Three Eras of Southern Gospel

Southern Gospel’s history can be divided into three eras.

Songbook Era (1910-1950)

For the first forty years or so of Southern Gospel, fans primarily bought songbooks. Songbook publishers hired quartets to tour and promote the songbooks.

To an extent, it didn’t matter who might show up on stage with a particular quartet; the songbooks and their songs were the focus.

Recording Era (1950-2010)

After World War II, fans primarily bought albums. It helped that several groups signed with the biggest record companies of the era—the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen with RCA Victor, and the Chuck Wagon Gang with Columbia.

Now it did matter who showed up on stage with a particular quartet. Singers became celebrities, largely observed by fans from a distance.

Social Era (2010-today)

Record sales have declined (across all genres, not just Southern Gospel) to the point where the music industry can no longer rely completely on them. This is due to a broad variety of factors, such as the free availability of virtually any song on YouTube, and access to current and back-catalog releases from Daywind and Crossroads on services like Spotify. (Services like Spotify do pay royalties, but it sure isn’t much.)

Meanwhile, Southern Gospel’s social media presence reached critical mass by 2009 or 2010. Virtually all major groups maintain a consistent social media presence on Facebook and other social sites. This has decreased the artist-as-celebrity distance between singers and fans.

What does the future hold for Southern Gospel?

Nobody knows for sure. But it’s likely that live concerts will be central, and that artists’ skills converting curious onlookers into committed fans will be more important than ever.

Post inspired by a conversation with Daniel Ball, here.

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10 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. From my perspective, Daniel … a very interesting topic – as Sirius XM and enLighten are playing such a key role (yes, I fully comprehend the great responsibility that this engenders) in this new era.

    Am looking forward to reading the many comments that I’m sure this will bring forth.

    By the way, has just added Facebook.

  2. Warning: fiction
    After the big “mp3 virus” of (some date in the future) … almost assuredly backed by the big record companies, vinyl records will make a huge comeback so that we “back track” to the early Recording Era.


    If the statement, “history repeats itself” is true, then I would welcome the songbook era back with open arms … all about the songs!!! as the focus.

    • I would welcome it, too! 🙂

      • I like what goes on in the studio too much to want to return to an era where the recorded music isn’t the focus, but I’d definitely like to see us get to a point again where the common man knows how to read music and sing a part.

  3. It is interesting to me that you classify the various eras of SGM in terms of how the groups have made their money. As someone who has never sung professionally, I’ve always tended to view the timeline more in terms of whether the industry has been more commercially or ministry driven. I grew up attending gospel sings and in my childhood and adolescence, I naively believed that all of the groups’ primary purpose was ministry and evangelism and that the commercial aspect was a necessary evil to support the ministry. Even so, I began to be offended in my teenage years (the 1970’s) at what I (mistakenly) viewed as an ever increasing commercialism, as the groups seemed to be hawking their wares more and more aggressively. Imagine my surprise as I got older and learned that the genre was originally founded as a commercial enterprise with little or no intent toward ministry!
    Don’t get me wrong, I realize that some groups have always been all about the ministry, and it certainly is not my place or intent to accuse anyone in particular of anything less. Rather, I am speaking in general terms of what drives the industry. Personally, I have come full circle, back to the perception that most of the current groups are driven primarily by a passion for evangelism and ministry, and secondarily by the need to earn money. What do you think?

    • Damon,
      I’m not sure how you’d determine there was “little intent” for ministry in the songbook days.

      I’ve always thought the two should go hand in hand. More ministry is possible if an artist is reaching more people commercially. Traveling and singing for a living is a hard life. If it was driven by a desire for money as much as you say, you’d see far fewer groups on the road.

    • Damon—There have always been both sides, sometimes with one aspect being more dominant, and sometimes with the other. The point of this particular post was a focus on one aspect: What, financially, keeps groups on the road?

      Yes, that’s one aspect of the business side. But I think it’s OK to focus on the business aspect once in a while, even as we all acknowledge that changed hearts and lives are the most important aim and result from beginning to end.

  4. Great summary, Daniel -never thought of it that way, but it’s a clear, concise capsule of the first century+plus of what is now known as “Southern Gospel.” I don’t think it’s possible today to keep the spotlight on just the songs and music any more in a time when the spotlight is on celebrity and digital upgrades. I wish it were.
    Nonetheless, retro is budding once more in pop music and even in our type of music with the popularity of Signature Sound channeling the Statesmen. Hard copy EPs and LPs are in vogue in hip circles, although I doubt they’ll ever make a full resurgence. As a collector of the early 78s of the Stamps & Vaughan quartets and others of that early era, I may tend to romanticize those first two ages of Southern Gospel, but I still think overall that the singers and the songs then were just plain better.

    • Thanks for the kind words!

      There is a sense in which they were better – simply because they had to be. They had to be good enough to step into the studio and—whether or not it was the first take—lay down, all in one take, a vocal delivery worthy of nationwide release on a project. And they had to be good enough to replicate that live without tracks or stacks—with just a piano for backup.

      Of course, we still have with us plenty of singers from that era—Mark Trammell, Tim Riley, Peg McKamey Bean, Jimmy Blackwood and the list goes on and on. I’m sure any of them could work back up to that level, if they had to, and that numerous other singers used to the crutches modern technology provides could also attain that level if they had to.

  5. There have always been era’s of most anything. And there will always be an argument as to what was the original purpose of SGM. I tend to believe it was originally related to a combnation of ministry/business. It had to be. Look at the publishing of Bibles. The intent was to get the Bible into hands of people and without the ministry/business intent, the publishing of Bibles would never have survived. The same with SGM books. The natural process would be to get Singers to market the song books. The present day argument is not business related necessary, but where does ministry end, and entertainment begin. When entertainment over rides ministry in anything related to Gospel, in my opinion it is on a slippery slope. And I could spill my guts here but won’t.

    In areas of most ministries, there is a complete lack of audiance paricipation. In churches, let the choir and praise team have fun. I observe audiances and because most church members are confused as to what style of music should be used, they tend to just observe and not necessariy participate. In the last several months, I have talked with hundreds of folk who have just quit concerts and church going altogether. If they want to listen to singing turn on the radio or CD player. If they want to watch a ministry, turn on the TV. No argument from them. If you don’tlie what you are hearing and seeing, turn it off.

    What has excited me more than anything in the last few months in our area of Atlanta, are the Red Back Book Festivals. Talk about packing out churches, attend one of these. Because it is audiance related, there is no egotistical, self personified personalities involved, just people getting together having a good time singing, clapping their hands and stomping there feet. Still many are senior citizens, but there is a sprinkling youth involved.

    Where the trend goes from here, don’t know, but the public will dictate and not the SGM talking heads. Are we entering a new era? Do I have answers? No. Does anyone have answers, not really.