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?
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.