…what do they see?
Once, out of curiosity, I decided to have a bit of fun with my classical pianist/composer/music snob and musician extraordinaire uncle. Because I know he can’t stand southern gospel, I tried to put myself in his shoes and come up with a way of describing the genre that he would consider accurate. So I said, “It seems like from your perspective, there are three basic categories in southern gospel: the trite, upbeat ditties, the schmaltzy treacle-fests, and the overblown big ballads. Am I right?” He wrote back and said, “Well…okay, you’ve got me.”
It was a humorous moment, but I’ve been thinking about to what extent that’s an over-exaggeration and to what extent there may be a grain of truth to it. On one hand, there are definitely good southern gospel songs that couldn’t fairly be categorized in any of those categories. (In fact, it might be fun some time to see how many we could come up with that wouldn’t even begin to fit.) But on the other hand, I think a lot of it comes down to how much a listener is willing to put up with, and in what area. Are you the type of person who can’t bear to hear any song that’s just light and upbeat, or can you relax enough to enjoy that sort of thing? Do you have zero tolerance for schmaltz, or can you allow yourself to get into the schmaltz spirit to a point? Do you have the patience to listen while a big ballad takes its time to unfold, or do you find yourself wishing they would just pitch the ball?
There are levels to this, of course. Every person is different. You can even observe differences within the community of southern gospel artists themselves. I remember an interview with Brian Free where he was talking about the song “If it Takes a Valley” and said, “Every now and then you’ll come across a fast song that says something. This song says something.” Michael Booth has stated that he plans to eliminate as much fluff as possible from the Booth Brothers’ future repertoire. But not every artist places as much weight on that sort of thing.
Within my family, Dad is less extreme than my uncle (his brother), but as you may recall, he has some of the same reactions. I’ve heard him say, “Southern gospel just doesn’t do ballads very well. Yeah, it’s catchy, it has a beat, but ballads? Not so much.” But then when he hears slower fare, even some pretty hefty slower fare, he’ll say it takes too long to get going. So lyrical content is obviously only part of the story. His taste has always leaned more towards a CCM style. But naturally there are tradeoffs. For example, I have found that even very good CCM doesn’t always stick in your head from a musical perspective. Still, my dad would go for a rather repetitious melody coupled with deep lyrics before he’d go for light lyrics with a great melody. And the sooner it gets down to business, the better.
By contrast, my mom demands that a melody be easy to remember and is willing to put up with some sentimentality if the music sticks in her head. It’s not that she doesn’t appreciate substance, she’s just more easy-going where Dad gets impatient. She also doesn’t mind a slow-burning ballad as long there’s a strong melody holding it all together. Needless to say, she’s taken to southern gospel like a duck to water. But because my dad’s threshold for that type of thing is lower, I have to pick and choose a bit to find southern gospel he can believe in. (Of course, I’m more Pandora than Pandora when it comes to picking music for people, so I haven’t had a whole lot of trouble there either. ;-))
The truth is that one man’s trite ditty is another man’s rousing barn-burner, and one man’s overblown big ballad is another man’s powerful anthem. Unless we’re dealing with a level of cheese that couldn’t be denied by anybody with a well-developed ear for lyrics or music, this sort of thing is largely subjective. There may even be times when both sides have a point. I can look at a song like “He Touched Me” and say, “Schmaltzy? Yeah.” Then I turn around and say, “But by golly, when you get a really great male quartet or two in there to sing the socks off of it, I’m shouting glory along with everybody else.”
Such is the nature of southern gospel. There’s precious little room for a middle ground between “love” and “hate.”