Firing Singers

Most of the time, when a singer leaves a Southern Gospel group, it was that singer’s decision. But occasionally, as in other vocations, it’s the owner’s decision.

Often, when a singer leaves a group and it’s not abundantly clear it was his own choice, our inbox and comment moderation queue fill up with the electronic version of horrified whispers. “Did you think/hear that [owner] actually fired [singer]?” Sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s not. But even when it’s true, it’s not necessarily a horrible scandal.

Most would agree that there are several circumstances where it would be quite appropriate for a group owner to fire a singer. Likely the one with the broadest consensus is if a major moral failing (adultery, murder, holding up a bank*). They both disqualify an individual (or, at least, we could all agree: an unrepentant individual) from a public ministry position, and would also cause major harm to a group’s reputation. These are the scandals; one would wish that our genre would be completely free of them, but humans sometimes fail.

But moral failings aren’t the only reasons. Sometimes singers can no longer accomplish the task they were hired to do. Tenor singers, especially, are prone to push past their voices’ natural limits, and have to leave a group due to vocal problems. (Typically but not always, when this happens, the singer leaves voluntarily.)

Of course, there is also plenty of gray area. When a singer develops vocal issues, even noticeable declines are often slow. Or what if a singer has caused a situation which is not inherently grounds for dismissal, but has the rest of the group threatening to leave? What if a singer frequently shows up late enough (to the bus or to concerts) to cause logistical issues, or misses concerts altogether?

It’s a touchy subject. But it’s rarely a scandal. And, at least in virtually all circumstances, it’s simply not worth wasting time in speculation when someone leaves a group.

After all, for every person who simply does not deserve to be on a Southern Gospel stage, there are plenty who do—who are, to the best of their ability, faithfully serving God and striving to be faithful to the call He has placed on their lives.

(* No, I’ve never heard of a Southern Gospel singer holding up a bank!)

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42 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. Nice said, Daniel. Enjoyed the read.

    • Thanks!

      This one has been brewing for a while. I don’t know whether it was email #385 or #397 (yes, making up numbers) that pushed me to the tipping point of saying “enough! It’s not always a scandal!”

      • Nicely done Daniel! I’m in agreement with you. We don’t always know what is going on behind the scenes and further more it isn’t our business! Just like in any other job or business people get fired for a variety reasons…doesn’t mean the boss should put out a company wide email blast telling why.

      • Good comparison!

  2. When serving on a Staff-Parish committee in a former church, we had a staff member clearly performing below par. The minister often spoke of the necessity of excellence in ministry. Eventually – I asked him if the church could reach excellence in ministry with that person on staff. He admitted the answer was no – but still would not support dismissal. We eventually dismissed that person without his support. It all worked out for the best.

    I can understand the reluctance of a group owner to dismiss a group member. But in reality – it is for everyone’s good. Often, the person is just in the wrong group and may well excel somewhere else.

    I once heard JD Sumner say the unpardonable sin in the QT business is to not be at the bus on time, packed and ready to go.

    Good topic…


    • I’ve never, to my knowledge, heard that quote from J.D. before. But it makes enough sense that I expected someone would have expressed that thought!

  3. My only issue when a member of a group is fired, leave, or whatever, is the press release. There have been some instances, which for reasons of integrity I won’t name, where it was very obvious I was lied (that seems harsh but I don’t know how else to put it) to about reasons so and so is not with us. Be vague, but don’t lie. (Ex. Daniel you own a group. I’m burnt out and need to do something different, maybe I’m causing a ruckus as noted above. You put me out on my ear. However you tell the people “He left to take a job as music minister in his church.” Then I show up a week later as a soloist, or with another group entirely.) That’s frustrating. Now I’m sure there have been instances when the person in the group has said that to the owner and that’s what the owner knows and that’s released.

    Which brings me to this. Do we really need to be “In The Know”. I say change member and just show up at the church with the new guy. Wouldn’t bother me one bit. Okay…long post over and done. 😀

    • Correct – we don’t always need to know.

      I am also opposed to lying in press releases. But sometimes a singer’s plans change rapidly. Sometimes he really was going to be a music minister, but the press release came out, and a group came calling with an offer that was too good to pass up!

  4. Or another reason , if the singer insists on bringing his pet skunk on the bus with him , while the travel.

    • Yeah, that would be a problem.

  5. As someone not in the industry (just a fan) I beleive everyone does not need to know the issue on why a certain member left a group. If the group shares that information, or doesn’t share it, that is their right. Too many rumors get started by people trying to figure out what happened to so and so. Maybe it wasn’t a good fit, calling into another ministry, or whatever.

    I am not saying that it does not peak my curiosity why they left though. 🙂

    I am also opposed to lying in a press release. If they can’t say it without lying or making something up, don’t say anything.

    Great topic Daniel!

    • I agree. We don’t always need to know. But whatever the reason, it’s rarely a scandal!

  6. Daniel,
    Good post. SGM fans have a unique relationship with the artists, because artists are open about much. That seems to make for a more demanding group of fans who want to know all.
    The reality is that business is still business, and sometimes folks don’t need to know all of the business decisions that are made behind the scenes. We don’t OWN the artists!
    Another thing we don’t need to know is all of the issues in artists’ lives. They have a right to a private life. Sometimes I wonder about things, such as, “when did that guy get divorced? I see that he’s remarried!” The reality is that I don’t need to know. If I can’t trust the artists’ manager enough to hold him to a standard of moral accountability I should simply refuse to listen to the artist/group. If I do trust them, but still seek to determine all that is going on in the artists’ lives I’m simply being nosy and should back away.
    I suppose these words are straight, to the point, and somewhat harsh; but I’m a pastor who experiences the problems that come from nosiness and gossip altogether too often.
    Folks should trust these people to manage their lives and their groups until such time as they prove themselves unable to do so. Then we should merely step away and not support them. After all, that’s all we can do. They don’t belong to us. They belong to Jesus, and He can take care of them in every way that is necessary to get glory for His name.

    • Amen!

  7. I agree that we don’t need to know every nitty gritty detail. I also feel that the fans tend to to elevate the performers too much, even to the point of idolization, which I am sure many performer wish they wouldn’t do.
    I have pastored my present church for 13 years now, but if I were to resign next week, I doubt I would have very many inundating me with questions as to the details of why I left. I feel that if the fans didn’t idolize the artists so much, maybe there wouldn’t be such disappointment when there are sudden vacancies, whatever the reason.

    • Good point. If you care more about a singer’s life than your pastor’s life, and you view a singer whom you do not know as more of a role authority than your own spiritual leadership – whom you do know and who know you – something is wrong.

  8. I do know of a case when one of the group members was a bank robber, but did get caught.

    • Whoa! Perhaps I should avoid the absurd hypotheticals!

    • Are you talking about Calvin Newton? I say that because it is common knowledge (well isn’t hidden) and even Calvin admitted it in his book and it was talked about on Gaither video. So, I am not putting a name out there that isn’t already out there and can be verified.

      Of course Joseph Smith comes to mind (although not the same). He was out of the group and reading more about how he came to that point makes one more sympathetic. It is a sad thing. Once again, this is out there and although we shouldn’t get into rumors or even gossip, sticking our heads in the sand isn’t good either. My reasons for bring them up is the discussion at hand and to see if there is someone else we don’t know about.

      • This may surprise some people, but I don’t know everything. People may tend to over-estimate what I know, because I generally stick to only talking about what I know. I’m actually, though, almost completely unfamiliar with Calvin Newton’s story.

        If it comes to embezzling group funds – that is another story, less public than holding up a bank – and I think we’re best off not going there, to avoid gossip.

      • You don’t know everything? GASP! 😉 I was actually directing those questions to the poster who mentioned it had happened. I don’t want to know who it is if it is someone else. I just wondered if it were one I know about or if it is yet someone else. It would be nice to know there aren’t more (although there might be).

        As far as embezzling, a former classmate of mine did for years (my best friend’s sister) from the bank in which she worked. It was basically taking out money as needed from what the newspaper said. Her family (that she lived with) didn’t know it was going on, and so no signs that she had extra money. Anyhow, I say that to say this. She did prison time and started attending my church. After having to work places that were not good (due to her record) she works in invoicing at a company that people would immediately recognize (even Daniel ;)) Except for a few members (and her own family that attends of course) in my church who knew her before (including a couple of neighbors of hers one of whom unfortunately likes to talk) I am not aware of anyone else who even knows. If that person told others, I am unaware. Now there are results of that decision. She has the record, she doesn’t get the pay she got at the bank, she I believe has wages garnished to pay back the hundreds of thousands over the course of I think over a decade of doing this), but she has made something out of herself and lives a life that doesn’t seem to be in defeat.

  9. One of the biggest problems you have in SG music circles is that many people wither feel they have the right to know, or else they just “assume: the worst. Being an EHSS fan, i remember the outry when Ryan Seaten left, and to a lesser degree when Tim Duncan left. The announcement about Tim stated that it was his choice, which may have tempered things somewhat, but with Ryan, it appeared that he was let go. Some people went ballistic, blamed Ernie, etc. etc. I don’t know if there is really any solution to this, since the fans are going to react however they wish to. I suppose the ideal is in a case such as when Jason left Greater Vision. It was announced several weeks in advance, the reason was given, and it culminated in a final performance and send-off. Unfortunately, most cases don’t have circumstances quite that ideal.

  10. Several years ago there was a quartet in Ontario who had a member charged with bank robbery. Once he was locked up it was impossible for him to be at the bus on time even on weekends. The group is still a trio today(I believe with the same three remaining members)after many years!

  11. By the way, did you hear the exchange between Les and Bill onstage at the Vocal Band reunion at NQC? I know you said you were there. Les made a comment after pretending he thought he must have been a Vocal Band member since he had been around for so long. He asked “did I quit, or was I fired? I hear you do both”. 😀 No matter on the truth of that statement or not, that thar was funny.

    • It was funny either way, but I do believe that there is truth behind it – or, perhaps put another way, that Bill has sat down with someone and said that things just weren’t working out. He does not have a personality like erstwhile GOP candidate Donald Trump!

      • True, and I have some hunches on times he has done that. I know of one situation early on when a person wasn’t the one to decide to leave. Also, Michael English talked in his book about being unhappy with the limited amount the GVB (and him in particular) were involved in concerts (at a time where the Trio was the main thing, Larnelle and others got time). Bill honorably told him he could tell he wasn’t happy and that if he wanted to, he would keep him payroll until he lined something else up and would find a replacement. That is a lot further than many would have gone. I doubt that most owners don’t even give any termination pay (but to be fair, Bill is more in a position to afford it).

      • I had to laugh at your last point!

        While I don’t know if I’ve heard of anyone else doing that, particularly, I do recall hearing (within the last few years) of a singer leaving a major group – after less than 5 years with the group, so not a lifelong tenure – to start his own group, and the outgoing group covered his health insurance for something like the first 6 or 12 weeks of his new venture.

      • Thankfully you saw past my accidental double negative and knew what I meant. That is great about the group owner doing that. Of course that wasn’t required, but nice in rewarding a singer who probably did good work for you, while investing in a sense in their new ministry making their transition easier. As far as my saying “I doubt”, knowing the lack of money in much of SG, I was nearly for sure it hardly ever happens, yet not being privy to dealings couldn’t say with 100% certainty.

      • I knew what you meant!

        Nobody in Southern Gospel (except Bill Gaither and maybe Judy Nelon) is rich, but the group at hand made a comfortable middle-class living, which (regrettably) makes them among the most successful groups in our genre!

  12. No, we don’t need all the details, but I’ve seen some poorly handled transitions that only added fuel to the fire. It’s best when press releases address the question of “why.”

    The best series of moves I’ve seen in a LONG time came over the last few days. First, Tanner Stahl announced via Facebook that he would be leaving Soul’d Out. He told us why he was leaving.

    Next, Bryan Hutson and Brandon Reese release separate but coordinated announcements about Hutson’s move from the Kingsmen to Soul’d Out. They both expressed respect for each other and explained why the change would be taking place.

    Finally, Brandon Reese released another statement naming Bob Sellers as Bryan’s replacement.

    There was some time allowed for each announcement to settle in. The announcements came in the proper order and provided enough context about the “why” in each case that all but the most cynical of fans were satisfied.

    • Don’t forget Trammell’s with Joel Wood. Of course it helps when the change is for the right reasons. Scandals and problems are harder to handle. But in either situation there have been times the releases were handled poorly. Either places where there were no problems were not released in a timely fashion leading people to speculate (even though they shouldn’t) or used a stock reason that sounded like it was a smokescreen (where giving some basic details would quell the rumormill) or were so incredibly vague to lead people to believe something was up. Even in situations where the parting was less than amicable, the right press release handled the right way and released at the right time can help a lot.

      • Joel Wood isn’t the only one – pretty much every Mark Trammell Trio/Quartet change has been handled in a similar fashion.

        Greater Vision is another group that’s consistently classy about handling transitions.

      • Oh, I agree. The preceding comment had mentioned recent changes, so I continued that in that Joel was another recent one that was handled expertly.

  13. I have long said that groups need to be honest with the fans why changes are happening. These groups want fans to support them by buying CD’s, Videos, concert tickets and other product via internet and the product table. So, then, why is it unrealistic to expect, then, the group manager to be honest with the fans and explain why a member left or was let go? Consider professional sports. When a manager or coach is fired, the team will tell the fans why or it’s obvious by poor performance. Those men are no different. They have families affected and professional reputations that suffer hits due to the dismissal. So we think because they sing God’s music, they should be allowed to just drift away in the wind and chalk it up to “the will of God?” Hardly. It’s not always God’s fault or leading that a membership change happens in a group. Support should go both ways to the fans. Fans like lineups and support the lineups they like. Again, to sports. Fans are upset when their favorite team allows a popular player or star player to leave or is traded. Don’t the groups think that fans are a little bothered when a popular group member leaves without any reasonable cause? Because of the supposed veil of secrecy, we don’t know the real reason why people leave. I think it would be very refreshing to know the real reason why. Again, one more sports analogy. You hear pro athletes all the time say during contract disputes–“it’s nothing personal. It’s a business decision.” If you think that SG Music is all ministry, you are SADLY mistaken. There is a lot more business than ministry that happens and many times groups make business decisions on members. Just have the guts to tell the fans why you’re making the moves you’re making.

  14. I think the fan would be better served to know why a group member left than to imagine something that could be much worse than the truth.

    • Sometimes, perhaps, but sometimes not.

  15. God winds up taking the blame for a lot of things. When a singer or musician leaves a group with the explanation that “God is leading me to spend more time with my family”, and the reappears a few weeks later with another full-time group, I am left wondering “can God not make up His mind”?

    Usually, the reality is that either the management of the group, or the singer/musician felt like it was time for a change, for whatever reason. Typically, it’s something very innocent. We’re human, and it happens.

  16. Unfortunately, but true, there are those who do have favorites in a group. If a group is going to be in concert, people expect to see their favorite(s). If the owner knows an individual is leaving the group before tickets go on sale at a certain venue, I think it would be curteous to let fans know.

    And I know members change in groups. But it would be nice to have a honest press release. Further, it would be nice to have a confirmation press release from the member leaving.

  17. Unfortunately, people have their favorites in groups. It would be nice if the owner knows that a member is leaving that fans are notified prior to ticket sales at a venue.

    Also, I agree press releases need to be the truth. I’d rather have nothing if the truth can’t be told. It also would be nice to have a confirming press release from the leaving member.

  18. There is a nuance which I think several commenters may have missed. Sometimes multiple factors are in play with a departure.

    Let me just take an example of one company I left some years back (not one of the ones I’ve discussed positively on this site, as will shortly be obvious.) When I left, there were multiple factors. A huge factor was that I had discovered that the company was engaging in certain illegal activities. But I didn’t tell everyone that.

    The word that went out to my co-workers was that I had come across a job too good to pass up, in a field I had really wanted to enter.

    Now I had already quietly reported my concerns to appropriate authorities within the company, and nothing had happened. When I moved on, I didn’t raise the issue again. I told them what I told my co-workers, and also mentioned that a significant raise was involved.

    There was a fourth factor, too – the new job permitted a more stable schedule.

    As you can see from my example, sometimes things are more complex than even a fully straightforward press release could cover. Thankfully, in SG, illegal activities are almost never the problem! But there is a whole set of different challenges.

    But, you see, any time I was giving any of those reasons to a friend / co-worker / manager, I was able to phrase it in such a way as to leave it a truthful statement.

    Remembering this situation helps me be more laid-back and relaxed over press releases, not stressing out over whether they offer every single pertinent detail.

  19. Well there is that in that often when leaving there is more than one reason. Now, in your case the illegal thing might have even been the primary reason, but the other factors came into play and contributed. I am sure you still put a positive face on it, but at least the reasons you gave were among the reasons you left.

    • Yes – the reasons were true, even if not primary.