OSAKIS, Minn. — When a poem came to Kenneth Walter, chances were he was in the barn milking cows.
He usually carried a carpenter pencil in his bib overalls, and he would scribble the words on the whitewashed walls of the barn.
"A little more righteousness," he wrote. "A little less sin. A little more holiness, enthroned within. A little more praying, a little less words. More careful attention to things we heard."
Lines he scribbled on the barn wall in the 1940s, '50s and '60s have come to life again, as his son Fred Walter, a retired dairy farmer from Osakis, has worked them into two CDs he recorded recently in Nashville.
Fred recalled his dad as a devout man who read his Bible morning and night, led family devotions and brought his 14 kids to church three times a week. They were Free Methodists. They lived a few miles south of Osakis, Minn., and their lives revolved around the farm and the church and occasional gospel concerts such as The Kingsmen and the Blackwood Brothers.
Kenneth's wife, Mildred, would send their children out to the barn to copy down the words, as they would disappear the next time the barn got whitewashed.
Fred understood his dad.
“When you’re milking, you’re thinking all the time and these rhymes would come to him," he said. "To me, it was a peaceful time. You’re milking and you have time to think. Some people play radio when they milked cows but I never did. I liked to have that time to think.”
Fred doesn't write poetry himself. But he sings Southern gospel, the kind that swings with joy for the Lord's goodness.
Fred was the 13th of the 14 kids. His older sister Grace died at age 20 of cancer when he was 9. Grace had encouraged him to accept Christ into his heart, and Fred promised to the next time church camp came around. The problem was that the church camp wanted kids who accepted Christ to come to the altar, and he was too self-conscious to go forward, afraid of making a spectacle of himself.
Years went by, and Fred stopped going to church. It was just easier not to go, he said. He listened to the music of the day: Elvis and Johnny Cash, and you couldn't not listen to the Beatles.
His dad died in 1975, when Fred was in his 20s. The old barn was torn down, and replaced with a new one. Mildred gathered all the poems Kenneth had written and compiled them into a book.
Not all of his poems were religious. Sometimes they were in honor of a milestone; someone's anniversary, or a holiday. But many, if not all, expressed his deeply held religious faith.
"We hear of the Saviour," he wrote. "They tell of his love. We read in the bible how he came from above poor sinners to rescue, lost souls to save, released from darkness those bound like a slave."
Not all was going well for Fred, who had taken over the farm. He doesn't share specifics, but there were some things going on in his life that he realized he needed help with.
“I finally fell on my knees and accepted Christ into my heart," he said. "I haven’t been the same since."
It was Nov. 13, 1978, his spiritual birthday. He was 28.
He turned away from worldly music, and started listening to Southern gospel. It spoke to him like no other music.
“There’s a mini sermon in each song," Fred said. "You can find help for your spiritual needs in each song.”
He milked cows, and a Free Methodist Church in Clarissa, Minn., hired him as a part-time pastor. He's 70 now. He and his wife, Debbie, often arrange for gospel singers to visit the Alexandria area. About 10 years ago, he started singing himself, encouraged by his wife. He sang at assisted living facilities. He recorded music in Nashville, and set up a Facebook page for Fred Walter Music & Ministry.
Two years ago, he featured two of his dad's poems in a CD called "How Sweet the Sound." This year, he recorded two more albums, using Nashville studio musicians for four of the songs, including Alan Jackson’s piano player and a guy who provided music for a Super Bowl. One of the albums will be released in time for Christmas and features one of his dad's Christmas poems.
The other album has an original song written by Fred.
"That's the only one I ever wrote."
Fred sells his CDs at local businesses and at his concerts.
“All the songs, they minister to me and I thought maybe they’d minister to other people,” he said. “That’s what we do to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.”