Is Southern Gospel a lyric-driven genre?

I think the answer is yes.

After all, how many Southern Gospel songs would you enjoy as an instrumental piece—taking the soundtrack and adding in a cello part for the melody—if you didn’t already know the lyrics, and if that didn’t add to your enjoyment of the song?

Now I’m not saying there aren’t any. In fact, I can think of two:

  • “Almost Morning” by the Perrys
  • “He is Loved” by Greater Vision

There probably are a few others. But not many.

Southern Gospel is a lyric-driven genre. After all, it’s all about the message—all about the Gospel.

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30 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. Tell me that’s a rhetorical question….

    • Not really. I don’t see why someone would say otherwise (but I haven’t read the rest of the comments yet!)

      But I don’t think it’s something I’ve ever seen talked about. So why not? 🙂

  2. Excellent point, Daniel. We singers, instrumentalists and writers are, at the heart, storytellers. Even when an instrumental version is played in the performance of a given song, and while it may be enjoyable for the particular sound or artistry, the song doesn’t speak unless lyrics, i.e., a story is associated with the melody. If an unknown song is played it loses its power with the absence of a story line. And of course, we Gospel singers and musicians have the greatest story ever told as the power source of our music. We have the distinct advantage over all other forms of music in the sheer strength of our lyrics.

    • I agree. A Southern Gospel song with an unclear lyric reminds me of I Cor. 14’s trumpet of an uncertain sound.

    • Well said Neil!

  3. I personally think there are many southern gospel songs that are pleasing as instrumentals. or else why would artists like Kim Collingsworth, Jeff Stice, Tim Parton, Josh Singletary, Roger Fortner and many others waste their time and money in providing instrumental projects? Maybe not the “three chords and a cloud of dust” type of song, but I can think of many more than you just mentioned. There are numerous southern gospel songs with pretty melodies that could be awesome in the context of an orchestra performance or on Spanish guitar or, as you mentioned, cello and accompaniment.

    • I would reply more fully except that David Mann already indicated my main point.

      The only thing I’d add is to ask: What draws you to Kim Collingsworth’s magnificent rendition of “How Great Thou Art”?

      If you’d never heard the lyric, you’d probably still think it was a nice piece of music. But would our hearts soar the same way they do when she gets to that fourth verse?

      “When Christ shall come
      With shouts of acclamation … ”

      It’s knowing the lyric that leaves it hard for me to keep in my seat. 🙂

  4. Hmmm … we had an Anthony Burger instrumental album that I enjoyed for many years before hearing the Kingsmen sing the songs. Of course, they were reworked much more than using the soundtrack as you mentioned. (A cello somehow seems out of place on most Kingsmen songs, to my way of thinking! 😉 )

    However, SG is very much about the lyrics for me. For discussion’s sake, I wonder how much that is a matter of the listener’s taste? I know people that prefer instrumental music … however, I admit they usually aren’t big SG listeners. I will be thinking about that for a few days.

  5. It most definitely is a lyric-driven genre. And Brady – I think you’re missing the question. The question isn’t whether or not some southern gospel songs are pleasing without lyrics, but whether it’s the music or the lyrics that make it. I agree with you that the instrumental projects are pleasing, yes. However, you already know the lyrics to most of the songs played.

    If I were to hear any “southern gospel” music track, before knowing the lyrics, I wouldn’t think – this is Christian or southern gospel music. I would simply think it’s music that I either liked or disliked.

  6. I think Christian music is lyric-driven. Personally, I listen to SG because I enjoy the harmony… mainly, male quartet stuff. To be honest, if all SG were soloist, I probably wouldn’t listen. If all groups were female groups, I probably wouldn’t listen. Though I like the lyrics, the lyrics are just as good on other channels (there is one station that plays organ music and old hymns… they sing very proper)… but I prefer the music, and more specifically, the harmonies found in SG. So, my answer… not exactly.

    • I think that’s a good point. Certainly Christian music is made by its lyrics, because by definition it is a genre about a specific subject. But I’m sure there are many people drawn to southern gospel as opposed to other forms of Christian music because of musical aspects. Certainly there are some differences in lyrical content between Christian sub-genres, but the difference is primarily musical.

      So look at it on two levels. Southern gospel is a musically-driven sub-genre of the lyric-driven Christian genre. First and foremost, it is about the lyrics, though.

      • Another thought, to further prove my point… If I made a cd of nothing but tradition southern gospel songs, and put it to the modern R&B style beat and music, but I kept the lyrics, would you really be interested?

      • That depends on whether you’re any good at it.

      • lol… I wouldn’t be

  7. SG is absolutely lyric driven, as all gospel music should be.

    SG is much BETTER, though, when creative thought goes into the musical elements as well…melody lines, production quality, etc.

    • nice website!

    • DBM – I couldn’t agree more. You’re entirely right. It’s much better when there’s creativity and professionalism in the musical elements.

      But without a Gospel lyric … forget it, it may be musically good but it doesn’t belong in this genre!

  8. I think that SG is lyric driven, predominantly. I think the SG lyrics are what set it apart from other genres of music. In most every genre, you can find good harmony, good musicality, good instrumentation, etc. And even in a genre like contemporary Christian, you can find good lyrics. But in SG, there is a universal message of hope that is not solely based on our own human emotion. I think that so many “inspirational” songs play into people’s emotions and that is pretty much it. SG lyrics are more often rooted in Scripture than “feelings” and therefore stirs up deep emotion inside of us.

    As for instrumental music – I have an extensive background in classical music, and therefore, I appreciate and enjoy instrumental pieces. And while it is more meaningful to hear an instrumental number that is familiar that I know the lyrics to, I can also have a strong, positive reaction to an instrumental number that is not familiar. Music has a way of stirring up emotion in me, whether it is vocal or instrumental, or familiar or unfamiliar.

  9. I would have to say that many secular genres would also be lyrically driven. I don’t how many people would listen to Country music if there wasn’t some sort of story to the music. What about the general love songs found in Country and Pop music. I doubt they would sell near as many copies without the lyric.

    Daniel, I understand the point you’re making but most genres of music, both Christian and secular, would be lost without the lyric.

    • good point!

  10. #5–David, I do not believe I have missed the point at all. Daniel posed a question: “After all, how many Southern Gospel songs would you enjoy as an instrumental piece—taking the soundtrack and adding in a cello part for the melody—if you didn’t already know the lyrics, and if that didn’t add to your enjoyment of the song?” And I started thinking of songs that have beautful melodies, and there are a lot of them. Now, Daniel didn’t specify whether this is in the context of live performance or CD or specifically songs that cause such a stir that they make us bolt out of our seats. He said, “How many would you enjoy…” and I think there are considerably more than two. One song recently sung at our church is “I Can Feel His Hand In Mine,” and that melody is beautiful. I can hear that as an orchestrated piece from a big band era and I imagine it sounding wonderful.

    And I think it needs to be distinguished that we’re not simply referring to a southern gospel track, but a bonafide instrumental number where one or more instruments breaks out and leads the melody throughout the song.

    I agree with Megan in that a song I’m not familiar with can still generate a strong positive reaction.

    Perhaps a more appropriate title for this thread would be “would you enjoy most southern gospel songs done as instrumentals as much if you didn’t know the lyrics,” rather than “is southern gospel a lyric-driven genre?” Because it sort of seems like we’re all mixing apples and oranges, and it really should be a no-brainer that true southern gospel music should be lyric driven by containing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    • I didn’t say there were only two. “I Can Feel His Hand In Mine” is a great example of another song that belongs on that short, short list. 🙂

  11. Last I checked, they still call it southern gospel MUSIC, not southern gospel poetry.

    Have your favorite group show up without their ubiquitous “band-in-a-box” and do a concert of just reading lyrics. Tell us all how the response was?

    This post illustrates exactly why the genre is dying. All the blogs and forums are filled with posts on how wonderful the words are, who wore what, what type of bus is best, where to buy p.a., how important is a soundman, what label should I sign with, radio promotion, why isn’t my group at NQC, etc. etc. But the most important thing, the music, nope … nobody ever wants to talk about that! Southern gospel MUSIC is the only specialty genre of music where the actual music is relegated to non-factor status.

    And then you wonder why ppl outside of the genre laugh at you and call you karaoke wannabes?

    • DRL, before you make a statement so sweeping as to say that music is ignored, or in your words, relegated to “non-factor status,” I’d like to challenge you to read each of the other 1,436 posts on this site, many of which discuss music in detail.

      Don’t take one post out of the context of the entire site!

  12. Gee, DRL, you sort of seem like you may be a disgruntled musician who can’t find work or who hasn’t been able to make it in this industry. Maybe you’d feel better served if you would take your comments to another site where more heated or sarcastic commentary is appreciated.

    And please don’t just toss out the old tired, worn-out phrase “that’s why this industry is dying” just because you don’t agree with what’s being discussed. There are a lot of intelligent people who know what they’re talking about on this website. We may not agree all the time, and we may not have all the answers to the problems this industry (and many other musical genres) faces, but we collectively do have a good knowledge of this industry and the people in it. Most of us know the good, bad, and ugly parts of southern gospel music, what works and what doesn’t. Have you been to a well-promoted concert lately? Do you know how poor the economy is doing? I personally think we’re doing well, as a genre, at surviving some pretty tough financial times.

    Music is not ignored in this genre. There are many fine players that are contributing their work in studios and on the stage. And I would challenge you if you don’t like the way things are going in this industry, tell us all how to make southern gospel a perfect genre. We’d love to be in the know. Better yet, put a group together, get a bus, and head on down the highway and show us by example the way you think it should be done. It’s easy to spew out what’s wrong with the industry and those who like to discuss it. But a wise man named Big Jim Hamill used to never offer criticism unless he had a way to help solve the problem.

    • Better than I could’ve put it.

  13. Is SGM dying? Has anyone actually done the research to see if there is any growth in the fan base? Of course, if it isn’t growing, it will die.

    I think it was Randy Shelnut that I was talking to a few years ago about this topic. He actually brought it up and said that folks have been telling him that it was on the decline for 30 years. He didn’t seem to think it was going any where.

  14. Exactly, Andrew! Everyone wants to say this industry is dying, and while I agree there are some issues to resolve in helping to preserve it and promote it to future generations, I see no sign of it needing a burial plot any time soon. Blogs are springing up everywhere, which indicates to me that interest is up. I know of no less than six major groups in the market to buy a bus in the next month or two. Concert attendance seems to be holding its own. Louisville seemed to have no problem filling up hotels that were going for anywhere from $100-160 bucks a night, and attendance was good the nights I attended. Those are just a few of the signs that speak to me that the news of the death of southern gospel music has been highly exaggerated.

  15. Wow, DRL, you layed on the sarcasm pretty thick. It does sound like you may have a little bit of hostility toward southern gospel writers or even musicians. We should never criticize something that we have no idea how to make better. What have you done if you do this? Nothing but show you don’t know as much as you thought you did. Because after all, if you did know everything, you would be able to offer up suggestions. Good, intelligent suggestions of which, none of these you have done. Please do not criticize the genre of Southern Gospel unless you have a way to help whatever you feel is wrong with the industry. Great reply Andrew and Brady! Southern Gospel is a lyric-driven industry. The music is great and the harmony is unmatched in any other genre but the lyrics are what preaches the message to the world. Thank God for gospel songs whether it be CCM or Southern Gospel or any other form of gospel music. As long as it preaches the truth, that is all that matters! In my eyes, there is no greater genre than Southern Gospel and I for one will always sing it and listen to it!!!! People have been saying for 50 years that Southern Gospel would not last or that it was dying yet the genre lives on. Venues are still selling out even in this terrible economy. God’s Word is going to get out there to the lost and dying world. Will you be one to carry it?


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