The greatest groups
Southern Gospel’s top-tier groups typically have the recognition they have because they are very good at at least one aspect of what makes a group great.
Some groups are strong at finding songs with thought-provoking lyrics that express Gospel truth in a fresh way. Brian Free & Assurance is a great example.
Other groups have multiple spectacular vocalists that can take a perfectly ordinary song everyone has heard hundreds of times and turn in a show-stopping standing-ovation performance. Take Greater Vision (Gerald Wolfe and Chris Allman), Mark Trammell Quartet (Mark Trammell and Pat Barker), or the Gaither Vocal Band (everyone except Bill).
Still other groups, like the Crist Family, offer innovative modern harmonies that delight harmony aficionados.
Then there are groups who specialize in finesse (Collingsworth Family) or excitement (McKameys).
It wouldn’t be hard to list off any other number of factors that make a group great: Great, tight harmony phrasing, great pitch, great song melodies, great situational humor, great live accompaniment, or being the best at incorporating a stylistic influence (e.g., roots/bluegrass, country, or progressive).
Being the best in our genre at any one of these is enough to make a group top-tier. But what does it take to make a group one of the greatest of its generation?
It seems that the greatest groups of each generation are the groups that excel at several areas that make a group great. The Gaither Vocal Band is in the top three in several of these categories—multiple spectacular vocalists, both finesse and excitement (a rare combination to have in a group), innovative harmonies, and great live accompaniment. The Collingsworth Family—who, it’s safe to say, is the most popular family group right now—is in the top three in finesse, phrasing, innovative harmonies, and live accompaniment. The Booth Brothers are top three in both energy and finesse, in insightful lyrics, and in perfectly placed harmonies.
The same can be said for the greatest groups of the past. In any given lineup, the Cathedrals had at least three show-stopping vocalists—sometimes five—and from around 1981 on, they introduced some of the best songs in our genre. The Statesmen were among the best at show-stopping vocalists, innovative harmonies, excitement, and tight phrasing.
(UPDATE, 9/21: The two previous paragraphs were intended to be examples of great groups, not a complete list of our genre’s greatest groups of the current and past. Perhaps I did not make this clear enough, as I have received quite a few emails, and perhaps a couple of comments, from people concerned that one group or another was not on the list. The lists weren’t intended to be exhaustive!)
Each area in which a group excels draws that group fans. The more areas in which a group excels, the more likely that group is to be recognized as one of the best all-around groups of its generation.