Southern Gospel’s most successful soloists

On Monday, Daywind announced that it had signed Joseph Habedank to a solo recording contract. Ever since, I have been pondering the question of what, if anything, Southern Gospel’s most popular soloists have in common.

It’s not too hard to identify Southern Gospel’s most popular soloists over the last quarter-century or so. Ever since Singing News added a Favorite Soloist award in 1997, only three soloists have won: Kirk Talley, Mark Bishop, and Ivan Parker. If the award had been launched five years earlier—when Kirk was still with The Talleys, Ivan was still with Gold City, and Mark was still with The Bishops—it is quite probable that Squire Parsons would have picked up the first few awards, given his popularity in the 1980s and 1990s. 

There are, of course, any number of common threads here, including that these are all male singers who came to prominence singing lead or tenor for the genre’s leading vocal groups. But one common thread stands above the rest: With one exception (Ivan Parker), these singers were all songwriters writing most of their material, as acclaimed for their pen as for their voice. All three had written #1 hits; in fact, Kirk and Squire both wrote #1 hits for groups they weren’t traveling with at the time (“Wedding Music” and “I’m Not Giving Up,” respectively).

It’s not hard to see the similarities in Joseph Habedank’s career. He was a longtime lead singer for one of the genre’s most popular vocal groups, but by the time he left, he was as acclaimed for his writing as for his voice. He had written a #1 hit for his own group (“If You Knew Him”) and a #1 hit for another group (“That’s All I Need / He’s Everything I Need,” The Kingsmen).

Southern Gospel fans appreciate soloists from a variety of backgrounds and specialties. But it seems there is a special place in a Southern Gospel fan’s heart for soloists who are both one of the genre’s finest vocalists and one of the genre’s finest songwriters.

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22 Letters to the Editor

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  1. I can agree for the most part – but I think it mainly has more to do with the fact that they were just a very popular singer in an already popular group. The best examples I can think of, though not winning the Fan Award for Favorite Soloist – are Janet Paschal, Jason Crabb, and Guy Penrod.

    • I’m not denying that a very popular singer in a very popular group is indeed the starting point. But quite a few popular singers in popular groups have launched solo careers; most didn’t take off in a gigantic way. I’m examining what separates those who try from those who succeed at the highest level.

  2. There was a time that Michael Combs was one of the biggest draws in the business.
    He never won any Fan Awards, which seemed odd considering his drawing power at the time! But, he was definitely a success story

  3. Who are the singers that you are thinking of that didn’t take off in a gigantic way?

    • I dare not name names, at least publicly. Sorry!

  4. In all sincerity, Squire is still be #1 in my book – but just not recognized by the subsribers to Singing News. He has remained very busy over the years and for the most part, travels a little different circuit than many solo artists or groups. His concerts are extremely worshipful, and people always want him to come back. His voice is golden…

    There are few people in the SG industry as highly regarded by his peers as Squire Parsons.

    On a side note, virtually everything he has written translates well for quartets. I like Joseph Haberdank very much, but many of his songs worked for the Perrys because of their style and willingness/desire to adapt – but virtually everythng he has written translate well for soloists. Not a plus or negative – just an observation…

    Love your work Daniel… You are the best!


  5. I think that in the case of some soloists, like Jason Crabb and Guy Penrod for example, a large portion of “Southern Gospel” die-hard fans haven’t followed them as much as soloists because there is the perception that they have veered, as soloists, into other genres, Jason being perceived by some as moving towards Contemporary Christian and Guy towards Country. That diesn’t mean they have, but that perception may well account for why their following wanes somewhat from say an Ivan or a Kirk. But I really believe the opportunity is there for a female Southern Gospel Artist to strike it big as a soloist and perhaps even win that Favorite Soloist award in the person of Taranda Greene. Taranda brings both a voice and a presence to the platform that is every bit as exhilerating as Ivan and the fact that many Southern Gospel fans miss her and Tony from their “Greenes” days gives Taranda the potential to be Southern Gospel’s first female “super-soloist”!

    • I totally agree regarding Taranda. She is top-notch, and you described her perfectly. She even surpasses her
      sister-in-law IMO, as much as I love and adore Kim H. That’s how good she is, and she continues to wow
      audiences every time she sings.

  6. The songwriting part is very important because having great songs, whether you are a group or a soloist, is the key to success. If you are a soloist who is also a great songwriter, then you don’t have to go searching very far for material. This gives you an especially big advantage in the beginning. Obviously, a vocalist of Ivan Parker’s stature is going to get material thrown his way by great songwriters, but lesser known soloists will have more trouble in that area.

  7. Coming from the side of traveling with Squire for 10 years, one of the benefits I see as a soloist who writes their own music is the interaction that it gives them with the audience. Let’s face it, one person standing and singing with soundtracks can be, well, not very entertaining. But when that person can say, “I wrote this song after I …” helps to pull the audience into the life of the writer and givens them a more personal concert experience. I’ve seen this happen with Mark and Kirk as well. Writer / artist don’t have to search for songs that speak to them that they can try to convey to the audience, they have the advantage of being able to write their story and then sing it. I know Joseph will be very successful with what his track record of writing has been to this point!

    • Fascinating; thanks for sharing. My thought process this morning only went so far as the “what,” making the connection; I hadn’t gotten as far as the “why.” That makes perfect sense.

  8. There are two more factors that I feel was a major role in Ivans success as a soloist. First he sung and still does sing a song that has become a classic and is still very popular. Second would be the fact that he toured with the Gaithers, I am sure was beneficial to him. As far as Joseph, there’s no doubt in my mind that he will do great!

    • I think that in the cases of Ivan, Anthony and even Mark, their solo success was due in very large part to their identification with the Gaither Homecoming Video audience of the 1990’s during the early years of the Gaither videos. Those videos brought their names and faces to a lot of old time Southern Gospel fans who may not otherwise have recognized their names for solo performances or projects. I think when the history of the genre is all said and done, those Gaither videos will have been more influential in launching careers than we know now.

  9. I recently “discovered” Kirk Talley, in part, thru this journal. I did not know he was related to Roger Talley, who I have seen several times at various Southern Gospel Events. I am sorry that I did not have the opportunity to hear Kirk sing live. He is one of the greatest singers I have ever listened to.. and I have listened to singers in many different types of music style from Broadway to rock. I understand that Kirk is not able to perform live anymore, and that saddens me, but I am grateful for the work he has produced, so that his legacy can be passed on to others thru his music. I think that his version of “Still Her Little Child” is one of the best Christmas songs I have ever heard.

  10. i would rather go see a soloist who can play an instrument much like Jason Crab does in his shows.;At the very least one who’s writes their own music. But there are very few who have the rare combination of doing both. I believe one of the greatest “would have been” soloist had he lived longer was Keeny Hinson. I could see him doing a lot like Jason Crabb. But just because you are a great singer doesn’t transcend to being a great soloist. I think JH will have a great start and rise to the top with some of the others.

  11. What about the pre-Ivan solo days when Kelly Nelon was a successful SG soloist/inspiration artist. She recorded 5 solo records while with the Nelons. No one that I know of in southern gospel still sand with a group and had success as a soloist at the same time.

    • It’s my understanding that Ernie Haase had as many solo dates as he wanted during his final Cathedrals years. David Phelps, Mark Lowry, Michael English, and Wes Hampton have all had solo dates on the side of their recent Gaither Vocal Band work; I would venture to guess, though, that Mark Lowry is quite possibly the single most successful soloist who also held down a group position at the same time. As I understand, Squire Parsons did a mixture of solo dates and dates with Squire Parsons and Redeemed and/or the Squire Parsons Trio for 15 or 20 years; it’s perhaps easy to overlook that, though, since he was so successful as a soloist. Finally, if you want to count him: For a decade or so, Anthony Burger was the pianist for pretty much every Gaither Vocal Band and Gaither Homecoming Tour concert, and he had a very successful solo career on the side.

      I say none of this to minimize Kelly’s success as a soloist, by any stretch of the imagination; I only say it to note that she wasn’t the only one.

  12. Another good discussion. Walt Mills is someone who has always been a soloist as far as I know. He also like Squire and Kirk is a great songwriter.
    I also agree with others who commented on Michael Combs. Ive always enjoyed his solo work. Its different than other music others have put out there.

  13. I’m late to a good conversation, but there is a lot of merit about writing your own songs as a soloist. There have not been many successful solo artists in gospel music. Only a few. And I’d say while many of the successful soloists remained successful and have their core, reliable fans, it’s easy for the “momentum” to stale up a bit among premier quartet fans. Southern gospel is a quartet world. When somebody leaves a big named group, fans anticipate the new vocalist, compare a group’s current personnel with combinations of past personnel. When you get a CD by a quartet or trio, you’re hearing different voices. And each new vocalist can bring a different dynamic to the group’s overall sound. Not so with a soloist. Also, emcee work must be good…keeping the audience engaged for an hour or more all by yourself can be tasking enough for a preacher. So it really helps to have a dynamic personality, as well as being extremely ministry minded. Great thoughts by a few of the commenters though.

    • Open topic for discussion: Is it easier for a preacher or a soloist to hold a congregation’s attention for an hour? Why?

  14. I suppose much of it depends on the skill of the singer or preacher. I think its probably harder for a preacher though because a singer is going to be singing different songs which kind of makes it easier to keep someones attention. I will say I’ve heard a handfull of preachers who could hold you spellbound for an hour and half and it seemed like fifteen minutes.

  15. Coming back around to this topic…

    Being in a group and being a soloist have two very different skillsets. I think Greg said it almost perfectly in reference to the songwriting…you have to communicate to an audience. When you’re in a group, you might not get a chance to communicate because someone else is doing the emcee work.

    A lot also depends on the soloist’s personality. To me, you have to be a “down to earth” personality to make it work as an emcee and soloists.

    When you’re in a group, there are other members who can share the popularity within a group. People might not care for you or your singing, but they’ll support the group. As a soloist, its all on you, so you have to bring it every night. Not everyone can handle something like that.