Is That Southern Gospel? (Part I, in case I feel like writing a Part II)

Some time ago, I e-mailed this video of Gus Gaches singing “I Stand Redeemed” to my dad. He wrote back and said, “If this is southern gospel, then I’m a southern gospel fan.”

But recently, this conversation took place between Dad and Mom…and inspired this post:

[Mom, sitting in the living-room happily listening to a Gaither Homecoming Hymns Cracker Barrel special, is interrupted after the first three tracks by Dad, who had hitherto been working in another room.]

Dad: What is that? Is that your Gaither CD?

Mom: Yes.

Dad: Man, that is NOT my thing.

[Dad rants a little, Mom tries to find out the cause and asks whether it’s Vestal. Dad says no but mentions a bass line on one that was like Chinese water torture. Finally Mom says…]

Well, that’s about as Southern Gospel as it gets. That’s right in the center of what Southern Gospel sounds like.

Dad: Well, then I guess I’m not into Southern Gospel.

[At this point, “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms” is starting up.]

Mom: But what about this? You like Buddy Greene, right?

Dad: Oh yeah, Buddy is awesome.

[It must be the Buddy effect, because Dad then proceeds to hang around and clap along for that particular track.]

Later Dad elaborated some more and said those first three cuts (“Beulah Land,” “Eastern Gate,” and “Rock of Ages”) were “dull,” “didn’t move,” and “all sounded the same.”

This caused me to start thinking: What is the essence of southern gospel? As mentioned at the beginning of the post, Dad sometimes responds well to music that would still fall within the realm of southern gospel. He loves the Collingsworth family, has enjoyed Signature Sound twice in concert, and in general likes things with a contemporary twist. Which is natural, because he’s a CCM guy at heart. That very night, I sent him another excellent ballad by Legacy Five and this gorgeous song by Brian Free & Assurance, and he said, “Two winners, thumbs up.”

And yet Mom was right: That Gaither album really is smack-dab in the center of that “Southern Gospel sound.” If Dad couldn’t handle it, or some of it, does it follow that really, he doesn’t like Southern Gospel music, however well he may respond to some other artists and songs that aren’t quite so smack-dab?

If I look around, I can find plenty of artists who are officially under the “SG umbrella,” but who are making music that more resembles adult contemporary or CCM than SG.  Brian Free & Assurance often get mentioned in this context, and I think Beyond the Ashes is a good current example. So, are they southern gospel artists?

Then there’s the question behind the question… (sorry, slipping into Rob Bell mode here). Anyway, the question is, is there really such a thing as an “essence” of Southern Gospel? Is there a certain point at which we say, “Okay, this isn’t really ‘true’ southern gospel anymore”? That question is easy to answer when a southern gospel group just plain is borrowing from another genre. The Kingsmen can sing “When God Ran,” Gold City can sing “Mercy Came Running,” and those are gospel groups singing contemporary songs, not gospel songs. Where it gets harder is when a group like Brian Free & Assurance introduces original songs that sound contemporary from the beginning. “Die Another Day” has been mentioned, and other songs of theirs could be pointed out too. Sure, they’re a male quartet, but sonically they experiment a lot more than other quartets.

What do we conclude from all this? So far, this is my conclusion: There is a real sense in which some artists and songs can be “more” or “less” dyed-in-the-wool Southern Gospel. There’s a certain sound and a certain “essence” that can be fully or only partially adhered to depending on the artist. The more other sounds and styles are mixed in, the further away you move from “that sound.” However, this doesn’t mean that artists like BTA or BFA “aren’t really southern gospel,” because they do a mix, and some of their stuff is more traditional than some of their other stuff.  Yet it would probably be fair to say that if a person were to pick up one of their CDs and really get into it, that doesn’t necessarily make him “a Southern Gospel fan.” If you really want to put him to the test, make him sit through a Gaither homecoming.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Is That Southern Gospel? (Part I, in case I feel like writing a Part II)

  1. If you wanna get technical, here’s how I break it down:
    Traditional (Old school)
    Progressive
    Hymns
    Convention style
    Gaither

    I am not a huge fan of convention style singing (it gets old after a while for me), and many of the hymns are not really my cup of tea, either. As I was explaining to a friend recently, I am very much an artistic person, and I enjoy music that is not just rehashing what’s been done. Sure, many people enjoy the “4 guys and a piano” approach, but I’d prefer to hear something NEW and different, which is part of the reason I enjoy the GVB.

    • By “Gaither,” do you mean songs Gaither has written? Because if you meant the homecomings, it seems to me like a lot of Gaither just *is* hymns or convention stuff. And as far as the songs Gaither has written, why give them their own category? Won’t those work under traditional (old school)?

  2. quartet-man

    Gaither (non Homecoming) seems to mix in Inspo. However, as members have changed so has sound. They started out fairly white bread inspo (I do like some of it), when Mohr came did some more Southern Gospel songs on the “Passin’ The Faith Along” album, then with Larnelle’s entrance released the great “New Point of View” with more contemporary sounds. Michael English came in and they went considerably more contemporary with “One X 1″. I like some on there really a lot, and dislike a lot of it. Most every personnel change at least eventually saw them changing styles. Guy brought a country sound.

    There are different sounds and styles within SG. I don’t know that one person likes it all. I am not into the Inspos, McKameys, Primatives and a lot of time the Isaacs (although very talented). Now the latter has some songs I like as they do a wider range of things. Their “I Will Praise Him” is excellent and some other A Cappella ones in particular are good. Now, I respect good musicianship and skill even if I don’t enjoy hearing the style or material.

    On the Homecomings, I have never really been into the choir stuff. It is too bland to me. I like the performances by the groups I like, some of the scrap iron stuff, and some solos within the choir pieces (read “Sinner Saved By Grace”, “the Night Before Easter” with Sumner, “The Haven of Rest”, “Glorious Freedom”, “This World Is Not My Home”, “Stepping in the Light” etc.)

    Groups I do love (or at least some material from) include Oak Ridge Boys, Cathedrals, Gaither Vocal Band, Gold City, the Perrys, the Hoppers, Stamps, Singing Americans, the Greenes, the Martins, the Talleys, Mercy’s Well, Booth Brothers, Kingdom Heirs. I am sure I am forgetting some. I do like some by Paid In Full, the Kingsmen, Greater Vision, Legacy Five and Signature Sound although I don’t as much as I do many or most of the artists above. I have a ton more artists represented in my collection including soloists and other groups that I liked at least enough to get a particular album or was willing to try out.

    I remember reading in I believe the Music Men where a promoter talked about the wisdom of booking certain groups together and said that the audience who listened to the Mckamey’s, Primatives and Inspirations (I believe) were a different audience than groups such as the Cathedrals, Stamps (and I can’t remember the third). He said some people would go to both types, but not enough to fill a house. So, he had people work together who would draw a lot of the same crowd.

  3. I’m not for much of the Gaither stuff, mainly because it’s a lot of black gospel and white folks trying to sound like they’re black. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not racist, and I have no problems with black. It’s just the fact that I’m a white Independent Fundamental Baptist from the Southern Willamette Valley of Oregon, which is a perfect storm for my culture not having any black gospel. My church is all white and Hispanic, and we rarely get any African-Americans, so I’ve always grown up with white gospel and hymns. Plus being that it’s a white-Hispanic Baptist church, we’re not Bapticostals. I think the biggest turn-off for African-Americans who visit our church is that fact that we are very reserved and probably do not worship the way they’re used to.

  4. quartet-man

    Samuel, although I went to school with a few black kids, I don’t recall any in my church until I was an adult. Even then, they were not singers. I only say that to say this, I wasn’t exposed to that music, style or worship style. However, I like it or at least some of it. What is funny to me is that Michael English, Jason Crabb and Russ Taff (for three) sound more “black” at least to me than Larnelle and many of the other black singers on there. Then again, maybe I am not the judge. LOL. Now, Jessie Dixon does sound the way I expect black singers to sound.

    • Oh I think Larnelle sounds very black! Of course, Mark Lowry says that when Bill found him he was white. :-D

      • quartet-man

        He has more of a classical sound IMHO.

      • Well sure he’s more classical than Jessy Dixon or someone like that, but you can just tell by the voice quality that he’s black. That’s what I meant. It’s the reason why no matter how hard a white quartet tries, they can’t match that black sound. (At some point I’ll be discussing an OOP project by a black quartet where I get into this in more detail.)

  5. Pingback: Is That Southern Gospel? (Part II, because I felt like it) | Southern Gospel Yankee

  6. Pingback: When the World Looks at Southern Gospel Music… | Southern Gospel Yankee

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