Guest Post: Scrap-iron quartets vs. Rehearsing

This guest post is offered by frequent reader and commenter David Mac.


Talent or Training ?  Does “practice make perfect”? Or, in Southern-in-the-blood-Gospel can it be done without?
Some groups/quartets practice a lot, some a little, others perform. Period. Does it make a difference, not just in terms of their singing parts, but also in relation to that deeper element; their harmony and blend?
Big question; why does the idea of a “scrap iron” quartet appeal and why should it work – sometimes experimentally OK, sometimes one-off wonderfully well?
Is there a ‘cheat’? A secret ingredient? A private practice? Does it matter if the singers are familiar with each other’s ‘voices’ or not? Gerald Wolfe flagged up the idea for future combined concerts on the blog recently, but surely the GV, L5, BB and even MTQ guys are ALL familiar with each other and their respective parts/harmonies. “Little Giant Scrap Iron Singers”? Well, maybe not quite!
One outstanding [if Bill Gaither is to be believed, never sung together before, nor practiced] “scrap iron quartet” featured famously on the GVB Reunion; David Phelps, Buddy Mullins, Marsh Hall & Lee Young on “He Touched Me.” The epitome of unpremeditated quartet natural talent? Or could have been bettered by a practicing group or fixed quartet? Discuss.

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33 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. Does the blend really matter….no. Can something like that result in a total train-wreck….yes. But in my experience, the fans love it because it shows comraderie. The fans love to see the singers buddy-ing around and mixing up groups.

    At GOGR, the jam sessions are the highlight of the weekend because you never know who will mix up and do what. Last year, Phil Barker, Chip Cooper, and myself did a trio deal on “More About Jesus” with Ellen Marsh playing piano, and Scoot and Randy on guitars. Us three singers and Ellen walked in a room and went over spots of the song for about a minute and then went on stage. Ellen pitched the song a little higher than we had planned, but it came off real well and God had enough mercy to let me hit notes I probably couldn’t hit any other day. It didn’t really matter to me anyway, because I was singing with my buddy Chip and with the tenor’s tenor, ole Phil Barker. It was the highlight of my weekend.

    Anyway, scrap iron groups are almost always a load of fun.

  2. I agree that the camaraderie is nice, but it is also hearing people together that you don’t normally or might again. Also, you might get some personal favorites together. On the Gaither Homecoming DVDS, I don’t care for the choir stuff hardly at all. What I have always liked are my favorite groups performing, discovering some new favorite groups, special moments with some favorite singers who do solos within a choir song, and some of the scrap iron groups.

    On the Gaither thing, I found the scrap iron quartet to be one of highlights of the thing, and that is saying a lot. The only thing I can think of that beats it is the “I’m Free” with Wes, Buddy, Mark and Bill and Englishes emotional reprise.
    It helps that in the “He Touched Me” thing that you have pros in it. It also helps that all had sung in the same group (even if not with each other). David and Marsh had worked together, but Buddy and Lee hadn’t worked with any of them Also, using the same arrangement helped. Lee apparently still bought the recordings and Buddy did a similar version undoubtedly when he was there because I heard the previous group with Michael, Murray and Lowry do that basic arrangement many years prior both on stage, TV and on Lowry’s first recording with them (Praise Gathering) in 1989.

    • “that is saying a lot…”

      You mean, Q-M, one highlight out of many lowlights?

      Or, one highlight above all the highlights?

      Just curious ya know :-).

      • Meaning mostly the whole thing was good, but those two stood out. Granted, there were some song choices I wouldn’t have made and with that much singing and some having not sung such hard songs the voices weren’t always what they used to be, but it was still a great DVD set.

        It was also funny seeing English’s sense of humor about Lowry and also when he quipped about Wes telling them their parts.

      • The contrast in style between the Cat’s Reunion DVD and the GVB is striking, yet both work and are historic milestones in SGM.

        George worked on a strict chronology of the changes in the Cathedral’s historic line-up. Bill was much more informal, and tended mroe to he ‘scrap-iron’ format. Also Bill, giving his roots went for studio informality – George & Glen, likewise were true to their roots and went for a formal staged concert.

        Both worked. [The Cat’s Reunion should be re-issued on DVD to capitalise on the whole tribute thing], but it is interesting that Bill’s was more experimental in structure, and lent itself to scratch group formats.

      • Actually, not only did George skip many of the members not there, but put Kirk out of order. Agreed on the DVD release and that they both work etc.

  3. You know, some Southern Gospel groups have enough turnover that, if they don’t really focus on practicing, they’re practically scrap-iron groups!

    • That thought was rumbling around in the back of my mind also. No names.

      • Yes, I agree that we’re best off leaving them un-named. 🙂

      • You mean like [self edit] and [self edit] and the past few years [self edit]? 😉

      • Yeah, probably. 🙂

    • I had a turnover from Arby’s last night. It was quite tasty. 😉

  4. I agree with Alan. It’s not about blend, rehearsal, tightness, etc. It’s about the relationships between the singers. Audiences eat that up.

    In a way, it does show raw talent (when done right). Not just anyone can jump on stage with whoever and pull off a good number.

    • Although Gene Mac CAN sing tenor, and Gerald Wolfe CAN [?] sing bass, those are the exceptions?

      So, relationship transcends rehearsals? Yes? Like the Isaacs don’t need to practise their tight blend harmonies…

      Or, is that example genes over graft?

  5. Hmmm, Q-M’s first comment made me think of one explanation. My brother and I rarely practice singing together, but we will listen to and sing with a professionally recorded song until it’s part of our brain. So a few times we have sung the song together kind of impromptu, and we’re completely with one another. I almost wonder if it isn’t more stringent practicing than if we did it with one another!

    So when you’ve got folks who were with the same group at different times, or when they’re singing songs with more or less definitive versions out there, maybe it’s pretty natural for them to blend well. (That was too long a sentence.) I know that doesn’t explain everything, but maybe it’s one aspect of it.

    • Like a telepathic-harmony kind of, Amy?

      Just like you answer my questions before I post them? 🙂

      • Not really. Just the “if two things are equal to something else, they are equal to each other.” I think I remember that from algebra…

        Do I answer your questions before you post them? Huh.

      • Seems so, see above!

  6. So, in the quoted example, the tightness of the first/second tenor blend – which, if you listen carefully, old Bill was waiting to assess on the swell…

    …is just because David Phelps and Buddy Mullins, both GVB alumnii, knew the harmonic score?

    Hmmmmmm. Jury’s out.

    • No, it helps because if they didn’t know the arrangement there is more chance of wrong or duplicated notes, but their being pros, listening to one another, staying in sync etc. all comes into play.

  7. Most anything Bill puts together is going to work because he has a knack for understanding what voices will work well with each other. You know the blend will be good if Bill brewed it. Also, as others have mentioned, he’s working with cream-of-the-crop pros. And in the case of “He Touched Me,” he’s working with pros who all know the song cold and have all sung with the GVB, albeit at different times.

    But in general, a scrap-iron quartet won’t sound as good if they don’t have time to practice together. That’s just natural.

    • “Bill brewed it”.

      There we have it. The rest, go figure 🙂

  8. It is my understanding(which is very limited) tha learning Shaped note sing as most groups still do will make it easier to just hop up and sing with singers not normally sung with.
    If you can learn your part and the rest learn thiers all indivisually they can then join together and sound like they have been singing for years. so Scrap Iron Quartets could make for some cool singing. Of course finding four singers whose voices blend is a great help in making a quartet sound great I could be wrong in my thought pattern here but right or wrong that is my 2 cent.


  9. I had the happy privilege of playing piano for a scrap iron quartet in my home church in Dyersburg a few years ago when the Kingdom Heirs were in concert there. My dear brother (and pastor) was going to give the guys a rest before he took up the offering, and he called up a great bass singer from our town who was in the audience, my brother was going to sing baritone, he called Arthur Rice to sing lead, and the legendary Roy McNeal of Rangers, Prophets, Stamps fame to sing tenor. They sang the Kings Gold version of “Glory Road”. Ole Di’s “spell” started with the first chord, and by the end of the night I STILL wasn’t over it. And as others have said, the crowd loved it. ARTHUR loved it…it was the first time he ever got to sing with Roy McNeal. One of my great memories at a Gospel singing.

    • Beautiful, Dianne! Wonderful scrap-iron story.

      Also ups the ante a little, so now we are talking of pure talent – and a singing-standard?

      No special picks, practises or potions?

  10. What generally happens whenever professionals are involved isn’t entirely “unrehearsed.” They typically pick a familiar song and do a standard arrangement.

    That’s the best of both worlds for the fan, really. You’re getting to hear a group you’ve never heard before, yet chances are good they can pull it off, since they already have a good idea of where the song is going.

    Alan, the highlight of the jam session I attended last year at GOGR was hearing Chip Cooper sing “Love Lifted Me” like Jim Hamill.

    • Oh he does that just about every year and it’s always a hit.

  11. What about the “Practise Makes Perfect?” aspect:

    If it is as reputed that EHSS are near the top of the scale on rehearsal time, does it show significantly where it is absent?

    Is practise more to do with innovation than harmony? What about family groups like Isaacs or Collingsworths, where the ‘blend’ is, partly, genetic?

    Or do they just sing around the hearth? 🙂

    • It’s not genetics with family groups. It’s the fact that they’ve literally been singing together all their lives. They’ve had much more opportunity to “practice” than other groups. With the Collingsworth family, the kids were on stage from very young childhood up.

      • Correction: Meant to say it’s not JUST genetics. Genetics does play a huge role too.

      • Thanks for the correction – I was just going to come on here and maybe clarify the point myself. It’s not like any 3 vocalists, randomly selected, could ever get as close as the Isaacs, the Collingsworth ladies, the Martins, or Voices Won – yet there are many three-sibling sets of vocalists who are nowhere near that close.

        It’s a decent-sized portion of genetics and a huge portion of lifelong practice.

        (It’s not like no three vocalists can get closer than three siblings – the Booth Brothers are closer than several all-sibling groups, and it could even be said that Jim Brady has a tighter blend with Ronnie than even Michael does!)

      • Aldo, they likely pronounce a lot of words the same way.

  12. It depends on the talent, because if you were to put the singers from my church together and tell them to sing a song, it’d sound like a bunch of zombies cying for BWAINS! But give them a couple practices, it sounds good.