story by Robin Beaudoin | photos courtesy of Matthew Bowlin
Matthew Bowlin, 47, a father and Orff music specialist with Shelby County Schools, finds solace and joy in teaching music to children, and in choral exploits with his group, Memphis Camerata. These have marked a renewal in his life, in recovery from an abusive family, and unfathomable trials growing up gay in rural Kentucky.
Bowlin’s mother expected he would be a girl (according to his heart rate in utero, and some old wives’ traditions), and made him feel like a black sheep as middle child. Singing in church choir was his only respite from reminders of how he didn’t fit in. As a teenager, his girlfriend became pregnant, and he married her, under pressure to ‘do the right thing.’ She soon abandoned him and their son, Aaron, now 28. His mother forged signatures and fraudulently took custody of the child. Bowlin set a goal to complete college and come get his son.
The custody battle caused a rift in his family. The first time his father got sick, it was their first court date over Aaron. When Bowlin served at Calvary Episcopal in downtown Memphis, Lambda legal stepped in and defended him on grounds of discrimination. Christmas Day, his mother emailed him to tell him that Aaron was not his son, to stop his fight for custody.
Judge Donna Fields had his case on the docket to take his mother’s custody battle off the table. The judge not only gave Bowlin custody but stripped the disrespectful grandmother of her rights. Now, his two sons, Aaron and Seth, have given him two grandsons as well.
Matthew now serves as section leader at St. John’s United Methodist Church, K-12 music teacher, and leader of Memphis Camerata.
At the age of 13, he won a singing competition in Casey, Kentucky, performing Just-a- Swingin, winning a dinner out for his family. That success gave him strength, and music became his outlet. Enter Memphis Camerata.
A gay men’s chorus is expected to be a full-time show choir, so he doesn’t call his group a gay choir. “We rehearsed at St. Peter Catholic downtown, because they allowed us to use their space. We adopted the name Adams Avenue Camerata. Women also Before his father died, a year ago, the Adams Avenue Camerata. Women also desired an ensemble, and they merged, becoming Memphis Camerata.
Every year they sing at the sunrise service at Memorial Park Cemetery for Easter. This Christmas they performed Benjamin Britton’s A Ceremony of Carols. Bowlin’s father was a tenor in church choir, and Matthew used to sing a song his father taught to him I Want To Stroll Over Heaven With You.
Before his father died, a year ago, the Adams Avenue men’s ensemble went in the hospital room and sang his favorite Christmas carols. He spent three weeks of his father’s final days caring for him, reconciling their relationship, and unraveling terrible lies told by an abusive mother. His father, moved, said, “I love you son, don’t forget me.”
Healing that relationship, founded in music, taught Bowlin how important a tool music is. He is currently teaching his students an a capella piece accompanied by cups (think Becca’s audition in the movie Pitch Perfect), including the Orff concepts of movement and rhythm. “I’m very passionate about these children singing. I could teach any kid – I just love to sing. It’s a very powerful tool. It’s a passion for caring for other people.”
Upcoming Memphis Camerata performances include an Easter sunrise service at Memorial Park on April 1, and their spring concert (now recruiting singers) on April 27 at St. Marys’ Episcopal Cathedral. Visit memphiscamerata.org to join, find upcoming events, or book the chorus.
“It is our goal to educate the community in Choral music. When we do a concert, we talk about the pieces that we do, and we’re interested in keeping choral music alive,” notes Bowlin. “I just want to spread positivity, caring, and make people laugh.”