The Essential Songwriter Collection: J.D. Sumner

The Essential Songwriter Collection series lists ten songs each from legendary songwriters that every Southern Gospel fan should add to their collections.

  • “Aloha Time”: Blackwood Brothers, Beautiful Isle of Somewhere, 1960. Bill Shaw James Blackwood makes one of the most challenging Southern Gospel tenor parts ever written seem effortless. 
  • “Because of Him”: Weatherfords, Golden Gospel Favorites. There are heartfelt, fast, and powerful versions of the song, but the Weatherfords’ tight harmonies make their rendition the strongest.  (Runner-up: The McKameys, Still Have a Song, 1997.)
  • “Crossing Chilly Jordan”: Dove Brothers, Sing the Quartet Way, 1999. It’s hard to improve on a classic, but between John Rulapaugh’s tenor part and Burman Porter’s bass part, that’s exactly what the Dove Brothers pulled off.
  • “God Made a Way”: Kingsmen, Better in Person, 1985. The Big-and-Live Kingsmen brought a welcome energy to the song—and nailed the rendition.
  • “Inside the Gate”: Chuck Wagon Gang, There’s Gonna Be Shouting and Singing, 1974. Most of Sumner’s songs were male quartet songs; this is one of only two mixed-group renditions on this list, and the only soprano/alto/tenor/bass arrangement.
  • “Lonesome Road”: J.D. Sumner and the Stamps, Live in Nashville, 1971. Is there any contest over the conclusion that only Sumner’s versions are in the running here? The question is primarily which Sumner version to select. Live in Nashville is the strongest.
  • “The Old Country Church”: Blackwood Brothers, On Tour, 1961. The audience had already come unglued before the Statesmen came out on stage to join the Blackwood Brothers for the encore. At that point, not even a near-trainwreck caused by Big Chief when he launched into the chorus as everyone else was closing the song could ruin the take. (Blackwood Brothers tenor Bill Shaw, in particular, led a remarkable recovery, pivoting from singing melody on a tag to harmony on another encore in a split-second’s time.) (Runner-up: Gaither Homecoming Friends, Down By the Tabernacle, 2008—a rendition I described four and a half years ago as “the oddest Homecoming moment.”)
  • “There Is A Light”: Gene McDonald, In Times Like These, 2006. McDonald brought a resonance and confidence to the low notes that makes his rendition stand head and shoulders above others.
  • “Victory Road”: Greater Vision with J.D. Sumner, Quartets, 2003. Naming Sumner as the bass singer to feature on the song is a straightforward decision. What is harder is naming the best set of singers who recorded it with him. Though Greater Vision added their parts after his death, their vocals match his at least as well as any other ensemble Sumner recorded it with—and their track was the best.
  • “What a Morning”: Blackwood Brothers, In Concert, 1960. The challenge of making a list of this nature of Sumner’s songs is that he wrote songs that fit his voice perfectly. Many groups have recorded his songs, but few have topped his renditions. 

What do you consider to be the definitive versions of J.D. Sumner’s songs?

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38 Letters to the Editor

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  1. A Soul Such As I is one of my favorites and Ed Hill turned in a masterful performance on the Live at Murray State album.

  2. The Blackwood Brothers’ rendition of “Crossing Chilly Jordan” from the On Tour album is the definitive version in my opinion. The Dove Brothers’ version is quite good and likely second, but I think the original would have to come in first. Very enjoyable post, Daniel!

    • Thanks, Charles! I really like the original, too. It’s definitely my #2, of all the renditions I have.

  3. The Anchormen had a pretty good take of What a Morning on their album titled Reflections of Life,in the late 1990s!

    • Don’t think I’ve heard their take. The Inspirations also did a good version a few years back.

    • Aaron McCune led it, right?

      • Nope…that was a Jeff Chapman feature. One of the best quartet line-ups you’ll ever come across, by the way. Steve Ladd on Tenor, Phillip Hughes on Lead, Terry Carter on Baritone, and Jeff Chapman on Bass. Look at what they have all done in their SG careers over time. And all of them have managed to improve even more over time, vocally speaking (at least, in my opinion).

        Great song, great group to feature it, and great interpretation of the song with the transition from a “classic” record-style sound to a clean, modern track in the middle of the song (a la the Perrys’ version of “I Was There When It Happened”).

      • I had second thoughs about that. Aaron was with them as of the 2000 release “Southern Classics/Campmeeting Time”. “What A Morning” was on their 1999 “Reflections Of Life” record.
        I remember hearing that on the radio, this was my first introduction to Jeff Chapman. Needless to say, I was impressed.
        The Anchormen have sure had a great amount of bass talent down through the years, David Hester, Paul Harkey, Jeff, and Aaron, to name a few.

      • I too agree… The Anchormen’s version is the best!

  4. I liked the version of “The Old Country Church” done by the Stamps. I would have to re-listen to the Blackwoods’ version. I don’t see how a J.D. Sumner list can be complete without “I Can Feel The Touch of His Hand”. Although the version of the Stamps with Bill Baize, Donnie Sumner, Ed Enoch, and Richard Sterban / J.D. Sumner is my favorite, the definitive version of THAT song is from their Live At Murray State University album.

  5. I always loved ” Victory Road” from the 1990 album of the same name which also featured my favorite cut of “Cross Chilly Jordan”. This album in itself was one of the greatest quartet albums, with a lineup that to this day rivals any other four men who’ve ever stood on a stage.
    For me, there are two songs that JD wrote that have to be on my list.
    Number 1: “I Can Feel The Touch Of His Hand” Happy Goodman Family – Covered In Warmth (1975) This was a great powerhouse song for the Stamps for years. Often turned in by a lead singer, Johnny Cook’s version absolutely stands head and shoulders above the rest.
    Number 2: “Listen” Melody Boys Quartet- Faith In My Savior (1998) There is no other song that makes me think of the Melody Boys more than this one. Story goes, one night the Stamps and Melody Boys were singing in concert, after a beautiful setup to this song and near flawless rendition Gerald turned to JD and asked, “Well, JD what’d ya think of your song” and JD replied, “Did I write that?” Truth is JD wrote some great songs and here is proof positive. I love this song and Jonathon Sawrie near perfect rendition of it is now iconic for me. Because of his bigger than life persona (and voice) JD often is overlooked as a songwriter, but his ability as a writer was definately on par with his other, more well-known talents. Great topic, Daniel!

    • Thanks, Richie! I do not believe I have that Melody Boys album.

    • Gerald Williams told me this weekend that “Listen” was still one of the Melody Boys Quartet’s most requested songs. The Vic Clay arrangement is quite a bit different than JD’s original version.

    • I like the Victory Road version of “Victory Road” too, but one that was sort of neat was the one done on the Masters of Gospel CD. They took an earlier version from the Stamps and used it for the first part and then had it go into the same part of the newer version creating one version that had different parts of both combined.

    • Gold City’s rendition of “Victory Road” is one of my favorites. Tim Riley did a great job… of course!

  6. Is this the version of “Lonesome Road” from “Live In Nashville”?

    The Stamps version of “Old Country Church” has a better arrangement than the Blackwood Brother’s “On Tour” cut, but, then again, you have the energy of the live concert to it’s favor.
    I counted at least 6 rounds of applause.
    Rosie REALLY took it up a notch
    Sounds like James is leading the tag’s 1st chorus, then R.W. leads the 2nd. Rosie and Bill on the 3rd and 4th. Cheif gets the fifth, and Rosie does the last.

    • 2nd – do you mean Cecil? R.W. was dead by that point – and this was before the Gaitherized days of special video appearances from the departed!

      • Oops, you’re right. It was Cecil.

  7. If I am not mistaken, James Blackwood has the lead on Aloha Time, not Bill Shaw. It’s a fooler.

    • Great catch. Listening again, I believe you are correct. I had listened to it thinking “tenor solo” and “Bill Shaw was their tenor,” without listening more closely!

  8. Glad Richie included in his comment, “I Can Feel The Touch Of His Hand” -and the Stamps version with Donnie singing lead WAS the best. Believe it’s still on You Tube If you don’t have the LP. Told JD once that if he had never written anything else, this would have been enough. Other noteworthy songs were “Jesus Is Mine” -sung on an early Blackwood LP, and “From Now On” which the Blackwoods and the Stamps recorded in the early sixties. The melody line on the chorus always sounded to me a little like “Because He Lives”, but came out some years before the latter. God used JD to pen so many great songs that in the fifties and sixties, it was hard to find a Blackwood LP without one or more.

    • I guess because I had been so accustomed to hearing lead singers do this song that when I heard Johnny’s cut of it I was floored! It instantly became my favorite. Especially with the acoustic guitar on the track, which was somewhat of departure for the Goodmans at the time, it was a win-win for me. However, if we’re talking lead singers on this tough to overlook Jack Toney’s version. Always loved JD using the 23rd Psalm recitation to introduce the song. That was my favorite recitation he did.

  9. Did you deliberately leave out recitations? I would have included “Ole Man Death” from _The Final Sessions_.

    • My criteria included the wording “ten songs” … 🙂

      • Well, they do a bit of singing on it…

      • Yes, but that wasn’t a Sumner song they were singing! 🙂

      • It is to the same extent that “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” is Chris Tomlin song. :o)

  10. I have to agree with Richie on the best version of “Crossing Chilly Jordan”. I would have to go with the Stamps “Victory Road” version. Jerry Trammell on that tenor line was AWESOME!

  11. I love JD and he wrote a lot of great songs. He owns Lonesome Road. Never heard anyone do it better. Although Ken Turner does a great job. My favorite rendition of Old Country Church has to go to the Oak Ridge boys from the 60’s or 50’s. Not sure which. And I love Tim Duncans version of God Made a Way from EHSSQ Building a Bridge. Good stuff 🙂

    • The Oak Ridge Boys’ “Old Country Church” is from 1965, but isn’t the Sumner tune. It was sometimes credited to him (although I don’t believe all of the time). So, unless Sumner wrote two, someone else did that one.

  12. When it comes to “Old Country Church”, my favorite rendition would have to by the Dove Brothers.

  13. “Inside the Gate” was also done by the Greenes in the late 90s, and it was awesome! I remember JD coming on stage at the Great Western Quartet Convention to sing it with them. He said, “I wrote it, I oughta be able to sing it whenever I want.”

  14. I need the lyrics to JD Sumners vesion of Walkin and Talkin with my lord.

    • I’m sorry, but copyright law will not permit those lyrics to be posted here. I would suggest playing through the song a number of times and writing them down, or perhaps seeing if you can find it listed in an old songbook.