We all have our favorite southern gospel singers. But some of the qualities that make a great southern gospel singer are unique to southern gospel. There are certain singers who are legendary in that niche, but you listen to them and you think, “That guy could never sing anything but southern gospel.” (I’ll let you fill in the blanks on who some of those singers might be!)
But then you have singers who are still popular within southern gospel, yet comfortable singing multiple styles. This is where classification can be a little tricky. For example, do we classify David Phelps as “southern gospel” just because he sings in the most popular SG group on tour at the moment? Or is he an inspo/popera misfit who just happens to satisfy Bill Gaither’s eclectic, sometimes theatrical tastes? Sometimes a singer’s sound is so far removed from what anyone would call “southern gospel” that it seems like a stretch to keep calling him a “southern gospel singer.”
However, many of our still comfortably southern gospel singers might be marketable beyond southern gospel in the cousin genre of country music. Now I hope all you SG purists don’t rise up in protest, but we have to acknowledge that country is a close cousin of southern gospel, despite their differences. Had Amber Nelon Thompson gone with the flow on her American Idol journey, she would no doubt have been groomed into a country starlet a la Carrie Underwood. Some of our older voices might also fit comfortably into Johnny Cash/Hank Williams-era country music, although that kind of voice has become less marketable over the decades. That’s a sign of how much the face of country music itself has changed. However, there might be room in today’s country market for a smooth, strong upper register bass tone, like Josh Turner’s.
Another genre to consider is CCM. Some of our more progressive SG singers have a pop edge to their vocals that gives them the freedom to try a more contemporary sound. But as with country, whether it’s contemporary enough for today’s CCM is another question. Obviously a singer like Michael English enjoyed a lot of success in CCM during the 90s, but his style is no longer current in that genre.
It is also sad but true that the younger and better-looking you are, the better your chances are for enjoying success in either of these genres.
Among southern gospel voices, who do you think would have the best chance at a career somewhere outside of southern gospel today?