J.D. Sumner on songwriting

John Scheideman has sparked an interesting discussion with something J.D. Sumner said about songwriting. [EDIT, 2/22/13: Broken link removed.]Β Sumner’s thesis is this: Songwriters only have so many songs in them, and then they run out and could / should quit writing.

Sumner was partially right: Some songwriters burn out. I will take his word that he was one of them.

But I would completely disagree with his overall thesis, that all songwriters burn out. You see, for some people songwriting is a hobby, for others a passion, and for yet others a calling and a passion. That last group is the group that will keep going, because they can’t quit.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Kyla Rowland came on strong in the ’70s with “He Will Row You Over the Tide,” “Landing Lights” (I think), and a number of other big hits, for all the Canaan artists. But even when she vanished from the scene, she couldn’t bring herself to quit writing. Many huge hits, from “One Scarred Hand” to “Loving the Lamb,” came out of that time. And she’s still going strong, with numerous hits on the charts every month.

Neil Enloe has never been incredibly prolific (he’s only written some 60 songs in his life), but he’s still going strong today. Two of the songs on his group’s most recent CD, “The Next Time I Get Married” and “Euroclydon,” were as creative as anything he’s done before.

Mosie Lister is, indeed, going a little slower than he used to. But in the last ten years or so, he’s still written some of his best work, including “Still Feelin’ Fine” and a number of other Booth Brothers hits.

My closing argument – and quite possibly, my best – is Dianne Wilkinson. I know she comments here occasionally, but I would mention her here even if she didn’t, because she’s earned it. She had a strong record of hits through the ’80s and ’90s, and that hasn’t slowed a bit. I doubt anyone would contest that she is going as strong as ever, with too many hits in the last two or three years to even name. But I have to name two, “What we Needed” (solo write) and “God Did it All” (co-write with Rusty Golden). These, I contend, are not the ineffective hacks of a burnt-out, washed-up has-been. These are masterpieces from someone who has spent better than three decades honing her skill, and quite possibly has yet to hit her peak.

So do some songwriters burn out? Of course.

Do all? By no means!


For more about —and other Southern Gospel news and commentary—follow our RSS feed or sign up for our email updates!

52 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. Daniel I understand where J.D. is coming from. He might have been talking from his own experience and not taking into consideration that others may not burn out. Kyla Rowland is an amazing songwriter and continues to write great songs and The Perrys do a great job on her stuff too. You did touch on my favorite song writer, Mrs. Dianne Wilkinson. She is such a blessing and just continues to write great stuff. The Kingdom Heirs do such a great job on her songs too. She is not burnt out or in my opinion even “fired up” yet. You can look at the Kingdom Heirs’ last two CDs and see Singing News Top 20 hits all over them. Just look at the ones that KH release to radio and how well they do. Mrs. Dianne was a big contributor to the Cathedrals’ success because of “Boundless Love” and “We Shall See Jesus.” Great post Daniel. And Mrs. Dianne, you are still my favorite songwriter!!!

    • “He might have been talking from his own experience and not taking into consideration that others may not burn out.”

      My point exactly! πŸ™‚

      And Dianne Wilkinson is my favorite, too. πŸ™‚

  2. Good post. Mrs. Dianne and Mrs. Kyla are the best. As my collection of Perrys music has grown recently, so has my collection of Kyla Rowland songs. And my Kingdom Heirs collection certainly gives me a nice sample of Mrs. Wilkinson’s work.

    There seems to again be a little confusion over the title of one of Kyla’s first big song. I’m 99.9% sure it’s “He Will Roll You Over the Tide”, not “row”.

  3. That’s funny; my dad has quoted that to me thinking it was said by Albert E. Brumley. I don’t know if I agree with it or not – it’s probably not true, but it sure is an interesting thought.

    By the way, you can’t really prove it by citing living songwriters, because they could just have more songs than most. πŸ˜›

    I used to joke about this with “(I Never Could Tell You) How Beautiful Heaven Is.” I’ve heard some attempts at country gospel by that author, and I finally said that I believe that he only had one song in him.

    When all is said and done, I do believe that a number of songwriters have a few early songs that are outstanding, and spend the rest of their lives running on that inspiration. I suppose that’s probably what J.D. had in mind.

  4. Two of my all-time favorite writers–Dianne and Kyla! Both of these ladies have websites that you can visit (www.diannewilkinson.com and http://www.kylarowland.com) that list their song credits, if anyone needs futher proof that these ladies haven’t begun to burn out.

    I’m not sure either one of them will ever run out of ideas or creativity, because they are so deeply planted in the Word, and we all know that God reveals Himself and His Message in new and refreshing ways all the time. I can read a passage today and get something completely different out of it than when I read it yesterday. Knowing how important the Word is to Dianne and Kyla, I believe they approach their Bible Study and their relationship with God in that way, looking for what He wants to say to them that is new. And I beleive that’s one of the many reasons there always seems to be a fresh fountain from which these two writers draw inspiration and creativity–because they are deep in the word and they also seek out Godly and dynamic preaching.

    Another way I believe they have managed to stay creative is that they have both recently engaged in co-writing, which is a great way to come up with some new ideas and fresh approaches–not that they need any help in that area, but co-writing does that by nature of bringing someone else into the writing process.

    That said, I understand and agree with Mr. Sumner’s comments to a certain degree. I have found that some–not all, but some–writers have only a season of great songs and then we never hear from them again. And writers who typically are a part of a group that only sings the songs they’ve written are sometimes the writers that are scrutinzed more because of their work all being sung by one aritst and many times their songs start sounding alike. As a writer, I’m nowhere even close to being able to hold a light for Dianne or Kyla to see by, but I also hope I’m not yet in the category of people who need to put down the pen and never pick it up again! LOL! I’ll be content somewhere in the middle.

    • Yes, it is clear that both Mrs. Dianne and Mrs. Rowland are well-studied in the Word. In a day where the theology in our southern gospel songs seems to be kind of blurry, their songs are, without fail, “Biblically Correct” (as Mrs. Dianne has put it so well in a recent song) πŸ˜‰

  5. Well, to Daniel and those who posted comments, you made my day!! I’m thankful, and very humbled, by your kind words which are an ENCOURAGEMENT to keep on keeping on. Yes, as some of us say to each other among our songwriting family, we keep writing because we CAN’T NOT. Bad grammar I know, but a great way to express it. I like to think of it as God continuing to “stir up the gift that is within you”. Kyla is a precious friend to me, and we have much in common. We often talk about how we wish we didn’t live at opposite ends of Tennessee! Her songs, and the songs of my other songwriter friends, bless and challenge me always…and we urge each other on. Barbara, you know you are my “soul daughter in the faith”, and you are ALREADY a great songwriter! My prayer is that we will continue to write the TRUTH with boldness, in such a way that people want to LISTEN…till Jesus comes. God bless all of you, and please pray for our songwriter family that God will continue to give the song. Dianne. Philippians 1:3.

    • Well said Mrs. Dianne. You are truly an inspiration to all southern gospel fans and to me as I try to continue to sing His praises. I can’t wait to hear what you come up with next!! We love you here in Iuka, Mississippi!! The Unity Four is honored to be able to record some Dianne Wilkinson songs!

    • And let me add that the reason that Mrs. Dianne and Mrs. Kyla are #1 and #1a in southern gospel is that they’re still churning out good, old-fashioned gospel songs. They both write great ballads, but it’s those great, uptempo quartet songs that keep them at the top of my list.

      • Amen to that Brian!! I love the convention style songs and Mrs. Dianne knows it too! LOL! “Oh Come Along” is one of my all-time fav’s!!!

    • ..we keep writing because we CAN’T NOT..
      i like it, please allow me to quote it on my facebook wall… hope it will bring encouragement to others. Thanks Mrs. Dianne.

  6. Daniel…it IS “He Will Roll You Over The Tide.” πŸ™‚

    Having gotten that out of my system, good post(and good examples). You saw the direction I was trying to head in when I posted the escerpt from JD’s work…and you ran with the ball and scored!

    This is one reason why you’re now the “top dog” in the southern gospel blogosphere.

    Keep it up.

    • Good to know for sure. Thanks!

      Thanks for inspiring this post. It started out as a comment that kept getting longer, and longer, and longer . . . and ultimately I realized it was a post itself.

  7. Great songwriters write great songs, but because they are human and not perfect like God, not EVERY song they write will be a great song.

    Artists need to be discerning and wise, especially when considering the work of their favorite songwriters (inside or outside the group). Not every song should be cut, and it’s actually less respectful to cut a weak song by a strong talent. Wait and cut only the very best songs.

  8. How neat to have two of the best songwriters out there stop by!

    I hope this was a fraction of an encouragement to you as you always are to us!

    • Are we implying that brother Bill is of the ‘burned out’ variety, since neither William nor W&G Gaither hsve been mentioned here? πŸ™

      Not at all detracting from those mentioned as in high esteem, but I think some of Gloria’s recent compositions have real biblical quality,

      “Let Freedom Ring” is a good example.

      • I agree. I don’t absolutely love every lyric Gloria’s ever done, but I thought some of the new material on Give It Away was quite good—particularly “Place Called Hope” and “I Will Go On.” Thoughtful stuff.

      • David – Larnelle Harris did “Let Freedom Ring” in the mid-80s.

        NSF – I’m thinking the Bill Gaither Trio did I Will Go On in about 1987. I’m on the road, so I don’t have the LP handy to check for sure.

        And didn’t Michael English do “Place Called Hope” in about 1990?

      • Not sure about “I Will Go On,” but the ME song is definitely different. The one I’m thinking of is the one with the chorus that begins:

        There’s a road somewhere
        There’s an open door
        There’s a hill where the green grass grows…

      • Yes, that’s the song I had in mind. ME must have done a different one, but for some reason I was thinking someone did that song earlier.

        I know the other two were forgotten oldies.

      • Weren’t the Cathedrals the first to record “Let Freedom Ring” on Something Special?

      • Not sure if they were before or after Harris. Actually, I think you’re right, I think they were before.

      • I believe the Cathedrals got Let Freedom Ring first, but Larnelle had it early too. The Cats was on their Something Special lp that Bill produced. I Will Go On was done on the Gaither Trio Welcome Back Home CD as I recall and it was released I believe in 1987. I like the GVB versions of each of these songs better.

        The Michael English song is a different one. Michael’s goes “I Believe in a place called hope. A Place of perfect peace for every heart and soul.” (Or something like that. πŸ™‚ )

      • Thanks Daniel,

        I was under the impression some of the stuff on the “Give it Away” taping were more recent compositions.

        My knowledge is quite imperfect.

        Over here we are dominated by CCM and P&W. A breadth of SGM is rarer than a giraffe in Nashville!

      • No problem – I certainly understand!

      • “Over here we are dominated by CCM and P&W.” Brother David, you have my deep and heartfelt sympathies!

      • SoGoBro,

        You have no idea, it is ALL spun off from various “Christian” TV channels, pumping Prosperity Gospel, at best, and false cults at worst.

        “Casting Crowns” here is considered SGM genre, “Jars of Clay” is good gospel music,

        If you glance at the screens in the Christian Bookshops, it looks like they playing rock gigs on the DVD.

        You folks need to really appreciate what you still got as mainstream in the “Deep South”.

        Long may it be preserved.

      • Casting Crowns is considered SGM in your neck of the woods? Surely you jest! Perhaps that’s your point…

        For the record, I’m not from the deep South, but I’m coming to love it more and more as I plunge into the SG treasure chest.

      • SoGoBro,

        I kid you not.

        We are in the last days!

  9. This is not intended to be word for word – because it must have been 30 years ago when I heard it during a concert from J. D. Sumner. They were on a program with a regional group one night that had opened with 3 chords and a cloud of dust. Sumner went up to the group member who did all the talking and told him how much he liked several of the songs, one especially. The singer commented that he would only expect that since Sumner had written it. He said he honestly did not remember it.

    Sumner also said he wrote so many songs in a short period that he did literally burn out. One story was told that Sumner wrote every song for one of the Blackwoods Brothers albums while on the bus traveling across the country.

    Speaking of writers – Rowland and Wilkinson are at the top of their craft right now. I think it is interesting how some writers tend to get several songs on each project for specific groups. Wilkinson – Kingdom Heirs, Rowland – Perrys… Days past – Sandy Knight – Kingsmen.

    Then there is versatility. I am yet to hear a Joel Lindsey song I do not like. He can write straight-up SG, ballads – you name it.

    We really need to start a ground swell to encourage a non-performer songwriting award. These folks don’t do it for the recognition – but it sure would be nice.

    JEB

    • You mean there isn’t a songwriting award in SG? Or is your point that there is but it usually goes to performing songwriters?

      • It goes to performing songwriters.

      • What?? You mean only performing songwriters are eligible? That’s ridiculous! What about the Joel Lindseys, the Wayne Hauns, etc.? I guess that’s JEB’s point…

      • No, sorry, that’s not what I mean. Any songwriter is eligible, but the fans always pick performing songwriters.

      • Ahhh, well, what do you expect with a fan award? They’re gonna pick the one’s they’ve seen and heard of. Which is too bad.

    • The SGN Music Awards (presented by AbsolutelyGospel.com, formerly SoGospelNews.com) presents a performing and non-performing songwriter award every year.

      The Songwriter of the Year (Professional) went to Rusty Golden this year, but has gone to names like Dianne Wilkinson, Marty Funderburk, Rebecca Peck, and Daryl Williams in the past.

      Songwriter of the Year (Artist) went to Becky & Sonya Isaacs this year.

      • There we go. That makes sense. I found it hard to believe that there was literally no non-performing songwriter award in gospel music.

      • The most respected awards to date, the Singing News Fan Awards, don’t have a non-performing songwriter award.

        However, the Unthanks’ awards are indeed picking up steam, and I have been glad to see their inclusion of that category.

    • As I recall, your first story was actually the Imperials sang the song, J.D. told one he liked it (maybe Moscheo) and said he looked at him and asked “are you nuts? You wrote it.” (or something like that. I also believe J.D> wrote most of the Hawaiian lp on the way to Terre Haute IN after a suggestion from James Blackwood. Sumner said James was always giving him titles to write etc.

    • Wait a minute, wait a minute, I found one! A Joel Lindsey co-credit anyway, “We Need Each Other” off of EHSS’s Dream On. Cannot abide that song. Phew. Good to be reminded that even the best are not infallible… πŸ™‚

  10. I have never heard this quote from JD so I dont know the context but if used as you said in the article, then technically he is correct. Every songwriter only has so many songs in them. Maybe that number is 10,412 and then they die?

    On a side but related note, I can honestly and proudly say JD was a good friend of mine. Best friend I had in Gospel music. I miss that man every day. When he would call me my phone would literally rattle. (Oops, I dropped something. Oh, it was a name!) He was a great man and pretty good songwriter.

    • I believe J.D. was talking about running out before death, as opposed to going strong until death.

      • Surely we’ll ALL start again, AFTER death!

        We will all be writing new verses for the eternal chorus, “Worthy,Worthy the Lamb”

      • I know. I was being funny. But not very funny apparently!

        πŸ™‚

  11. I’m old enough to remember this, having heard it often and firsthand. The standing joke was that a person would ask, “Have you heard JD’s latest song?” The reply would be, “No, what’s it to the tune of?” Yet, many of JD’s songs were brilliant at some level. Not every well known writer hits the ball out of the park on every song.

    Poets have lyrics and no tunes. Instrumentalists have tunes and no lyrics. Go figure!

    • That’s interesting. Line after line of one of his biggest classics, “Old Country Church,” comes melodically straight from “Since Jesus Came Into my Heart.”

      • Daniel,
        Sumner said it was years before he realized he had lifted the melody from that hymn for “The Old Country Church.” He said he thought that’s what made the song resonate with people, even though it was unintentional. Not only were the choruses from various hymns, but so was the melody of the verses.

      • I didn’t realize that he figured that out at some point until just now. Fascinating.

      • Yeah, I thought I remembered it that way, but wanted to make sure before posting it myself.

    • Neil,
      I like that line “brilliant at some level” so much that I’ll probably end up stealing it at some point in the future! :o)