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After serving as an associate pastor in a different church for a decade, Butler and his wife, Sharon, who also is a pastor, founded the New Song Christian Fellowship in 2002. "I'd met so many good people playing music over the years that were disconnected from God but really had no problem with God, and I thought, Honky-tonk folks, that's my harvest field," Butler says. "I understand them and I know they have divorces and cancer and life issues just like everyone else, and many of them don't have anyone to discuss those things with. I just saw our church as an opportunity to love on some people who might need it."
The Gospel Lounge functions as a sort of advertisement for the brand of Christianity that Butler espouses at his church. "There've been people who were regulars at the Gospel Lounge, who really enjoyed the messages, who asked if there was anywhere I speak longer, and I said, 'Sure, Sunday afternoon at three,' " Butler says. "And they've come out to the church and found what they needed there, and now they're regulars at church and not so regular at the Gospel Lounge."
Dan Doran, whose Dan Doran Band has been an occasional special guest at the Gospel Lounge (other acts that have sat in include Trampled Under Foot, Smokin' Joe Kubek, Ray Bonneville, and the Fabulous Torque's), has known Butler since the Chouteau Inn days. "I'm not really into organized religion," he says. "But I believe in God and have a relationship with God. When I first started coming to the Gospel Lounge, I was going through a divorce and taking a stress leave from my job. I found a lot of consolation just by showing up there and seeing some old friends. There's a spiritual message there, but it's not strict. It's very accepting, and I think people are drawn to that."
The music, though, is the main draw of the Gospel Lounge. Butler grew up with a well-balanced diet of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Jimi Hendrix and B.B. King, and the variety is evident in the set lists, which are as likely to include Motown covers as blues standards.
"Carl is really an amazing player, and he brings a lot of different styles and slants to the performance," Doran says. "My favorite thing is that he plays a style — I would maybe call it country jazz or something — that's kind of a lost art, that very few people can play around here anymore. It goes back to the honky-tonk days."
Since the inception of the Gospel Lounge, the room has been renovated and expanded four times (it holds only about 50 comfortably). "It used to be a storage room," Hicks says. "We tore some walls out and built the stage. We put mirrors in so the audience could see easier. But people were still crowding in, so we tore out another wall. I don't know how much more we can do to that room."
"It's slowly become this great little venue. It's not even something we set out to do. It just happened," Butler says, his wide, sunken eyes gleaming in wonder at such a blessing.