Is Traditional Southern Gospel still viable?

In my post yesterday on SoGospelNews’s Ovation Awards, I mentioned that Gold City’s Revival album fell outside what I would consider the traditional Southern Gospel sub-genre.

Chris Unthank, who I respect for always being reasonable in his posts even when we disagree, posted some fascinating thoughts in the comments. Here’s the money quote:

I know this is just a differing of opinions – but if you are limiting your view of traditional Southern Gospel to the artists that you have listed – the SGN Music Awards wouldn’t have enough nominees to fill out the category every year – because that old throw-back style is not the most produced product every year.

Just something to think about.

That got me thinking. In fact, I spent probably a half-hour typing a follow-up comment, only to do something wrong and lose it all. I was so frustrated that I gave up for the day and decided to re-write it as today’s column.

How viable is traditional Southern Gospel?

Let me revisit the definition I gave in my column yesterday:

In my book, a traditional album is an album that is stylistically similar enough to earlier classic Southern Gospel projects that either the songs themselves or their arrangements leave no question that Bill Lyles or Mom Speer would have recognized it as a Southern Gospel project.

Of course, I chose Bill Lyles and Mom Speer randomly. I could just as easily have mentioned any prominent SG musician who died before the ’70s or so.

How strong is this part of our genre? Could we come up with ten strong nominees?

I decided to answer this question by preparing two lists of albums released in 2006. The first is a sample / possible top 10 list of traditional albums, strictly defined:

  1. Smooth and Easy, Dixie Melody Boys
  2. Sounds of Sunday, Dixie Echoes
  3. Gospel Quartet Favorites, Palmetto State Quartet
  4. I Know, Inspirations
  5. Rock of Ages, Blackwood Brothers Quartet
  6. Shout it Out, Dove Brothers
  7. Off the Record, Kingdom Heirs
  8. 70th Anniversary, Chuck Wagon Gang
  9. Keep on Singing, Florida Boys
  10. Journey Thus Far, Mark Trammell Trio

The second is a list of traditional albums, a little less strictly defined:

  1. Come Thirsty, Perrys
  2. Sweet Land of Rest, Palmetto State Quartet
  3. Journey Thus Far, Mark Trammell Trio
  4. I Know, Inspirations
  5. 70th Anniversary, Chuck Wagon Gang
  6. Off the Record, Kingdom Heirs (a KH main release would also fit!)
  7. Hymns of the Ages, Greater Vision
  8. Keep on Singing, Florida Boys
  9. Sounds of Sunday, Dixie Echoes

Is the traditional part of the Southern Gospel genre still viable? I think everyone knows what I think, but what do you think?


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35 Letters to the Editor

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  1. It’s funny Daniel – because you list the latest album from the Perrys – which is very similar stylistically to the Gold City album that you so vehemently railed against winning.

    Now see – in your list of albums that would be traditional according to your definition – two of them were nominated in another category – Special Event Project of the Year because they were table projects and not mainline recordings and not typically the style that artist performs in.

    For the record, I went back and checked the eligibility list – and all of those records were on the list for Traditional Southern Gospel Album of the year except the Chuck Wagon Gang and Greater Vision recordings (didn’t know those released). They just didn’t recieve enough votes to get a nomination. You still only listed me 13 albums. We had over 30 listed in the traditional Southern album category.

    Also – You still haven’t responded to the main point of my post – and that is that traditional is not what traditional was 20 years ago. Yes – it still includes those that you did – but it also encompasses more as well – including groups like Gold City, Brian Free & Assurance, Mercy’s Mark, current Dove Brothers, and the Kingsmen – all of the nominated groups in that category.

  2. Chris,

    You think the Perrys and Gold City albums are similar? My impression of the two albums was that they were incredibly different. (I say that not combatively but in surprise.)

    To answer your comment more directly, I do think that what was traditional 20 years ago is still traditional.

    • That is very difficult to analyse, because what I think SOUNDS traditional, from 20 – 30 years ago, was probably progressive in its own era.

      I’m thinking Hovie Lister for example – his material would be considered very traditional by new listeners to SGM, who didn’t know the history, as you and others do.

      Even today, some would consider EHSS progressive – while others would consider them traditional.

      I do feel, on balance, that “traditional” moves on a little.
      I think GVB ofr example have managed to stay on the front edge of the ‘traditional’ SGM movement, without falling into covering old stuff, or being so ‘progressive’ as to lose the ‘mainstream’ SGM fan.

      Maybe we confuse ‘mainstream’ and ‘traditional’?

      I do admit that personally, I wouldn’t, out of all mentioned above, consider Mercy’s Mark as ‘traditional’ – which leaves me at odds with Chris over what or who defines ‘traditional’ SGM!

      • Here’s the interesting thing. Let’s look at EHSS and Legacy Five for a moment. Even while a lot of people might say vaguely that Legacy Five is more “traditional” because they have a quieter stage presence and that sort of thing, I don’t think that’s actually right. I think EHSS has a much more traditional *sound*. In fact, they’re reviving a sound that goes back over 50 years with the two-mic stuff. It’s really only their stage presence that’s a bit prog. And I just saw them in concert, and even that was pretty low-key. They were sitting down for two of their songs.

      • OK, so we can separate SGM quartets / groups into those who LOOK traditional, and those who SOUND traditional?

        Some – Triumphant? – fit in both.

        Some – Legacy 5 as mentioned or GVB – LOOK traditional but are a little more progressive in sound?

        A rarer combination – EHSS – is where a group looks more ‘modern’, in dress and stage presence, yet are traditional in sound, maybe we should call Ernie ‘retro-progressive’?

        Question is; which approach best pulls in NEW SGM fans and adherents?

        Be interesting to hear actual viewpoints from experience on this?

      • I would not put L5 in the “sounding” progressive boat… They have had their moments for sure, but they are solidly “traditional”

      • Well Nate, I wasn’t actually implying that L5 has a really prog. sound. I just think that EHSS’s sound in general goes back even farther. Some of what L5 does has to me almost a bit of a 90’s inspo sound. Songs like “Faithful To the Cross” and “I Stand Redeemed” sound similar to the old Phillips, Craig & Dean, particularly “Faithful.” Now I love that sound, so I don’t mean that negatively. But I’ve never heard EHSS do that style.

      • They’re at least middle of the road . . . depends on how strictly you’re defining traditional.

      • To kick off an answer my own question:

        My teenage kids got into SGM because, I judge, they were attracted the DVD’s and the ‘look’ of Ernie and SS. The appreciation of the ‘sound’ came after – now they happily listen to anything in the SGM genre, and my son has been weaned off the excesses of CCM.

        Bonus is, we can all [mostly] agree on a CD to listen too when we all in the same car!

        [In our household personal mp3 / ipod listening is banned except on long distance trips. We get so much more conversation when they are off!]

      • Well, I would guess that I personally am younger than the average age of most SG fans. However, I will confess that I didn’t get into EHSS because of their dancing, hair, etc. Those things were cute, and they caught my eye when I first found them, but it was their sound that made me a fan. Then again, I’m probably an unusual case. Myself, I always look at the sound first and other things later.

        Now the small ones in our house say they like EHSS because they’re “fun.” But I happen to know that they also like EHSS because they can sing. If they couldn’t sing, I don’t think there would be nearly as much interest. Smallest one was particularly unimpressed by the Beach Boys the other day, saying, “That sounds awful! They can’t sing! I want to listen to Signature Sound!”

      • So if GVB is traditional, then what is progressive? (Actually, I think you and I just have something a little different in mind with the whole idea of traditional.)

      • Austins Bridge would be progressive compared to the GVB . . . they’re the only group I can think of in SG who might make the GVB look traditional.

      • Well, I’m not sure what David would say, but I think Brian Free & Assurance is a good example of a “progressive” sounding group. They remind me of the CCM group 4Him sometimes. Even more so with the Crabb family…

      • Are they more progressive than GVB, though? I’ve always thought of GVB as kind of half out of the envelope. Of course a lot of their material is perfectly traditional. But a lot of it is not.

      • GVB is a mixed bag in that respect, I agree. But I think their vocal stylings are much more traditional than those of the Crabb family.

      • If by “they” you mean Brian Free & Assurance . . . not sure, perhaps a tie.

        If by “they” you mean Austins Bridge – yes, beyond any doubt. They make the GVB look roughly as traditional as the Chuck Wagon Gang. 🙂

      • @Daniel – Yeah, I meant BF&A. I haven’t heard a note of Austin’s Bridge.

      • I’ve heard a note or two of Austin’s Bridge…it honestly kind of faded into the background for me. Seemed similar to the CCM group 33Miles to me.

      • OK, Let’s say BF&A look traditional and sound, mostly, porgressive.

        GVB actually look traditional and, half time, sound progressive.

        EHSS look progressive and have put a progressive spin on a very traditional sound.

        Austin Bridge, or whoever, I have no clue!

  3. Daniel,

    In reality, hardly anything that was traditional 20 years ago is still traditional today, not just musically.

    But let’s be honest, what we call traditional today was progressive in their day. Point of fact, Couriers, Blackwood Brothers, Stamps etc. Traditional changes just like everything else changes.

    A traditional tuxedo doesn’t look anything like a traditional tuxedo from 20 years ago.

    You used the analogy of Mom Speer or Bill Lyles being able to sing and recognize the song for it to be traditional. Truth is, that would not make the song traditional as much as it would make the song reminiscent or a historical re-enactment (as you used in a previous blog post).

  4. Since the SN poll reveals that the respondents prefer an evangelistic presentation it would be interesting to have a list of entertainment artists and a list of evangelistic artists. This would help the fans and promoters know which artist to support.

  5. Eddie, that could be hard to determine. Even the most entertainment-oriented artists will sometimes pay lip service to the ministry concept when appropriate.

  6. Daniel,

    I tend to agree with Chris on this subject. Traditional Southern Gospel is music that doesn’t push any of SG’s existing boundaries. It isn’t simply music that would have sounded normal in the 1950s like the groups you listed on your first list.

    It’s any style that has been done successfully in the past.

    Progressive Southern Gospel is music that is breaking new ground. If it catches on, today’s styles that are labeled progressive will be branded traditional in the future.

    In the case of Gold City’s album _Revival_, it falls in traditional. Country tracks with Gospel lyrics have been around for a good while now…not just in general…but specifically in Southern Gospel. The only thing that may be a bit on the “progressive” side is that there aren’t a lot of male quartets who have done this in the past…but enough have that it would really be confining the label to call this sort of thing “progressive.”

    Regarding Eddie Crook’s question, I think that would be absolutely ludicrous for any organization to even attempt. I suspect his question was tongue-in-cheek…at least…I hope so.

  7. I agree with DB. His definitions of progressive and traditional are very good. Today’s progressive music, upon acceptance by the mass audience, dictates tomorrows traditional. The Imperials were as progressive as it gets “back in the day” but by today’s standards are mostly traditional.

  8. We would be treading on thin ice if start listing “ministry” groups. It would be starting the traditional vs progressive all over again in a more
    dangerous setting.
    We need more focus on including the people instead of trying to find ways to exclude people in southern gospel.
    Personally, I know which groups focus in on the message of Jesus Christ.
    Once, my wife and I, were attending a morre entertainment type event and my wife crossed path with one of our many favorite artists. The artist asked my wife, “If she knows what she was getting herself into here?” My wife replied in the positive.That group has been at the the top of our favorites list ever since that encounter.
    I do not have to have a chart, be told this is a Top 10 song or hear a list of awards to determine the “ministry” rating of a group.
    The southern gospel industry seems to miss the point that their supporters do know what is going on around them.
    People, in general, do not want to be told what to think.
    They like ti be asked or invited into the fold.
    Pastors and promoters are a good test for the discerning spiritually minded concert goer.
    The best award a seasoned group can get is when they feel that the Holy Spirit was presented in the venue tonight and concert goers can confirm that fact by saying by saying I felt the Lord in this place tonight after the concert.
    That’s true success.

  9. To answer Daniel’s direct question, “traditional” Southern Gospel(itself a bit of an oxymoron, because the traditional music was never called “southern gospel” as a genre until the 1980s)will always endure.

    Whatever size box one wants to place it in, the traditional four part gospel singing is a permanent part of the American musical culture, and as such, has enough adherents and fans to always sustain it, regardless of all the “trends de jour” that seem to come along in ALL musical genres.

  10. WOW! Gospel Music Fan hit the nail on the head.
    As I said before, what appeals to one person may not appeal to the other. I for one can’t stand the CD ‘Revival’, but I love Gold City’s past matieral, especially from the mid 80’s. But, when Midnight Cry, or In My Robe Of White came out, someone was proably ranting about how awfull this new progressive stuff was. Today, those are top songs that will always be assoicated with Southren Gospel.
    I am shocked that Chris even thought of comparing the Perry’s and Gold City’s last albums. That’s crazy.
    I mean, you know SG has reached a dark day when Mike English co-produces a quartet album. Someone will surely rant that he started in SG and I’m AWOL for stating what I did.
    But does he sing it currently? No! So why is he quallified to produce today a quartet’s album?
    Alot of people seem to want to leave in the past and forget yesterday’s music. I say “KEEP IT THRIVING”. Magazines and web-sites for SG organizations should not show favoritism to past OR modren in order to ‘kick out’ the other.
    In Christ we’re supposted to work togehter, remember??

  11. Who’s showing favoritism? The winners of the SGN Music Awards are decided on by the readers of SoGospelNews.com.

    As for the Perrys and Gold City comparison – I stand by it. They are both big, traditional, four part records. The orchestrations on the ballads are similar, the upbeat numbers feature country tinged sounds, etc.

  12. Chris, I am just going to have to listen to that GC CD again with your comments in mind! 🙂 I didn’t hear any similarity before, but maybe I’ll hear it next time.

  13. John, you are absolutely correct, That four part harmony is a part of the American culture and it is here stay. So is the country flavor in SG. They have worked side by side since the beginning and will continue to do so for many, many years to come.

  14. To answer Chris Unthank’s question to me: I beleive that radio is showing favoritism.
    For example, I could not have the radio on my area’s SG station without hearing ‘Give It Away’ at least once every hour EVERYDAY for 2 or 3 weeks after it was released. Then we have ‘John In The Jordan’, and last year ‘Jonah’ (from the Northmen)
    Also I’ll say that I’ve heard WAY too much of the McRaes and Three Bridges in the past few months.
    Yet I hardly ever hear The Dixie Melody Boys, Dixie Echoes, Old Time Gospel Hour Qt, Palmetto State, Monument Quartet,ect.
    I’ve never heard the Beene Family, any of the current Blackwood groups, The Browns,or Naomi and the Segos.
    It’s been about 3 years since I’ve heard 3For1.
    I could go on and on, but you should get my point by now.

  15. I think people mistake radio programming for showing favortisim. It may not be good radio programming but it really isn’t favortism unless the programmer is only programming his own favorites.

    Southern Gospel music has many different flavors or styles and you may not like all the flavors, but it offering a choice has kept Baskin Robbins in business for many years and it will keep our great music going as well.

    Long live the choices!!!

  16. my views on the future of southern gospel music, progressive or traditional, at my website….

  17. Sometimes people tend to over analyze these types of things… There are different spectrum’s of “traditional” The Mckameys and the Inspirations are as traditional as they come, but so are Legacy Five and Signature Sound… But the groups take different approaches musically and in stage presence while still holding true to their traditional roots… It is what my dad has always said “It is how you look at something” or in this case hear something…

  18. That is very difficult to analyse, because what I think SOUNDS traditional, from 20 – 30 years ago, was probably progressive in its own era.

    I’m thinking Hovie Lister for example – his material and direction would be considered very traditional by new listeners to SGM, who didn’t know the history, as you and others do.

    Even today, some would consider EHSS progressive – while others would consider them traditional.

    I do feel, on balance, that “traditional” moves on a little.
    I think GVB for example have managed to stay on the front edge of the ‘traditional’ SGM movement, without falling into covering old stuff, or being so ‘progressive’ as to lose the ‘mainstream’ SGM fan.

    Maybe we confuse ‘mainstream’ and ‘traditional’?

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