a journey that would include decades-long careers in recording and producing; touring together as husband and wife; and moving to Mississippi to add their talents to First Baptist Jackson’s worship ministry.
“We both had plans, but God has just led us to an Ephesians 3:20 kind of life,” Melodie says, citing the verse in which Paul says God can do “immeasurably more” than we can imagine.
And He has.
From not friends to engaged — in 2 weeks
“The big rule in the group (was) no dating,” Melodie says of she and Dick’s time with Truth. She sang alto, while Dick played piano. “That was one of the reasons we were really kind of not even friends.”
That changed after Dick got invited to join another group, The Imperials, “which was as big as you could get in Christian music at that time,” Melodie recalls.
“A lot of the guys (in Truth) were giving him grief about it: ‘We’re trying to start something here, and you’re going to leave?’ And I really think the Holy Spirit put this in me — I went up to him one day and said, ‘You could probably care less what my opinion is, but I think you’d be crazy not to do this.’
“Suddenly, I was his cheerleader. We became friends. We started sitting by each other on the bus. I was fine with him leaving (Truth), because we had no (romantic) relationship.”
Until they did.
Rule or no rule, it would be hard to date on a tour bus. The closest they got was one night when Dick was scheduled to relieve the bus driver from midnight to 3 a.m., “from somewhere in Georgia to the South Carolina coast,” Dick recalls.
People signed up to sit with the drivers each hour of the night so they wouldn’t fall asleep.
“I knew when he was going to be driving, and I signed up for 1 o’clock (in the morning),” Melodie says. “I went to bed on the floor in the back of the bus, where the girls slept. … I remember being so excited to go sit up there with him. So I really didn’t even go to sleep.
“Finally, (a friend came back from her shift), and I pretended she woke me up.”
Dick remembers Melodie coming to the front of the bus and him asking, “You awake?”
She didn’t want him to know she’d been awake for hours.
“She sort of yawned and said, ‘Give me a minute,’” he recalls.
Dick drove till 9 a.m., six hours past his shift, and Melodie stayed with him the whole time.
Within days, Dick left Truth. But soon — just two weeks after that initial conversation in which Melodie encouraged him to join The Imperials — they saw each other again at a worship conference, and Dick proposed.
In the studio, on the road and at home
After marrying, they settled in Nashville. Dick toured with The Imperials, and Melodie was a receptionist at Word Records, which led to a career as a session vocalist.
One of her more interesting gigs was barking a “Pound Puppies” Christmas album with other singers. Think “Paw Patrol” in the ’80s. “It was hilarious,” Melodie says. (A quick Google search reveals the album is still available to purchase, but only on vinyl.)
Along the way, Melodie met vocalists Bonnie Keen and Marty McCall. When they sang together on sessions, they realized they had a good sound, it was fun, and they could all learn the music quickly. So they started pitching themselves to producers as a session trio named First Call.
“Because hopefully, we’d be the first call you’d make,” Melodie says. “But mainly because our first calling is Christ.”
Then Dick, who’d left The Imperials, got a call from Sandi Patty, one of the biggest Christian artists at the time. She wanted two keyboard players and two singers to tour with her.
Dick asked Sandi if she could deal with one keyboard player (himself) and three singers. First Call had already sung on some of Sandi’s records. One problem: Melodie was pregnant, and she was due two weeks after Sandi’s tour was scheduled to begin.
“We were playing 15,000- and 20,000-seat venues,” Dick says. “(But) they went back to William Morris and said, ‘Can you push the whole tour back a month?’”
Melodie and Dick’s first child, a girl, was due February 15 — now two weeks before the new start date for the tour.
“First children are usually not early,” Melodie says. “But we all just started praying that God would bring her early, so we could have the maximum time (with just her and us before the tour).”
Whitney Tunney was born 11 days early, on February 4. By six weeks old, she’d spent more time on a tour bus than at home. She learned to crawl on a blanket in her parents’ dressing room.
After two years of touring with Sandi Patty, Dick continued playing keyboard for her while Melodie and First Call toured on their own. Between them, Dick and Melodie won eight or nine Dove Awards, the highest honor in Christian music. But their tour schedules did not sync up. Instead of being home together during the week, they’d see each other for maybe a day here and there and do laundry.
They quit touring and settled in at home in Nashville. Then a year and a half later, they started getting calls: A booking agent offered to handle the calendar if Dick and Melodie ever decided to tour together. A division of Warner Brothers expressed interest in recording them.
For the next 15 years, they went back on tour — on the same schedule.
They settled down again as their daughters, Whitney and Kelsey, entered high school. Melodie continued doing session vocals, and “a lot of production work came Dick’s way,” she says. She also worked as a music minister at a handful of different churches in the Nashville area over the next several years.
Dick also got the opportunity to play piano for award-winning Christian singer Steve Green. Dick wound up being Steve’s musical director for 16 years.
Then the pandemic hit.
COVID and the call to Jackson
In spring 2020, Melodie had been working for a few months with Concerned Women for America, the nation’s largest Christian women’s policy organization, to advocate for biblical principles in legislation. Dick had been touring with Steve Green.
“We did this date in south Mississippi the first week in March (2020),” Dick recalls. “Then the world fell apart.”
Month by month, Dick and Steve’s shows got postponed or canceled, and Melodie’s CWA travel slowed down considerably. Then toward the end of 2020, Dick was on the phone with Mike Harland, whom the Tunneys knew from his days at Lifeway in Nashville. Mike was now the associate pastor of worship at First Baptist Jackson, Mississippi.
Dick had called Mike to thank him for mentoring a young songwriter they both knew. Then Dick asked how things were going in Jackson.
Mike offered him a job almost on the spot.
After a long dinner with Mike in Nashville and much prayer, the Tunneys decided to move to Mississippi.
The return of ‘Carols’
“For most of my ministry-slash-career, I’ve been a really good Robin to everyone else’s Batman,” Dick says. “My favorite portions of any concert that I’ve played (are) ‘Let’s do something just piano and vocal, and you feel that song the way you want to feel it and let me color around the edges.’
“On most every level, that’s what I’m doing at First Baptist. Mike is the guy dangling his toes off the stage, leading our congregation in worship, and for the most part, I’m driving the bus behind him.”
Mike rehearses the choir while Dick rehearses the orchestra. Dick also has done a lot of writing and arranging for the orchestra.
Most recently, Mike, Dick and Melodie wrote five new songs for this year’s “Carols by Candlelight,” FBJ’s long-running Christmas production, which returns this year after the church did a smaller online production in 2020 due to COVID.
“For three days in May, Mike and Mel and I holed up here (at our house) and wrote (songs),” Dick says.
Dick and Melodie had written plenty of songs together, but he admits that working with a third songwriter — who was also a friend and Dick’s boss — could’ve been weird.
Far from it.
“It was as if God had a vat of creativity and said, ‘I’m just going to tip it over onto this house in Madison,’” Dick says.
As in years past, Jackson’s Ballet Magnificat! will add their talents to “Carols,” but this year in a bigger way: Each character in the nativity story will be portrayed by a Ballet Mag dancer, while the character’s lines will be sung by an FBJ soloist standing to the side. The audience will get to see the characters dance while hearing their beautifully sung dialogue.
“It’s very musical theater,” Melodie says.
They even added a Pharisee (the one character who won’t dance) at the suggestion of Ballet Mag’s Jiri Voborsky.
“Before we arranged what we’d written, Keith and Kathy (Thibodeaux) and Jiri came over here, and we invited them into the creative process,” Dick says. “(We asked) ‘How would you dance to this?’”
This year’s “Carols” will include large-production musical numbers, smaller intimate arrangements, and the five new songs written by Dick, Melodie and Mike, including title song “Hope Is Here.”
Besides co-writing the new songs and offering crucial feedback to Dick on the arrangements, Melodie will mentor the “Carols” soloists.
Melodie is not on staff at FBJ but has led worship when Mike is out of town, teaches a Sunday school class with some of the orchestra women, and teaches the women’s Wednesday night Bible study. (She’s written and taught 10 different Bible studies over the years.)
“I’m still seeking the Lord for the full reason I’m in Jackson,” she says. “Sometimes God says, ‘Be still and know (that I am God).’”
If there’s anything she and Dick have learned — from getting engaged after two weeks, to touring the country as Christian artists, to moving to a place neither of them had lived before — it’s that God’s ways are often surprising, and in a good way. Melodie sums it up by quoting Proverbs 16:9, “Man plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps.”