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.

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43 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. Great article (as usual)! I’m torn as far as your comment about Bill G…personally I don’t think he gets enough credit. True, he doesn’t step up and offer a Phelps-like show-stopper (which I think is the type of thing you were referring to). To be perfectly honest, I always thought Bill was still with GVB just because of his name…however, in the past couple of years, I’ve noticed his talent a bit more. I’m not sure if I’m just listening more, or if he’s stepping out a bit more than he used to. In time past, you could barely him at all (much like Ruben with the McKameys). Now his voice is a bit more prevalent in the mix, especially since the GVB regrouped after Guy left. So, as far as re-interpreting a classic song, no that’s not Bill’s cup of tea. But I still don’t think he gets enough credit.

    • Oh, I hope that paragraph doesn’t get misunderstood. In the two or three groups I named in that paragraph, I named a couple of show-stopping vocalists, e.g. Chris Allman or David Phelps. Now Rodney Griffin and Bill Gaither are both good singers, but nobody would say they are at the level of Allman and Phelps.

      • I agree…but they are the best Rodney Griffins and Bill Gaithers they can be 🙂

  2. Really enjoyed this article! I think we just talk about great groups but sometimes we try not the “Why?”. I do have to agree with Joshua in part. Bill doesn’t get enough credit especially since they moved to the quintet.

  3. I don’t think Gaither is a weak vocalist. He may not be a showstopper like Phelps and the rest, but he’s not a slouch either. I think he plays a very important part in the blend of the Vocal Band. He may not make you want to jump and down and such, but a big part of the blend of that group depends on him. Many other singers have fit into this category over the years. Doy Ott, Mike LeFevre, William Lee Golden just to name a few. Harmony or blend singers play a very important part in group singing, but they rarely get the recognition or attention that the others do.

    • I didn’t say Gaither was a weak vocalist. All I said was that the other singers he’s hired are show-stoppers. I fully recognize that there is a middle ground between being a show-stopper and a mediocre singer – solid competency. 🙂

      • Sorry Daniel. If I inferred you said that, it was not my intention. 🙂

      • OK, thank you! 🙂

      • What distinguishes Bill Gaither apart from the others (aside from his song writing abilities) is that whether it’s with the GVB, or the many businesses he owns, Bill believes you need a TEAM to get it done. . . and that’s how he does it.

        He KNOWS he’s not a great pianist, so he hired one.
        He KNOWS he’s not a great singer, so he hired a team of great singers.
        I don’t think he even wants all the attention, that’s why there is a Larnelle, a Sandi Patty, a Carmen, a Steve Green, and on & on the list could go.

    • Kinda think that is Bill’s way, kinda laid back and likes to bring great talent to the forefront with them being great and not Bill himself. He is a good singer as well as songwriter and emcee. He keeps the group hopping. After all he’s paying the bill so let they guys do the work.

      • His songwriting is probably the single biggest factor in his groups’ successes.

      • There’s an old video of an impromptu Bill Gaither Roast where Mark explains Bill Gaither really well at the end.

        “Why has Bill Gaither been able to change Christian music in such a short time? He doesn’t sing well. He’ll tell you that. He doesn’t play well, at all. He’ll tell you that. I think the reason he’s been able to change Christian music is because he’s spent a lifetime making everyone else look good.”

        I think that puts it pretty simply.

  4. I think what distinguishes a group from others is their ability to present a product that other people want to see. That sounds like a pretty broad statement, but it’s really pretty simple when you think about it. Groups like the GVB know their limitations, they know their audience, and they know exactly where they fit within their genre. They aren’t out there trying to duplicate anything else the next group is out their doing, thus creating something fresh people want to see. Southern Gospel is loaded with extremely talented singers that can offer show stopping performances, emotional connections, and loads of personality, but as a group they don’t really offer anything differently than the next one down the road. Look at the success Triumphant has had in the last few years. They offer an experience that you can’t find at any other Southern Gospel concert, which puts them in great demand.

    • Yes, groups have to present something you can’t find anywhere else. What is that something? It’s different for different groups. And the more somethings a group has that you can’t find anywhere else, the more people who will want to come out and see them. That brings me back around to the point of the article. 🙂

  5. Spot on, Daniel! Love your blog.


  6. So where does the 1993 Gold City (Pillars of Faith and Acapella Gold) fit in?? (Brian/Ivan/Steve/Tim)

    They are (in my book) hand’s down the best there ever was… but to tell you EXACTLY what it was? I can’t…. they were incredibly smooth(more so than most other, if not ALL other quartets at the time) yet could easily pull off a 4 octave spread. Their albums(especially the two mentioned) were marvelously mixed… a nice blend with all members being easily heard at all times, without a tenor or bass WAY louder than anyone else. They liked to “have fun” at a concert, but yet weren’t what I could call “showmen”…

    Interesting topic!!

  7. I look at it this way. Who, in our industry, could pull off a 2 1/2 hour “evening with” concert all by themselves. It would take everything that Daniel mentioned. The Cathedrals did it masterfully. Today I would say Greater Vision, the Booth Brothers, and the Collingsworth Family is your best bets. I always remove Gaither from the equation because he does not do a vocal band only concert.

    • But surely Gaither could pull off a vocal-band-only concert if he wanted, and give us 2 1/2 quality hours. 🙂

  8. Actually Pat thats all they have been doing they have special guests every now and then but when i saw them in Pikeville Kentucky it was just The Vocal Band a live band for 3 hours and it was awesome

    • Pikeville, ky.,not a name of a town you read about very often. Williamson, wv,32 miles away was my birth city.

  9. NO DOUBT, they could pull it off. I have driven thousands of miles in my lifetime to see them do just that. My point was that its not fair to compare the vocal band who has a set entourage that takes some of the pressure off of them during the evening with a group that is doing it on their own 150 plus days a year.

    • You’re right. It is an apples to oranges comparison. But both apples and oranges are good fruit, worth the trip to the grocery store. 🙂

  10. Triumphant Quartet would be top-tier in excitement, harmonies and show-stopping vocals IMO.

  11. Signature Sound still does this. The last concert I went to didn’t seem to have quite as much “excitement” as it did when they were bigger into movements, lights, and 4 piece band, but they still sell a lot of tickets to EHSS only concerts.

    • Im so glad you mentioned them…I live in WA state and have seen the Hoppers the Booth Brothers and EHSS in the last year in the same venue. Hoppers sold about 350, Booth Brothers sold about 600 and EHSS sold about 1200! The whole world demands an EHSS tour and the only other group who can do that is GVB. Signature Sound in my opinion has 4 show stopper vocalists, and beautiful blend together, great songs, and finesse. Complete package in my opinion.

  12. Pat you also have to realize that all the guys in GVB are solo artist’s so they branch off from the Vocal Band and do their own thing so it’s not like other groups

    • I’m completely sure Pat knows that. 🙂

  13. I’ll agree with you Daniel. In 1983 me and my sister drove to Chattanooga and watched a group by themselves keep the attention of nearly 3000 people and that was The Mighty Kingsmen Qt. Jim Hamil was a master of keeping things going. I remember the concert started at 7pm and it was after 9 before we walked out. I remember that like it was yesterday. I also remember being afraid that our parents were gonna kill us for being 3 1/2 hrs from home and we were supposed to be home by midnight. You do the math. Yes we were late but it was worth being grounded. My how things have changed.

    • There was something magical about The Kingsmen of that era. I swear they were the only group that could leave mistakes on their live albums and still sell them. Big and LIve you can clearly hear Hammil sing the wrong words on When I Wake Up, he also made a couple mistakes on Better in Person that were left on and yet they were great albums. I still listen to Live/Naturally once every couple of months. I don’t know what it is, but I never tire of listening to the Kingsmen of the 70’s and 80’s.

  14. I think Rodney Griffin and Gerald Wolfe’s voices have both changed through the years enough that it can no longer be said Gerald is a show stopper and Rodney is not at this point. Sure, this was true in Rodney’s first years with GV, but there has definitely been a shift many are hesitant to admit. It’s funny how we keep greatness in our memories and not notice how things change.

    • I agree, Tad. Solid take.

  15. I just made an edit to the main story:

    (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!)

    • I guess the reason for me metioning the Kingsmen was the fact that you had talked about or someone mentioned holding the crowd’s attention for 2 – 2 1/2 hours and they came to my mind right off the bat. Sorry about that Daniel. I have seen the Vocal Band on many occasions and that includes the current line up. I must admit I never fell asleep during any of their concerts and walked away encouraged. To me what makes a great group is not just great voices/ great band but the chemistry they develope together the longer they sing together. I will use my group (Jordan’s Bridge) as an example. From the start these guys started blending together and when my brother got to where he couldn’t go much we brought on Kirk Henry and in a couple of weeks of him being with us the chemistry was there again. I am NOT trying to put us in that category of great groups but just trying to show that other than having hearts right that chemistry together developes into greatness. Just my humble thinking. As far as Greater Vision goes, we were in concert with them bavk in June and I’m gonna be honest when I say they still have it. Gerald sang Champion of Love as good as I’ve ever heard him and I’ve heard him a lot. Especially back in the 90s when he was with the George and Glen. Everyone has an off night but I’ve not heard Gerald have one. I enjoyed this topic Daniel. It takes guts to write one like this.

  16. One of the most profound statements I ever heard was made to me by a Producer I had the privilege of working with when I first moved to Nashville in ’93. He was in his 70’s and retired but he and the group I was recording were good friends and he agreed to come in for the tracking session that I happened to be engineering. I got to sit next to him for about 11 hours that day. We got in a discussion about the different levels of ability vocally within the group. He made a statement that I thought at the time was crazy, but I have come to see the genius in his statement. He said most people know the difference between good and bad, but they don’t know the difference between good and great. He went on to give examples of vocalist who were not great, but they were good and very identifiable. His first example was Johny Cash. I don’t think anyone would classify him as a “great” vocalist, but after 4 bars of a verse you know without a doubt who it is! That to me is an incredible thing! Just my 2 cents.

    • That is a very good observation. And I think it is wisdom there to pull an example from outside the genre instead of one from inside, though there are a few that could be used here. 🙂

  17. Great discussion. One aspect of a “great group” we thought should be added is ministry. We have attended concerts with all of the aspects to some degree that you have mentioned, but we came away feeling empty – something was missing. Great vocalists,tight harmonies, and humor were all good and fine, but the message and ministry of the Gospel was missing. The Gospel changes lives.

    Besides ministry, personal character on stage and off is crucial, in our opinion. Enough said.


    • Completely agreed. But much like my initial list of groups was not an exhaustive list of groups, my initial list of factors that make a group great was also not exhaustive. Ministry is important, though almost impossible to quantify, though slightly less impossible than character. There have certainly been a few people throughout SG’s history who lived double lives, convincing audiences that they were men of integrity in a ministry mode, when it was all just a show. But it is fair to say that SG’s greatest groups have either been singers of integrity, genuinely used of God to minister, or, in a few regrettable cases, did a really good job in persuading audiences to think that was the case when it wasn’t.

  18. For me, I love groups with great harmony. I also like a group in which each member themselves can sing lead. I really don’t care if the group has a band or just the piano. When the group sings, I have to feel that the lead singer is really meaning what they are singing and are not just singing the words. Oddly, or not, I pay attention to what the other members are doing when a group member is singing a lead (solo part of a song). The concert also has to include ministry – not just in song. The ministry must be heart felt and biblical. Not just want they feel their audiance wants to hear. Finally, I want groups whose members practice what they preach/sing away from the concert. Walk the talk/songs!

    • FYI. The groups I follow most is EHSS, Union Street, Canton Juction, GVB. I love the Gaither DVDs. I also listen to songs from Carman.

  19. One aspect to me is origial material…(as an admitted GC fan, I am loyal) Gold City seemed to me to always have new “great” material….so many albums had songs that my friends who liked or couldnt stand SG music enjoyed…
    I also agree with Gus…who I like as a singer and person…knowing who was singing in just a couple of lines has made the difference…
    Lastly, with all due respect to Daniel (and what a blessing he is to all of us) I was glad for the update on 9/21 about the exhaustive list for each category at the top of the article….I like Daniel’s taste but for me some of those listed were a bit of a stretch…the word “Spectactular” is a big one…

  20. Wait, did you say that the Collingsworth Family is the most popular FAMILY group? I’d say most popular group, period. Of all the folks that come out to CA, the CF outdraws all the major quartets and trios by 500! And that’s without the help of the mighty TV machine like Gaither has. They’ve got it all working for them right now and that’s why we’ll look back on this time as the era when they were the best – just like the Cathedrals were.

    • I said most popular family group because I suspect that, in most regions of the country and world, the Gaither Vocal Band would probably draw more.