Roy Webb and the Future of Signature Sound

Roy Webb’s decision to leave Signature Sound earlier this week will probably make the top ten list of biggest news items in Southern Gospel this year. Ernie Haase & Signature Sound is a supergroup that crosses subgenres readily, being a favorite headliner group in the Gaither Gospel world with their progressive appearance while still maintaining a strong presence in the Singing News Gospel world with their mostly traditional sound. I doubt this change will harm Signature Sound’s popularity as much as the departure of any of the four vocalists would, but Webb’s comedic irreverence formed a major part of the group’s banter in between songs.

Probably the biggest question Haase will face is whether to hire a pianist who is also a comedian or just a pianist. (I doubt he will find anyone who will try to replicate Webb’s style, word for word; it was so original that anyone who tries that would probably come off as a cheap imitator.)

Who are some of the pianists who could be under consideration, and what would they bring to the group?

Andrew Ishee is currently a free agent (to borrow baseball terminology). He’s taken some time off the road, but his decision to join up with Tony Peace for an occasional concert might be an inkling that he’s beginning to get the Southern Gospel performer’s itch to get back on the road again. I think the comparisons of Ishee to late legend Anthony Burger are valid and have a lot to them, and his unique flair would enhance the group’s appeal.

Speaking of Anthony Burger disciples (even though disciples from afair), Matthew Holt also comes to mind. I’d hate to see him leave the Perrys, but from everything I’ve heard (not having seen him live yet) he could hold his own and wouldn’t take the group down any.

Crabb Family keyboardist Justin Ellis is probably looking for a job right now. His often subdued style would pretty much keep him out of the vocalists’ way. I have to admit that I’d rather see a bring-them-out-of-their-seats-after-a-fast-solo traditional Southern Gospel pianist get the job. But Ellis could undoubtedly do the job competently.

Everyone who reads this online column often knows that I couldn’t let a post like this one go by without mentioning Stewart Varnado. I have every reason to believe he’s happy in Florida, but I would love to see what his style would bring to the group. Watching him do a piano solo is an “experience” that would be entirely new to Gaither Gospel audiences–but I think they would love it. His facial expressions when mimicking one of the vocalists more akin to Roy Webb’s than any other pianist I’ve ever watched. Plus–and this is completely off the wall–Stewart is one of very, very few Southern Gospel pianists as tall as I am (6′) or taller, and his height would fit right in with the giants of Southern Gospel, Ernie Haase and Signature Sound.

Now if I put Stewart Varnado last, everyone would think I was writing this to advocate that he be hired. This is especially because I can’t write about him without superlatives! So I will close with another pianist: Adam Harmon, now a free agent after leaving the Kingdom Heirs. He’s a great pianist and would also be a good addition to Signature Sound. (Apropos of nothing in particular, it occurred to me this morning that there’s an outside chance that Roy Webb is heading for that vacant piano bench in the Showstreet Palace in Dollywood.)

Quite obviously, some of the top pianists in Southern Gospel–Kim Collingsworth, Jeff Stice, Darrell Stewart, and Brad White (of the Blackwood Brothers)–have gigs that they’re quite unlikely to leave (though in White’s case, I’d love to see him with Signature Sound). But for no reason in particular, I thought it would be fun to list five of the best / most likely pianists who might be considered for the job.

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34 Letters to the Editor

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  1. Interesting…I prefer not to speculate myself, because personally, I’ll be just as happy if Ernie and company pick someone who’s not a “name” in SG. Who’d even heard of Roy before SigSound? Doug? Ryan? Tim maybe had a little more exposer, but still. We’re praying for Ernie as he sets out on a challenging task – God knows who the right guy is.

  2. Ryan was starting–admittedly just starting, but still starting–to pick up a following with the Melody Boys Quartet, a good group. He was even mentioned in Singing News during that time period as a shining star who SG fans would hear a lot more from. I couldn’t help but smile when I went back to that issue and read that! 🙂

  3. By the way, thats Adam Harmon, formerly with the Kingdom Heirs, Adam Borden is the former bassist with Gold City.

    Once again you seem to be anxious to give Varnado away to just about any group looking. I’m sure the Dixie Echoes are pleased with that. I’m sure the money is better with EH&SS but Varnado is just a bit too classy to wear the sometimes “gaudy” outfits the Sig Sound is seen in. Plus I don’t think Stewart would survive the tanning session that would be needed to match up skin tones with the other guys(red heads-fair skin-tanning beds-don’t mix). I’m sure I’ll get hammered for this comment, but I think Varnado is too classy for the childish, choreographed, Barnum & Bailey circus sideshow that Haase and gang bring to the stage. But it would be funny to see what he would look like leaving the old man “parted” hair-doo for the younger spiked look of EH&SS

  4. The Harmon/Borden part is fixed. Sorry for that typo!

    Varnado is classy but also a very enthusiastic piano player, and as such could hold up to the energy output required of a Signature Sound pianist. 🙂

  5. I have nothing against Webb, but, your comment about him being “so original” with his comments made me laugh. Evidently you haven’t seen many concerts with Gaither and Mark Lowry. Webb may not imitate word for word, but, he sure tries to come across as another Mark Lowry. My big question is why is quitting? I thought he was just making amends with his father.

  6. Justin Ellis and Zach, the lead guitarist, will be moving on with Crabb Revival.

  7. Just to clear this up, one word (childish) that Hanna Montana used describes my thoughts towards “John In The Jordan” better than I did on this blog a while back.
    So if someone got the impression that I don’t like the song or the group, they misunderstood me. I simplly don’t like the manner in which they recorded it, which strikes me as immature.

    In regards to Stewart, I think he’s content where he is. After reading the article in the June Singing News about the Dixie Echoes, it’s hard to imagine him going to a group that uses soundtracks and/or stacked vocals.

  8. True, true.

    Now let me ask my readers a question: Why is it that you pay attention to the nice things I say about Stewart Varnado, while the nice things I say about Andrew Ishee, Matthew Holt, and all the others go unnoticed? 😛

  9. Last I heard Adam Harmon was minister of music at a church in Tenn. Has he left that position? If so why not go back to the Kingdom Heirs If he is looking and they are looking. After all, the Kingdom Heirs are a Great group. I would like to see him back with them if available.

  10. Daniel,
    As good as Andrew Ishee is I don’t think anyone takes him seriously due to his own brand of childish antics, and Matthew Holt, while he is one of the best, he is one of the most underrated pianists traveling today. I’m not sure many folks really realize how good he really is. I think folks talk about Stuart alot because he somehow manages to keep himself in the spotlight, and besides he has a face not easily forgotten. Ishee is already off the road, but I suspect he’ll lurk in the shadows for a long time, Matthew Holt, as good as he is I see him not becoming a “forever” guy in sg music.

  11. Perhaps we pay attention to Stewart because he is more recognized than the rest. Not that they aren’t equally as talented, but when someone has been around considerably longer than some newcomers, there is more to say.. he’s been around about a decade, perhaps longer in one place than anyone i can think of except Derrell Stewart, Martin Cook, and Roger Bennett. (think about it, even Jeff Stice seems to be somewhere new every 5 years)

  12. Larry, last I heard Adam was at a minister of music position and was presumably happy to take some time off the road. Some people put in 5 years on the road and are content; others get bit by that performing bug and keep coming back for the rest of their life. Only time will tell if Andrew Ishee and Adam Harmon have been bitten by that bug.

  13. I agree with Hannah Michelle. I would like EHSS to find someone who isn’t already known in the SG industry. I don’t think that Signature sound needs another comedian. Roy’s sarcastic wit and dry humor were hilarious and not at all like the goofy antics of some of the above mentioned pianists. As funny as he was, people were still able to take him seriously. I think the problem in having a pianist, or any group member for that matter, who acts goofy and “dumb” all the time is that that person loses the ability to be taken seriously. No one really wants to hear what they have to say unless it’s funny. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it. Some like it. I personally don’t care for it. So yea, in conclusion, I think they Sig. Sound should hire a really, really good newbie. It’s time we had some fresh faces!

  14. DJM…I think that is “bitten”…?


  15. GH, You’re right. I can’t believe I missed that one.

  16. Gordon Mote was a good addition for the summer tour. It would be hard for Signature Sound to get someone new and have them learn the songs before the summer tour starts.

    Trying to get someone to replace Roy Webb permanently will be a TALL order. His is a great piano player. His also was very funny and witty. Plus he played basketball with the guys (a passion of theirs).

    I still am puzzled as to why within one week, Roy was taking a temporary leave of absence to permanently gone.

    To someone who is familiar with this industry, why wouldn’t Ernie just hire a temporary replacement for Roy until his family situation is resolved?

  17. If a person really just wants to stay home and is tired of being on the road or doesn’t like the group or doesn’t get along, just say it…..It is like any other job that you change. Sometimes you are just “tired” of everything and everybody, but, life goes on. Piano players are a dime a dozen.

  18. Of all the piano players mentioned…..and all are good…..I would hope none of them would lower themselves to perform with the Keystone Kops of SGM! Why….I ask…do you need gimmicks, ie hair, ties, dumb dance moves, etc.when you have a blend like SS does??

  19. Well said Lindsay Roberts.

  20. One of the attributes of a good pianist is being able to be a team player.

  21. Daniel – Roy was fired and will not be returning to EH&SS. Maybe you can get some of the speculations stopped.

  22. Thanks DeeAnn: That is what should’ve been said in the beginning.

  23. If true Dee Ann, then why?

  24. I just have to ask…why the hostility toward EH&SS stage presence. From what I can see, they have found a way to expand the audience base for a genre of music that deserves to be heard and passed on to the next generation as quickly as possible. Their sound and their message are tight and traditional, but they’ve found a way to bridge the generation gap and the geographical regional gap to advance this great music form. Is this some form of SGM elitism or jealousy or what. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is reaching more than just the hyper-churched crowd, and I for one praise the Lord!

  25. Please see the letter from Ernie below. Please don’t spread rumors about people being fired before you have the facts, especially about someone like Roy.

    An on going bad situation worsened this weekend….. Roy’s estranged father has been fighting cancer and is right at deaths door. Roy said it is very VERY bad! In the light of the situation and the fact that there are years and years of “issues” between them that need to somehow come to a close “Real Fast” He (Roy) felt the right thing to do was come off the road and “Deal” with these “Real Issues” of life, death, family and healing.

    All the guys and the families of EHSS support Him and request prayer for Roy and his family as they wade through these uncharted waters.


  26. Below is the comment that I posted over at Averyfineline:

    I would think that missing the Gaither taping would be the last straw. Perhaps this has been going on for a short while, and when he was not present for the “main event,” that was the end of it.

    Granted, if the reports about his family matters are true (and as serious as they seem to be), I would understand missing the date. But it appears that only death or personal sickness is excused in the Gaither camp (Rex Nelon passed away the day before the London taping, George Younce was rushed out of the Carnegie Hall taping mid-shoot), and if someone is ill, the taping is rescheduled (as was the Old Friends taping with both George and Jake Hess).

    One must wonder if Ernie knew that Roy wouldn’t be there beforehand, and if so, how far in advance. If Ernie knew about it far enough before the taping, could he have perhaps postponed it? Was it Ernie’s call to go on with the show, or was it Gaither’s?

    If it was a last-minute deal, like either the day before the day of, then I would think that excusing the absence would be understandable. Especially if it is a family emergency. In that case, it almost makes Ernie look like the dictator (”I don’t care if your dad’s dying, you WILL do the show or you’re fired!”).

    Granted, this is all speculation, but my guess is that Roy wanted to take off some personal time, and it was more than either Ernie or Gaither was willing to deal with.

    My question is, though, why do they even need a piano player if they have those tracks? They’ve even gone as far as eliminating the piano intro to “Stand by Me” when done live (which was actually originally recorded and performed by Garry Jones!!). Save for the occassional “Plan of Salvation” number and the required “let’s actually hear our piano player PLAY something,” it’s kinda pointless at this point…

  27. Quote: Daniel – Roy was fired and will not be returning to EH&SS. Maybe you can get some of the speculations stopped. [End of quote]

    Until you can prove a comment like that, there is no reason to believe that statement any more than to believe that he is still in EH&SS’s good graces.

    I’m looking forward to seeing who Ernie chooses to add to his group! I’m sure it is a choice that will not be made lightly, and he’s done well previously.

  28. Actually Heidi, I would say that every replacement Ernie’s had to make so far is inferior to the person he’s replaced. Garry Jones was a more valuable quartet member than nearly anyone you could name. Shane Dunlap is a whole step above Ryan as far as a lead singer goes.

    I hope he makes a great choice too, but honestly it is a difficult thing to replace a valuable quartet member.

  29. quote from quartetfan: “…every replacement Ernie’s had to make so far is inferior to the person he’s replaced.”

    That’s true. When they began ,(this may be hard for some of you to beleive) I really liked them. They had a great potentiall. BUT, it seems they slacked in quallity with the release of “Ernie Hasse and Signature Sound” in 2005, which (correct me if I’m wrong) was their first CD after joining the Gaither bandwagon. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
    Regardless if their is a connection there or not, they have changed from what they were into a “inferior group”.
    I don’t like that.

  30. After re-reading what I said above, I’m afraid it might have come across as more negative than I intended.

    The truth is every singer out there (except one) is inferior to someone. Perhaps inferior is a poor choice of words because of the connotations it brings. Look at the Wes Hampton for David Phelps exchange. I really, really like Wes and think he is a wonderful singer, but he is not the tenor that David Phelps is.

    Ryan is a good lead singer and will continue to get better, but Shane is a fantastic lead singer who has a power and fullness that Ryan doesn’t possess. At least not yet.

    Roy is a good pianist, but Garry Jones is a near legend in SG. His arrangements and accompaniment abilities have very, very few equals in SG today.

    My point was, as I stated at the end above, that even though Ernie may get a very good replacement, it is extremely difficult to make up for losses of key personnel.

  31. Honest to Betsy! Have you folks not seen how much EH&SS are loved? Why all the negativism about their “uniqueness”? As my Dad always says, “We are not all alike” – and I thank God for that. They are an exciting, energy-packed group that I would choose any day to a group that looks frozen in place. However, I love them all!

  32. It does not matter who can “out sing” or “out play” the other — what counts at the end of the day is that no one will ever be more loved than EHSS with Ryan, Doug, Tim, and Roy Webb. No one will ever be more love than the Gaither Vocal Band since Wes Hampton and Marshall Hall joined the group!!

  33. All the names mentioned above are great singers and great piano players, but my favorite piano player is Josh Singletary of Tribute Quartet. I love Josh, and love Tribute Quartet. I would not want to see Josh leave the group, but would Josh be a good choice for EHSS?? Any thoughts or comments?

  34. I think Ernie made a good decision.