The 1990s Songwriting Slump

A decent case could be made that modern Southern Gospel songwriting hit a peak in the 1980s. Groups like the Cathedrals, the Kingsmen, the Florida Boys, Gold City, and the Nelons introduced the hits that would sustain their careers and draw their crowds through the 1990s.

(Parenthetically: Modern Southern Gospel songwriting is distinguished here from convention-style Southern Gospel songwriting, which peaked in the 1930s and 1940s. Convention songs were written to be published in songbooks; modern Southern Gospel songs were written to be recorded by groups.)

This isn’t a purely subjective opinion. Let’s turn to that ever-handy resource, our June 2011 list of the 200 most recorded Southern Gospel songs. Let’s excerpt from that list, by decade:

  • 1970s (9): Sweet Beulah Land, The Lighthouse, Gentle Shepherd, Because He Lives, I Go To The Rock, What a Lovely Name, Glory Road, He Pilots My Ship, God Walks the Dark Hills. (This isn’t counting two songs imported from other genres, “He’s Alive” and “Through it All.”)
  • 1980s (11): Boundless Love, Champion of Love, Lord Feed Your Children, Step Into the Water, Blood Washed Band, Can He Could He Would He, Great is the Lord, Let Freedom Ring, Master Builder, Plan of Salvation, When He Was on the Cross
  • 1990s (1): Jesus Saves (Not counting a song imported from Praise & Worship, “Shout to the Lord.”)
  • 2000s (3): The Promise, Jerusalem, Hard Times Come Again No More
These numbers, though only from one statistical measurement, confirmed my overall impression: The 1970s produced numerous huge songs (often not associated with any one group), while the 1980s were every bit as strong (though more group-centric, thanks to the rise of radio singles.) The 1990s saw a slump, and the 2000s saw a noticeable rebound.
 
Naturally, the lists only cover the most enduring songs, as measured by the number of times they have been revisited by major Southern Gospel groups. Of course, it’s not like the 1990s were devoid of great songs. Undoubtedly, several more will make a top 200 list eventually. But, at the same time, the 2000s’ showing demonstrates that it’s not the 1990s songs have had insufficient time to grow on us.

But defining the “what”—the slump during which the songs from the previous decade carried the genre’s most popular groups—is far more interesting than investigating the “why.”

  • Could it be that a fresh generation of songwriters arrived in the 1980s, writing some of their biggest ideas, not hitting a new stride until the 2000s, with 15-20 more years of maturity?
  • Could it be that groups got in the habit of cutting songs from those songwriters, and missed a new generation of writers?
  • Could the decline and disappearance of Canaan, and its associated publishing companies, have played a role?
  • Could the collapse / fading of other record company giants of the 1980s, coupled with the rise of Daywind and Crossroads in the mid-90s, have led to a time of transition before the newer generation of companies built strong songwriting catalogs?
  • Could songs of this caliber be laying forgotten as hidden gems, with good but weaker songs sent to radio for unfathomable reasons?

Which of these reasons are the strongest? Could there be other reasons?

And, for the most important question of the set: What were songwriters of the 1970s and 1980s doing differently, and what do current writers need to do to recapture that today?


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30 Letters to the Editor

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  1. Well, Gold City alone had a string of songs in the 90s that were as good as stuff in the 80s. If God Be For Us, There Rose A Lamb, I’m Not Giving Up, God’s Building A Church, ect. I think you may have fewer mega hits but that could be caused by a the fact that SG wasn’t as popular. You also had the rise of The Homecoming which was focused mostly on the days gone by and artists who were in their last years. Just a thought.

    • But were those four as big for Gold City as “In My Robe of White,” “When I Get Carried Away,” and “Midnight Cry”? I don’t think so, and the level of groups recording them since does bear that out. They were good songs and big songs, but not as big.

  2. J.D. mentioned in his book (well, the revised version) that there weren’t the songs and songwriters there were back in the day. He said occasionally there would be a great song like “Midnight Cry” and I can’t recall if the other example he used was “The Judgement” or “Wish You Were Here”. I might have to look that up and put an exact quote.

    Back in the seventies and earlier, the songs were the hits. Sure people had favorite artists, but it wasn’t unusual to see a song like “Jesus Is Coming Soon” or “I Know” on the same chart two or three times (sometimes maybe in a row) by different artists. Now, I barely was in the sixties and wasn’t a teen in the seventies, but looking back, that is my take.

    Somewhere later, the industry became more like secular in that there weren’t as many “covers”. It became more artist driven, although the songs are still important and of course ministry still important. However, now it seems that an artist can put out less good stuff, but people think it is great because the artist did it. Oh, and don’t dare say a performance or song doesn’t measure up or you will hear about it. You will basically be accused of attacking the artist, their motives, their walk with God, etc. Don’t believe me? Try it sometime. 😀

    Now, I personally like it better with one artist covering a song (with the possibility that it might be brought back years down the line by someone else). A recent example of how this is best is when Gold City, Talley Trio and Legacy Five all cut “Truth Is Marching On” at about the same time. I have heard the Booth Brothers do this one too (and yes, Brady was one of the writers). Now, that might be great for the writer, and in the right context this can be great for fans too. I also understand people being upset if the artist only performed it, but not release it as someone would want it on CD. I guess if more than one records it, at least one should release it to radio and not have 3 or 4 versions fighting for airplay or chart action. “Calvary Answers For Me” was cut by EHSS (well, technically Signature Sound at that point) and the Perrys around the same time. It is a tough situation because on one hand if both artists love a song, I understand them both wanting it. I understand writers wanting to pitch to as many as they can so they can try to get a cut. However, I do think that following the industry lead in not having different versions released as singles is probably a good move. I think having several versions saturates the market too much and none of the versions do as well as one would have.

    Even today, groups will bring back old songs, and with the cases above of several recording the same song, I wonder if there is a shortage of material, if it doesn’t measure up, or people just aren’t finding them. I mean I can find great songs that are new and even during what might be seen as the dry spell period. Songs like “Death Has Died” and “High And Lifted Up” among others stack up with some of the other superhits.

  3. I don’t necessarily think the 90s had lesser songs. In fact, I would argue that the songs in the 90s are generally better than the newer songs today. I think now, there are much broader ways to market those songs.

    Unfortunately the over-saturation of artists currently out there may potentially propel the viewpoint that there are better songs now. I think that is ultimately a mirage. Lesser known groups in the early 90s had better songs than lesser groups have now. But that is just part of the A) over-saturation and B) General decline of interest.

    Groups now are going to work harder to find that new hit to put them over the top. In past decades, even though a group may have sought that song out, what happens now is that groups allow these hit songs to “define” them. It’s good for a while. Then you just become known as that group that had that one hit. Actual talent, effective and at times, innovative marketing and perserverance (and God’s plan) help keep a group on a road.

    Now in the late 90s, I can agree with you. I tend to separate the 90s. From 1997 to the beginning of the 2000s, there was a decline. Those last 3 or 4 years were challenging to get into. I think a lot of that may have to do with the past legendary groups that became big in the previous decades, finally getting off the road. Who was on their way out or out already? Cathedrals, Speers, Nelons, Singing Americans, Talleys (had been on road, in transition),Perfect Heart, J.D. Sumner & The Stamps, and others.

    Those guys were essentially the sons of the early southern gospel pioneers. A shift was approaching and the fans didn’t know how to respond. There are great songs now, many which are better than those in the 90s. In my mind, I would naturally split the decade up. You may remember my 2 part series on the Cathedral tree and how all of that was rooted in 1990. The decade certainly brought a wonderful shift in its opening. We just had not prepared for the closing and a less illustrious gap was left.

    But here’s another question, somewhat of a sub-topic. Sweet Beulah Land is a great song. And would be a great song in any decade. But if it had been written in 2009, would we revere it so quickly and proclaim it’s steadfastness in the current culture of southern gospel music?

    Good question Daniel.

    • Just popping in quickly to reply to the last point: No, “Sweet Beulah Land” wouldn’t be as big today. But that’s partly stylistically; it’s more hymnlike than current successful SG songs. Songwriters could get away with that in the ’70s, but rarely today.

      • Right. I knew you knew that. And that was my point. The culture shapes the songs…how they are crafted..

      • True, and I wonder if the culture was less conducive in the mid to late 90s.

  4. **Correction: should’ve been sons AND grandsons of southern gospel pioneers.

  5. From the 80s, you left out the best song: God on the Mountain. I’m not a big McKs fan, but that song propelled them into the A list of groups.

    As far as the 90s go, “My Name is Lazarus” comes to mind in propelling GV into the top groups. “When I Lay my Burdens Down” really got DMB going. The Hoppers started the 90s with “Milk&Honey”, “Mention My Name”, “I Go to the Rock”, and “Anchor to the Power of the Cross”. The Kingsmen released, “I Will Rise Up From My Grave” which is still in my top 5 songs of all time.

    I loved the songs from the 90s. Sure, Gaither brought back a lot of old songs and made re-making songs a cool thing to do. But there’s still a lot of great stuff out there from the 90s that are still good and relevant.

    • “God on the Mountain” was recorded by the Songmasters in 1976. 🙂

      You’re right; “My Name is Lazarus” was a career song for GV.

      But I don’t think that either the DMB song or the Hoppers songs were so big that they still stage them regularly. They were great songs, but not career-defining like “Shoutin’ Time,” “Jerusalem,” or “Antioch Church House Choir.”

      “I Will Rise Up From My Grave” – top-notch, incredible song, but still not as career-defining for the Kingsmen as “Glory Road,” “Sweet Beulah Land,” “Excuses,” and some of their other 70s and 80s hits.

  6. Could the Singing News magazine’s change from Top 40 to Top 80 play into the averaged song’s strength? By offering twice as many positions to fill, Singing News charts helped introduce fans to sub-par lyrics & singing even though they likely didn’t desire to do so.

    Because the chart numbers show more than cd sales & fan photos, record companies seek the tunes which bring in the airplay. In other words, the light-hearted numbers between 2-3 1/2 minutes. However, the songs don’t last as long which makes for faster rotation. Hence, the Perrys’ ability to capture 3 Top 10 songs in 2011, whereas the Greenes’ single Top 10 song in 1989.

    Perrys- This Old Sinner Testifies, Celebrate Me Home, Blue Skies Coming
    Greenes- When I Knelt, the Blood Fell

    The magazine’s changing its format in 1988 allowed plenty of time necessary to allow record companies & radio promoters to adjust.

    *This is no stab at either of the aforementioned artists or their material. They are great songs, but not given quality presentation for Southern Gospel fans.

    • Yes, there could be a connection. Interesting thought.

  7. I’m fairly certain “The Promise” was written in the ’90s if not before. I have my mother’s c. 1993 cassette of Mike Purkey (of TBN fame) singing it, which was actually my first exposure to the song. I was excited when the Talleys did it ’cause it was a memory from my childhood days.

    • But, then again, I might be misinterpreting the decades you have listed before the song titles.

      • No, you probably have me there. I hadn’t been familiar with it prior to the Martins’ 2003 rendition. I’ll hold off moving it until/unless anyone knows for sure that it was introduced in 1993 or so, and not even earlier than either of us remember.

      • From the research I have done, it was registered for copyrighted electronically in 2002. I COULD have been around longer and not registered, but it seems unlikely.

      • Well, I was around longer, but not sure IT was. 😀

      • Are you talking about the Talleys’ “The Promise” and the Martins’ “The Promise” as the same song? If so, they’re different tunes.

        The Promise (Martins)- Brian White, Don Poythress

        The Talleys’ tune was written by Randy Phillips of the CCM trio, Phillips, Craig, & Dean. Considering the length of time Phillips has been writing, it’s quite possible that the song is nearly 19 years or more of age.

      • Yeah, I’ve heard both. Sorry, I guess I only saw part of the thread and didn’t follow the flow of the conversation.

      • Andrew – sorry, my mistake.

      • Yes, “The Promise” (Talleys version) has been around since at least the early nineties, possibly 80s. We used to sing it in church back then.

      • Interesting! Well, I’m going to wait to re-assign it to another decade until someone’s sure!

    • I could have sworn Walt Mills recorded “The Promise” in the early nineties….

      • Perhaps he did! I don’t know!

      • I don’t believe Walt Mills did(not sure) but I know James Payne released it on a Sonlite label back in the 90’s.

      • Interesting!

  8. You’re fine. I was hoping for a Joyce Martin version of the Phillips number.

    If this helps identify the Phillips number with a decade, Joy Gardner performed this on a 1998/9 Gaither video.

    • Now I’m even more confused! 🙂

  9. The Promise by the Talley Trio-
    “There’s a promise comming down that dusty road.” Is that the song you are in reference to?