The Best Songs Possible

When selecting material for a project, should a Southern Gospel group select the best new songs possible?

Well, of course, you might think. But it’s not that simple.

Thirty years ago, that literally happened. When the LeFevres, Happy Goodmans, or Florida Boys were about to head into the studio to cut a new recording, they selected the best possible new material to fit their group’s sound. Literally. Even if a few of those had been cut by other groups.

And if they were the best new songs for their sound, why not?

So let me repeat the opening question. Would Southern Gospel be better off today if groups selected the best song possible?

In the last two decades, Southern Gospel has borrowed secular rock and pop’s formula of treating a good song as belonging to a particular group. But why can’t some songs belong to the genre?

David Bruce Murray has a good post up currently about dominant radio singles being dead. [EDIT, 6/6/12: Broken link removed.] That’s a flaw of the system, not of the songs. It’s only a few per year—just like in the good old days, incidentally—but there are songs out there that are good enough that a dozen groups could record them without the song losing any of its power. Take Legacy Five’s “Faithful to the Cross.” It’s that rare song that fits anything from a high school graduation to a wedding to a funeral.

Would Southern Gospel be better off if we forget the formulas that gave secular rock and pop their (lately-economically-crumbling) place in the sun, and go back to the formulas that got us to where we were in the 1960s and 1970s?

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16 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. In short, no. When several groups record one song at the same time, it becomes confusing for the consumer. Take, for example, “Truth Is Marching On.” Legacy Five, the Talley Trio, and Gold City all recorded and released it within a short period of time. If I heard the song on the radio and went to find it in a store, I have three choices to pick from, and I may not like the other two versions, causing me to buy a product I’m not happy with, especially if you are new to the genre and are not familiar with which artist is which.

    You may say, “Well, that benefits the genre because that encourages more sales.” That may be true, but it is borderline deceptive, as you are getting sales from consumers that otherwise would not have purchased the product. In my opinion, the integrity of the song and artist is more important than sales (but then again, I’m an artist, so that’s always a priority).

    Even if you think there are songs that multiple artists could do, there will always be a “definitive” version that all others are compared to. “Step Into The Water” will always be the Cathedrals; “Midnight Cry” will always be Gold City; “God Walks The Dark Hills” belongs to the Goodmans, and “Jesus Is Coming Soon” is owned by the Oaks. Why would you want that comparison? I would think an artist would want something distinct, otherwise the genre just turns into a melting pot of groups that all sound alike. I like my variety!!

    • Groups don’t have to have different songs to have different sounds.

  2. I’m going to agree with Daniel. (But some qualifications first.) I think that more than one group having the same song out to radio at the same time could be confusing and counter-productive … a kind of dilution. And there are some “signature songs” that it is pointless for other groups to try for, as Kyle points out above. I like his point that it invites comparison, and in point of fact, no one else is ever likely to do quite as good a job on “Midnight Cry” as Ivan Parker did.

    However … Several years ago, I got an album by Crossway when they were a lesser-known group. It had several covers on it, but I think they were the first to record some of the other songs. I believe it was 2001. They did “I Can, I Have, I Will.” In 2005, the Perrys did it, and did a better job. On the other hand, they had the nerve (at Bill Gaither’s suggestion) to pick up “Live Right, Die Right” that the DBQ recorded a couple of years before, and I actually like Crossway’s version better.

    I know that’s an example with lesser-known groups, but I don’t think a little interplay hurts. I’ll have my favorite, but I frequently find that it isn’t the same favorite a lot of other people have.

  3. I don’t guess radio was a big factor in the late 60s and early 70s, but every time the Gaithers penned a new song back then, there were several groups recording it within two years. Looking at the website, several major groups jumped all over songs like “He Touched Me”, “Because He Lives”, and “The King Is Coming” all at the same time. Are there still writers and songs with that kind of power, or does the nature of the modern music industry keep that from happening?

  4. Forgive me for not knowing, but has there ever been a time when the same song was on “the charts” at the same time by different artists?

  5. Andrew, I’m going to say yes to your question in comment #4. I’m almost certain that a song called “Called Out” was on the charts by both the Kingsmen and a group headed up by that song’s writer, Felicia Shifflett. In fact I think the songs were right next to each other on the charts at least one month. This would have been in the early-mid 1980’s. And I am thinking that in the past 7-8 years or so, the Kingsmen and Rejoice both released a song called “Joy’s Gonna Come In The Morning.” I am not certain about that, but I know the plan was for both of them to release it, and I know the Kingsmen did.

    As a listener, I prefer to purchase recordings with songs that are different than the ones on the last project I purchased. I like variety, and honestly I am a comparison listener. I agree with Kyle in that I really don’t want to hear anyone else sing certain songs than the one who made them a hit, and that goes for the ones Kyle mentioned, along with “Four Days Late” by Karen Peck and New River, “God On The Mountain” by the McKameys, and “He Didn’t Throw The Clay Away” by the Lesters.

    Now, conversely, I know several song writers who love to get multiple cuts off of one song. It means more exposure for their song and more royalty payments, but also decreases variety.

    As for the question: Would Southern Gospel be better off today if groups selected the best song possible? or Would Southern Gospel be better off if we forget the formulas that gave secular rock and pop their (lately-economically-crumbling) place in the sun, and go back to the formulas that got us to where we were in the 1960s and 1970s? Here’s my opinion.

    Until you get radio to play only the best songs they have, not a lot is going to change. Not every song that is sent to radio should be played over the air waves. Most, in fact, should not. That’s what we should be learning from our secular counterparts.

    I have access to three gospel stations in my regular travels, and all three of them, one being Solid Gospel, routinely play music that makes me turn off the radio shaking my head. It doesn’t matter what new songs are being released if radio plays the same 20 songs over and over that are favorites of the DJ’s.

    If a group hasn’t been together for over two year, they should probably not be getting airplay unless there’s a segment of “Oldies But Goodies” or some other similar format to stick them in. I personally don’t mind an old song from time to time, but I recently heard a play list of the following: Excuses, Didn’t It Rain, Can He Could He Would He, and another song over ten years old. I thought I was in a time warp.

    As far as songs written today versus 30-40 years ago, I am not sure today’s younger writers have had to endure the hardships that writers did decades ago. I’ve often heard writers say the greatest songs come from the hardest tests or trials. I do think we have some great songs out there today, but fewer of them will be classics both because of the great songs that have been written earlier and because of what radio has become today.

  6. With all due respect to Ms. Rowland, whose work I greatly admire, Daniel, I did say “younger” writers. I would guess that Kyla, Dianne, Ronnie, and Bill have at least two decades on writers like Joel Linsey, Wayne Haun, Marcia Henry, Rebecca Peck, and even more years on the likes of Jim Brady, Scott Inman and Joseph Habedank.
    I am not here to debate whose trials are the worst. I am speaking generally and not specifically when I say that fewer and fewer classics are rising to the top due to the volume of songs vying for greatness and the fact that many of today’s prominent writers never endured the hardship of those before. Today’s writers will tell you that themselves.
    I think of Albert E Brumley who wrote by the light of a coal oil lamp. Or some of the great writers of hymns who saw their entire family perish in fire or flood. Or Fannie Crosby who was blind, if I recall correctly. Those are the hardships and trials I was thinking about. I should have clarified it better.
    I do think today’s writers do well to keep writing the same old Gospel story in new and creative ways though. To have one book inspire countless thousands of songs is truly amazing in itself and I attribute that to the goodness of God to provide new mercies every day, and that surely must include new ideas for the songwriters.

    • Kyla is younger than Albert E. Brumley and Fanny Crosby were when they died (not to mention their age when they were still alive!) … but I understand that you meant even younger than that.

  7. Well, I understand that your point, too. Show me a great writer and I’ll show you someone who has probably lived a struggle or two. I know that Marcia Henry has endured her share of problems–the tragic death of her mother who was hit by a train, her own physical problems the last few years and even the recent death of her father. Joel Lindsey has had his battles with cancer and during those times he wrote “Calvary Answers For Me” and “New Day Dawning,” two of my favorites.

    What I really mean is that today’s writers of any age, while they all have had some measure of trial or struggle (we all have), they still drive cars, use phones, have electricity, have been vaccined against terrible diseases, etc. I have a relative going over to Iraq soon for his third tour. When he is there, he actually calls every day to speak to his wife. Compare that to the wars of years past when the only communication was a written letter. When you think of it in those terms, we all have it a lot easier.

    • Yes, technology does lead to an easier life in that way, I’ll definitely give you that. But I’m not sure that technology makes a heartbreak any less painful.

  8. I see Brady’s point. When I compare Roger (Bennett)’s work before his struggles with cancer and afterwards, I have always thought I saw a large difference. It could partly be attributed just to maturity, but I’m sure a large part of it went deeper than that. He did write “Don’t Be Afraid” just a little while before he found out about the cancer, and he said he felt that God gave it to him to prepare him for that.
    But there is a big difference in depth IMO between “I’ve Read the Back of the Book” and “Whispers in the Night.”

  9. Well, I don’t mean to minimize anyone’s struggle, but if I had a life-threatening illness or my child died or any other number of catastrophies that could happen to me,I believe it might be easier to endure if I could pick up the phone and call someone right when I needed them to lean on, or get in my car and go visit the grave or make it to a doctor’s appointment. I think perhaps the degree to which I could suffer may be lessened by those more modern conveniences. Maybe not, but I am thinking for me personally, it would be.

    • I think the difference is not in the SUFFERING, in times of great physical or emotional trial – it can never be less surely?

      But in the OUTLET for the suffering. Calling someone on a cell phone does not lessen the hurt of a marriage break-up, or a terminal illness. It makes it easier to have the burden shared by others who sympathise and support.

      Perhaps the difference in the older hymn-writers and song-writers, was not greater suffering, but fewer outlets and consequently not as much readily available support.

      Perhaps, in turning to God, alone, their inner feeling and experiences came out in an almost inspired manner, not because they suffered more, but because their writing was the primary outlet for the suffering.

      This would link right back to Job and many of the Psalms, inspired no doubt, but drawn from deep suffering – and recorded with a pen.

      • I think some of the greatest songs I have ever heard were born from suffering. And I don’t just mean hymns.

        Take, for example, Matthew Ward’s song “I Will Worship You.” He wrote it when he thought he was dying of cancer. He survived, but what a stunning reminder of God’s glory and holiness he had left us in the meanwhile.

        The entirety of Steven Curtis Chapman’s new album gives me that sense as well. After his little girl was horribly killed in a tragic accident, he was forced to draw from deep within himself for new material. The results were stunning. I can’t listen to that album very often because it’s so charged with emotion. But I am privileged to have it in my library nonetheless.

  10. I think songwriting as a rule is not as strong as it used to be… But with young and upcoming writers like Joe Habedank, Jim Brady and Rusty Golden (who isn’t so young but you get the point) I think this genre will be just fine for years to come…