Turning a Southern Gospel story into a movie

Suppose a Hollywood producer decided to film a movie about something related to Southern Gospel. (Or, perhaps better yet, suppose it was a non-Hollywood producer with similar quality standards but Christian values!) Whether it is the story of an individual, a group, or something else entirely, what Southern Gospel stories would make great movies?


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81 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. Anyone who has read Vestal Goodman’s life story would be hard pressed to find a more inspiring one. It would make a great movie for the Hallmark channel, etc.

    • I WILL HAFT TO AGREE THE VESTAL STORY WOULD BE IIT

  2. The story of the Blackwood Brothers, devastated during their rise in fame by the fatal plane crash, but making it to the top of the gospel music with the emergence of J.D. Sumner as one of the genre’s central figures.

  3. The Isaacs with Lilly’s background. The Blackwood Brothers with the plane crash. Bill Gaither from a farm boy to Cracker Barrel. The Oaks with them changing genres. The Goodmans story would probably be very interesting.

  4. Dottie Rambo

  5. Well, there you go, Daniel….you have some great answers! 🙂 Also, I will add Tracy Stuffle.

    • (Submitted too soon) and Libbi’s unwavering faith and perseverance throughout.

  6. I’ve read Bob Terrel’s book ‘the music men’ there are so many moving, and funny stories in there, that if someone would make a movie, he/she would be wise to borrow these stories and make up a quartet! The stories of the real quartets are simulatr and yet differ from eachother so why not dream up a name and use the best ones?!

    • The story at the beginning of _The Music Men_ where Big Chief swerves up a gas tank after some indecision on a dirt road about which fork to take would make a great opening scene.

      As you said, the book as a whole would be a good basis for a fictional movie.

  7. I’ve always been interested in film production, and I have a small media company, so this interested me a lot! I’d like to propose an interesting idea: I’ve always wanted to make film starring a popular quartet (I think Triumphant would be a good one). Something with lots of laughter but a good message in the process. Maybe something about their bus breaking down and having to hitchhike across the country to get to NQC…lots of hilarity (especially on Jeff Stice’s part, I’m sure) but a good lesson about friendship and loving your neighbor could be easily incorporated.

  8. Michael English’s rise, fall and rise.

    Jake Hess’s bio, detailing his struggles with his health as he continued to sing.

    The Gospel Side of Elvis; a look at his gospel years but from the perspective of Armond Morales, JD Sumner and the Jordanaires.

    • I’ve seen a documentary on the Gospel side of Elvis. It’s been a few years ago now….

      • I meant an actual movie, with actors playing the Sumners, Bruno, Morales, Moscheo, Neilsen, Baty, etc. Following all the gospel singers he toured with, from the Imperials to the Stamps to VOICE to the Jordanaires.

      • But start off with Elvis attending umpteen Statesmen/Blackwood Bros. concerts, and later auditioning for the Songfellows.

  9. I had a whole string of thoughts underlying this opening question, and something I suspected might be the case is reflected in the comments. Notice how most of the names brought up so far are singers who came to prominence in the 50s-70s?

    Were the stories of singers then simply more interesting? Or has the Southern Gospel press from the 1980s-on (which, I guess, includes me) not done as good of a job of finding those compelling stories?

    • I think the reason for that is that Gospel Music was more mainstream back then. Even if you didn’t listen to Gospel, you probably still knew who the Blackwood Brothers were. Nowadays mainstream doesn’t know who the Gaither Vocal Band is. Therefore more people are familiar with the artists from that era.

    • Dottie rambo..i went to church with her when her an buvk first started singing..Reba was about 5 yrs old..she held us a six week revival..ahe was a character..loved her..

    • The past generation were trailblazers. And because they were coming out of the Depression and World Wars, there is more of a rags to riches kind of thing going on.
      The current generation of artists are recreating the same music doing it the same way. This is why the more interesting stories are from the past. The current ones mentioned are mostly because of health obstacles.

  10. On a side note: Even though nobody has brought him up so far, Anthony Burger’s life story could certainly make an interesting movie. Ditto for Garry Jones.

    By the way: I’m speaking of an actual movie here, not just a documentary.

  11. It depends on the purpose of the movie. If it’s suppose to be a fill good, happy ending type story (something like what they’re doing in Augusta), you guys are dead on! And we could name hundreds of artist that have an impressive, and uplifting story. But… if Hollywood is producing the movie, they’re going to be looking for the story about someone’s addiction messing up their ministry, or how what they did or didn’t do online caused them great pain… I’ll stop there, but, that’s a different list and (sadly) stories that are perceived to be much more interesting.

    • I hate it when I spell words wrong… I do know the difference between “fill” and “feel.”

    • Yeah, reminds me of some ideas our old blogger friend had before he called it quits…

    • I don’t watch many movies, and when I do, it’s typically either an old, old Hollywood film (60s or before, think Ten Commandments or The Sound of Music or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), or it’s an independent Christian film (Fireproof, The Widow’s Might, The Runner from Ravenshead). In most of these movies, there’s some sort of resolution. It’s not always 100% happy, but there’s a resolution. Are many modern-day Hollywood movies left completely unresolved?

      I could imagine a movie showing the fall of a Christian singer easily enough, if there’s a resolution.

  12. I don’t watch a ton of stuff either, but yes. For example, I could see them ending one story with a man sitting on a stool, on stage, in a small church, trying to make a comeback into an industry that has pushed him away because of his sin… or another sitting in prison writing a note to give to someone else, to try to explain his case to the industry that will never understand. Those stories wouldn’t resolve, but again, it’s juicy gossip… it’s perceived to be more entertaining.

    • Good grief! Who in their right mind would pay to see that?

      • I hear ya! However, there are movies about many pastors, true stories, that have “fallen.” By the way, the books about this stuff jump off the shelves, as well.

  13. What about Tony Greene with the kidney disease, the transplant and his ultimate home going?

    • Hmm. That would be interesting. I wonder if you could somehow work the Heaven scenes into the script.

  14. The life of the Crabb family would make a great movie. Their’s enough to incorporate a 2 to 3 hour movie.

    • Does anyone record three-hour movies anymore?

      • Peter Jackson.

      • Ken Burns would make an EXCELLENT documentery & he would use ALL the stories. I like your topic.

    • It would make an interesting story…unfortunately, not a happy one. I don’t put anybody down. I have always enjoyed their music. But there has been much turmoil within the family. I’ll leave it at that.

    • I’ve always said that the rise of the Crabb Family would be a good film.

  15. ok for a little lightheartedness (but truthful nonetheless in my opinion) a Ken Burns documentary entitled “Southern Gospel & The Love Offering: The Polite Way To Kill An Industry”

    a great biopic would be JD Sumner’s life story

  16. I would go with JD or the Goodmans. JD’s poor beginnings, his part in rebirth of the Blackwoods, reviving the Stamps, Guiness record, and connection with Elvis are elements for a great flick. Vestal’s life is intriguing as well. Humble beginnings, transformation of her voice, the Happy Goodmans, her grave health in the 70’s, the Goodman split/Reunion, and Gaither rebirth are good plot points. Someone get the guy who produced the Bible miniseries on the phone!

    • Sure, JD’s story would be great, but who would play him? :0

      • Christian Davis doesn’t look the part and doesn’t have an identical sounding voice, but something tells me he could pull off the persona if he so desired. 🙂

      • I can’t see Christain Davis playing JD – obvious problem the height difference. It would be much like Tom Cruise playing Jack Reacher. Also I have seen gospel singers try to act, in order for it to “play in Peoria” it would need a professional actor/actress.
        I think Sam Elliott would be able to play JD in his later years. Elliott has the voice and demeanor.

  17. Interesting topic today, Daniel! I think the aritst from the 50-70’s era didn’t have social media to keep us posted on their day-t0-day, and therefore I think that makes their stories more alluring, perhaps. They may have held more “celebrity” status because of the lack of daily accessiblity that today’s aritsts have with the fans through Facebook, Twitter, etc. I would think that their hardships of working through the trial-and-error as they paved the way for this southern gospel touring business would naturally provide more interesting content. I also think that today’s PR and media gurus try to spin stories that we don’t necessarily buy about today’s artists, so I don’t think unless we thought we were going to get the true whole story, we would be as compelled to want to toss out a current name into the mix—or perhaps because of the aforementioned social media we already know the story and therefore wouldn’t need to see the movie. LOL

    On the old comedy recording “Comedy, Classics, and Characters,” Rex Nelon tells a story about staying at a hotel once, very early on in his traveling career, and someone had remarked about the towels being so thick they couldn’t dry their ears with them, and it turns out they’d used the bath mat instead of the towel. Another story was told about someone (his name escapes me) whose song “Just One Rose Will Do” was a big hit, and he would sign into the hotels under the name “Justa Roselldoo.” I could have listened to them talk about that time period for hours and hours, and I appreciate the nostalgia of that era and the way they often seemingly blundered their way through, making their own entertainment because they didn’t travel in a bus with a dish mounted on the top or have a smart phone with wifi at their fingertips. Oh, sure, there was shocking scandal back then just as there is now from time to time, but that’s life and people being real people. But that era, to me, would make for some interesting viewing.

  18. Okay, I couldn’t resist adding to this for the best movie of all… Stuart Hamblen
    You’d have just about all the above in the movie, and a few more! You’d have to have appearances by John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Johnny Cash, Blackwood Brothers, and not to mention two of his closest friends, Bill Gaither & Billy Graham. Rough and rugged man, #1 radio personality, known for bar room fights, all sorts of antics and mischief, race horses and gambling, not to mention jail time. He even ran for President of the United States! Back in the 30’s and 40’s, Stuart was writing the top songs of the day, then has a personal connection with a young preacher named Billy Graham who has an idea for a “tent crusade” in the middle of Los Angeles. Stuart promotes the crusade on his #1 radio show, but the crowds are small. Then one evening Stuart becomes saved in Billy Graham’s hotel room, very early in the morning. That day on his radio show he invites his listeners to come to the tent crusade to see someone they had never heard before… a new man by the name of Stuart Hamblen. The crowds came, and several lives were changed forever. Stuart started writing gospel songs instead of country/western. Songs such as: How Big Is God, Teach Me Lord To Wait, Known Only To Him, Until Then, This Ole House, and of course, It Is No Secret (What God Can Do) which was inspired by a conversation one evening at John Wayne’s house. When Billy sent him out to speak about his changed life and what Christ had done, theaters, arenas, and stadiums were packed to hear what he had to say. Talk about a movie!

  19. Roger Bennett and his zest for life and faith!! Also, Gerald Crabb’s story is pretty powerful. (Sure, a lot of turmoil and sorrow is there, but so is the triumph of everyone letting God stay in control. )

  20. No ones mentioned the LeFevres, great story there as well !

    • Yes, I agree with Randall Hamm, the LeFevres is a great story and should be told as well as the Blackwoods and Nelons.

  21. Couldn’t you just do a movie about a college quartet that turns professional after graduation. Then, just explore the different problems SG groups have to face such as:

    Different reasons for line-up change (Yes, the less than tasteful ones have to be in it if we want to be honest)
    Struggle for financial stability
    Breaking into the awards barrier
    Doubts about faith
    Everyday issues

    -Although all these ideas based off people are good. I’d go with JD mainly because I don’t know a lot about Vestal’s life.
    -The Blackwood Brothers would be a real good idea if you followed it to present day
    -Oak Ridge Boys would really put “hearts in mouths” (I fear some of the stuff they went through was a lot worse than we realize)
    -I like Jake Hess’ idea. I don’t have reason. I just think he has a good story.
    -I’m shocked no one said George Younce. He’s been through a lot and ultimate became arguably the most beloved figure in SG music.

    • I was wondering how long it would take to mention George & Glen!

    • Any of these would make great movies in my opinion

      1. Big Jim Hamel (greatest emcee EVER!)
      2. The rise of Gold City (because of Ivan and Brian Free)
      3. The “institution” of Bill (and maybe Gloria) Gaither
      4. The “hands down” greatest ever 4 man quartet of Glenn Payne/George Younce/Danny Funderburk/Mark Trammel

  22. I was just about to say the cathedrals story as a whole would make a good movie, especially if you use the book that George and glen wrote as source material. But seriously, so many plot points. The scrapping glen, Bobby, and Danny did to start the cathedral trio, the addition of George, the rough start after leaving the cathedral of tomorrow, the rise and destruction of the late 70s lineup, George and Glen wondering whether or not to quit, hiring Kirk, mark, and Roger saving the cathedrals more or less, symphony of praise, George’s heart attack, the lineup of the 90s, Glen’s sudden sickness and death in 1999, and God’s Providence through it all. THAT would make a movie.

    Granted it would take 7 hours but still 😉

    • Who could play Glen?

      • Now that wasn’t the original question 🙂 i have no clue 🙂 I’m sure you could find somebody.

      • While many bass singers today emulate George Younce, very few lead singers seem to emulate Glen Payne. That’s what would make it tough.

      • Who could play George? And would they digitally remaster cathedrals recordings and have the actors lipsync to that or use actual footage or both? That’s actually relevant to this whole discussion because you can’t have a movie based on a genre of music without music.

      • George is easier. Pat Barker or Jeff Pearles could play George. With the right makeup and hairdos, I suppose either of them could be made to look both young enough for the younger parts and old enough for the older parts. (Sorry, Pat.) 🙂

  23. I didn’t realize someone had already mentioned Ken Burns. 2 great minds…

  24. Easy enough. But by using that logic would it be possible to have Ernie or Scott play younger versions of themselves? Cause (no offense) there’s no way you can do that with Gerald mark or Danny. Kirk maybe. And what about Roger?? That’s almost as hard if not harder than glen. (The thought just occurred to me. Without the makeup or the white hair, could mark now pass as glen then? Certainly not the same voice but i already proposed something about that.)

    • I suspect that having the fourth-longest running Cathedrals member play the longest-running Cathedrals member would be just a little too confusing, appearance-wise.

      • Very true. Still. It’s amazing what makeup can do 🙂 i mean actors play fictionalized versions of their contemporaries all the time. Mark is the only person i can think of within the genre who might could do it. But i suppose that would be like asking mark lowry to play bill Gaither in a movie (just an illustration. )

      • …or, a little closer to home, asking Scott Fowler to play Mark Trammell (while Mark is playing Glen). 🙂 😛

  25. That would be called the cathedrals family reunion sir! 🙂

    • I mean did not the version of wedding music with Ernie, Scott, mark, and part sound awfully similar to the original?

  26. Hovie and the Statesmen… a group rises from the unknown to super stardom almost over night, and stayed that way for 25 years.. they were an amazing success story…of course, so were the Blackwood Brothers..maybe more so…

    • I think the Blackwood Brothers story is a little more dramatic – brothers rise from sharecropping poverty to the same level of success as the Statesmen.

  27. Why not Jonathan Wilburn to play Glen? Makeup could fix the looks, audio tweaks the voice, and he certainly has the excitement to pull it off. If I remember right Glen was Jonathan’s hero/model at least one of them. I personally can think of no one closer as far as emulating Glen.

  28. Ok Daniel I hate to say this but unless I overlooked a comment nobody has said anything about Ed O’Neil. He’s still alive of course but at one time he could have given up on singing. He went to the DMB band for a short while and then decided to get back to southern gospel quartet singing. I just happen to join his group about 8 months after he restarted. To see what he went through and to be there during some tough times a person could at least write a book about all that. I do admire him for not just saying forget it.

    • Perhaps nobody said anything because, to my knowledge, he’s said very, very little about that time period, and just about nobody except you and him has any idea of what he went through.

      • Well pretty much everyone in the industry at that time new he went to a country gospel or like a Mid South Boys type of music and the suit n ties went away. I thought they were great as a band but I think they were ahead of the times so to speak. It about broke Ed but he fought the odds against him and his fans came back to what Ed started out as and that was good quartet singing. It would be great if you could grab an interview from Ed. I believe you would find it very interesting. I have his number. Lol.

      • Also all this happened before you were born.

  29. The Kingsmen

  30. I’m all in for JD Sumner. It could start out with the death of RW Blackwood in the plane crash, have James crying saying “what will I do”. Then have JD coming into the group with the drama of having to fill the shoes of a family member. Then there could be some story on his movie experience. The Elvis part would sell the tickets to the movie.

    • I could see that working. Truth be told, if I was producing any Southern Gospel movie, of all the ideas mentioned so far, I’d probably choose to spotlight James. The more dramatic a challenge your hero has to face, the more cinematic the end movie feels. Starting in a poor sharecropping family, pinching pennies to go to music school et cetera, and then starting to sing in the Great Depression (I’d probably need a child double for this part) – putting dreams on hold for World War II (by this point, I can use the adult playing James), and then reaching the top with the Arthur Godfrey talent show, only to see it go up in smoke in the plane crash. If I recall correctly, he was the one who wanted so badly to go in to the plane crash in a hopeless effort to rescue his nephew (and Bill Lyles) that someone else from the quartet had to physically restrain him. He has talked about how badly he wanted to quit. And then we have JD and Cecil coming on board, and the group going right back to the top. That, to me, feels like a movie, and feels like a conclusion to a movie.

      At that point, you can have the narrator mention as the credits are about to roll that the group would go on to win all sorts of Dove and Grammy awards, and that JD would go on to back up Elvis.

      • I believe some (or all) of the Statesmen were also at the little airport, when the plane went down. Jake Hess spoke of having bruises for days after grabbing and holding a kicking and flailing James Blackwood off his feet to keep him from running into the flaming plane.

      • Ah, yes, it was Jake Hess holding James Blackwood down. Honestly, that’s who I thought I remembered it was, but I couldn’t remember whether they were actually there that day, so I didn’t want to trust my memory on that point.

  31. Have to say the Blackwood Brothers story could fill the bill as an incredible movie. There is so much history involved with their career.From them starting out to having to disband because of the war and reuniting. Then of course the working relationship and friendship they developed with the Statesmen. The plain crash would have to be included. They way J D and Cecil had to attempt to replace those taken in the crash. J D s unbelievable songwriting ability would be a highlight not only his writing of songs but of the jingles they used to sing pitching products on the radio. Tom Hanks could pull off playing James Blackwood. Dont know if he could sing but he could definately capture James’ southern charm. Thinking of the silly movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou so I know a story from the old south could work. The Blackwoods story would give you so much material to choose from.

    • I’m going to have a difficult time watching any movie of known individuals if there’s not at least a resemblance in dimensions as well as acting the personalities. Tom Hanks could act it, no doubt, but would have to walk or stand in a ditch for the entire movie to make him short enough to play James Blackwood. James was a little bitty man. Standing next to him, I felt he was no taller than me and I’m only 5′ 2″. Tom Cruise might be more like it, except both would have to lose a LOT of weight as they are a bit too bulky in body. Make-up can do the faces … no biggie. If you’re going to cast voices, WOW what a challenge — actors lip-synching might be the best way if you’re doing a whole quartet. But it is possible. [Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” was believably Loretta’s voice.] This would be great fun to cast — I suspect whoever did this movie would greatly benefit if they utilized Bill Gaither as a mentor; he knows voices! Wait- wait- wait! Pitch this to Benjy Gaither. He could produce this movie for you! Have you seen “The Last Ride”; the story of Hank Williams? Awesome work! Since that was more about the songs Hank wrote, it worked to have a variety of other singers (Russ Taff, Michael English, etc) singing bits of the songs in the background. Fun idea, Daniel! 🙂

      • Good idea about Benjy Gaither directing!

      • Daniel might not have seen it, there is some language…

  32. I think a movie about the Speer Family from the early years to the present would be really interesting!!!

  33. The life, times and personnel changes of the Gaither Vocal Band?

  34. Daniel, I hope my idea isn’t too personal to anyone because I would never say anything to hurt anyone. What about a kid that is on crutches and later in life God heals him of his affliction. The guy joins a gospel group,gives his testimony wherever he goes and have McRay Dove singing didn’t it rain. And if anyone has ever seen Mcray do didn’t it rain you know what I’m talking about.
    This may sound a little too Forrest Gumpy!

    • Yes, the Dove Brothers or Signature Sound. 🙂

    • Seriously?. Lol. Really good idea in my opinion up to the song selection. He has a million and one songs though. I traveled a year with him so I know that much.