Song covers: Is creativity optional?

In our genre, when a group re-makes a song for a table project, be it a hymn or a Southern Gospel classic, frequently the track and the vocal arrangement are close to note-for-note remakes of other group’s versions.

How important is it that a group bring something fresh to a cover of a hymn or classic song? Is it…

  • nice but completely unnecessary, with note-for-note remakes being perfectly fine?
  • strongly suggested?
  • so important that a group shouldn’t cut a song unless they can bring something new to it?

It is worth noting that this discussion specifically pertains to hymns and classic songs. A song that has been cut once and then largely forgotten (e.g., “When Mercy Came Down” by the Mark Trammell Trio or “One Splendid Day” by the Florida Boys) certainly falls into a different class; if virtually nobody remembers the song, and your rendition is as good as new, I at least see a no harm in a remake that closely follows the original arrangement.

And just for fun (and comparison), in the comments, please note (a) how many Southern Gospel hymns/classics/table projects you own, (b) how many renditions of “Amazing Grace” you own, and (c) how many renditions of “How Great Thou Art” you own. Estimates are okay. In my case, it’s about 500, precisely 71, and precisely 74.


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47 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. I think I have about eight different versions of “Amazing Grace.” I own hardly any SG table projects at the moment. Most of the hymns in my collection are coming from projects in other genres. Each version of “Amazing Grace” that I have is really good in its own way, and I wouldn’t be without any of them.

    As for what you said about originality—it’s a fine line for an artist to walk. However, I really love what Kevin Williams did with “Amazing Grace” on his instrumental album. He gave it a twist, but it was still very rootsy and classic. It had exactly the right balance. But again, that’s easier said than done.

    • I’d get started checking out table projects, if I were you – They frequently tend to be some of my favorites!

      L5’s “A Taste of Heaven” – I really liked that one, as well as the one they released after Roger passed away. As well as the Heritage series, all three volumes. I’m hoping the newest one arrives in the mail today!

      GV put out their four-volume Church Hymnal Series with some really good, easy listening music.

      I’d have to go back and check to count about how many table projects I have; I don’t really track it. I think I have 8-12 versions of Amazing Grace. Once I tried to listen to them all straight through. That was an interesting experience! I might have a half-dozen versions of “How Great Thou Art,” but maybe fewer. The standout is actually Connie Smith, off a country gospel collection I got for my brother. It’s very simple and straightforward, and my dad’s favorite version.

  2. Daniel, I have mixed emotions about the subject. On one hand there are some older songs which have been recorded, rerecorded, etc, to the point that the message in the song has grown stale. “How Great Thou Art” is just one that comes to mind. When people sing the words, often times the familiarity of the song cuases the impact of the words to be lost. And, yest there are those who engage in what I term as vocal gymnastics trying to make it new. That does not breathe life into a song; it simply places the focus on the performer.

    Another case is when a song has been recorded by an artist, and after years of performing that song on a nightly basis, the singer gets tired of the “same old, same old” and tries to make it fresh. When I hear a song by an artist or a group, and then am fortunate enough to attend a concert, I personally don’t want a “jazzed up” version of the song, but a true to form live performance.

    The questions you pose are quite valid, but unfortunately, as Warren Weirsbe said, “the only thing wrong with what we do all the time, is what we do all the time.” Our culture demands new and improved, regardless of how good the original product may be.

    • I think you’ve captured my own feelings very well. Honestly, I’d rather hear something traditional and straightforward than something unnecessarily dressed up.

      I hear this with Christmas carols all the time. People say things like, “Everybody else does (blank quiet Christmas carol) soft and slow. That’s boring. Let’s make it (bluesy, funky, cool)… to be different.” Guess what? I change channels or turn the radio off altogether when something like that comes on.

      I will say though that it’s inaccurate to say that the message of a song grows stale just because multiple people have sung it. The message is as fresh today as it was when it was written, because it’s the message of the gospel. And the gospel never grows old.

      • How about . . . the message doesn’t have to grow stale, but sometimes certain singers’ deliveries of certain songs can get that way.

      • My choice of words was not the best. The message of the songs (when based upon sound scriptural teaching) never gets old. But the presentation often times will

      • Yeah, I figured that’s probably what you meant.

      • šŸ™‚ Considering that this time last week I was fighting (literally) for my life (a nasty pulmonary embolism) I feel fortunate to have expressed anything rationally.

        Thanks for understanding.

        By the way, I’m an traditionalist. My favorite compilation is GCQ “Hymns” from several years ago.

      • Yikes and yowza! Glad you pulled through!

  3. Some songs have been recorded so many times, it would be very difficult to keep thinking up new ways to sing it. I’m personally not the type who is looking for something new and fresh every time I pop in a CD. That said, I do have a tendency to snooze through a version of one of those ubiquitous hymns, especially if it is a slow song. So I’m likely to hit the skip button on “Amazing Grace”, but maybe not so much “The Heavenly Parade”, even though all the versions I have are pretty similar.

    I have 20 versions of “Amazing Grace” (a surprising four of them by the Kingdom Heirs). In looking at the list, the only ones I can immediately hear in my mind without having to play it are the Inspirations’ a cappella version and the acoustic version by the Rochesters.

    I have 17 versions of “How Great Thou Art” (2 of them are in a medley with other songs). Besides the iconic George Beverly Shea rendition, the other one that stands out is from the first King’s Gold, just because it’s much faster than other versions.

    I’m not exactly sure how many table projects I have because I’m not exactly sure which ones are table projects. Greater Vision’s Church Hymnal Series, Legacy Five’s Heritage series, everything by MTT/MTQ, are some of the ones off the top of my head. Probably in the 20-25 range overall.

    • You know, I can’t think of any recorded renditions of “How Great Thou Art” that stand out to me.

      The Talley Trio’s version of “Amazing Grace” does stand out, because they included a rarely-sung verse (“…I shall possess, within the veil, a life of joy and peace.”) I suppose Archie Watkins’ rendition of the song is also memorable enough to stand out in my mind.

      • I have an instrumental piano version of “How Great Thou Art” by Chris Rice that is truly lovely. He changes it into a hauntingly delicious, lightly uptempo piece. Fresh but faithful.

        But then of course there was this lady named Kim Coll… something or other who did a version of “How Great Thou Art” that I hear was half-way decent (ahem, Daniel!)

      • That shows you how fried my brain was! I was only thinking of vocal renditions, in my defense, though. But even so, I should have said that.

      • Insert satisfied nodding emoticon here… LOL. I knew you were probably thinking just vocal renditions, but I couldn’t resist! šŸ˜›

        But speaking of vocal renditions, there’s this dude named Steve Green who sang “How Great Thou Art” once… I hear the guy can carry a tune, so it can’t have been all bad…

      • I’m sure I would have loved it if it hadn’t been the **th rendition I’d heard, or the ***th, possibly. (Counting individual play counts and sings at church, possibly the ****th.)

        As it was, it wasn’t bad, and it was perhaps among the most not bad of the ones I’ve heard.

      • What? Perfection man, perfection! I protest your insinuation that it was anything less! (Just kidding, LOL… but you really are stretching it when you say that Steve Green singing a classic hymn is just all right. :-D)

      • The version of “How Great Thou Art” that rings loudest in my memory is by Phil Driscoll, from _Instrument Of Praise_ (1986). Lari Goss had a hand in the production, and it’s quite unique.

        Unfortunately, if you go on YouTube to find it, you’ll get a more recent live rendition that doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to the studio version. There is a sample of it here, though:
        http://www.mightyhorn.com/cdwebsites/instrumentofpraise/instrumentpraisesamples.htm

        And you can buy it directly from Driscoll here:
        http://www.mightyhornstore.com/instrumentofpraise-1.aspx

      • I think the all time best of rendition of “how Great thou art” would be by the Brooklyn Tabernacle choir and Chris Willis on the “Hymns and Voices” project. By the way, I have 35 versions of Amazing Grace and 23 versions of How Great thou Art. I think a new and fresh arrangement of a song is not only good but neccessary for a group’s identity.

      • Daniel, I guess I’m really showing my age but one of the most memorable recordings of HGTA is by none other than Elvis Presley. Not exactly SG, but well done.

        Instrumentally, anything by Kim Collingsworth would stand out. First time I heard her play, there was a definite sense that she has “something” and the standing ovations she received was evidence of that.

        On another note, I can’t help but wonder what a writer thinks or would think, if their labor of love was tweaked or changed to “freshen” it up to the point that it would become unrecognizable.

      • I’m not really talking about either lyric or melody changes – I’m talking about harmonies, soundtracks, mods etc.

  4. To me, it’s a fine line. I think if you’re going to cover a hymn or classic song you need to put your own creative stamp on it and make it your own. However, when it strays TOO far from the original beauty of the piece, I get turned off. Personally, I tend to stray more towards simplicity, especially when it becomes to hymns that I love so much.

    When it comes to instrumental cuts, I tend to stray more towards simplicity there too. I was just having this conversation with a friend the other day. As much as I appreciate lush, dramatically orchestrated tracks accompanying pianists like Kim Collingsworth, for example, I prefer to hear just solo piano.

    To me, there is much beauty in simplicity, especially when it comes to songs like hymns that I know back and forth. One of my all-time favorite CDs is Gerald Wolfe’s Keys to Quiet Places. It is very profound in its simplicity as Gerald plays great hymns of the faith. Gordon Mote’s If You Could Hear What I See is beautiful also.

    That is not saying that orchestrated tracks aren’t wonderful! Kim Collingsworth is the best in the field, in my opinion. But I prefer more simple tracks.

    • You and I think pretty closely on this. You saved me the trouble of having to think it all through and write it down; thank you! šŸ˜€
      I don’t have that Gerald Wolfe instrumental; it looks like I better add it to my list.

      • I had conversations a few years ago with Stewart Varnado, on how I appreciated and strongly preferred non-soundtrack piano solos. A while back, he noticed something I said about Kim Collingsworth, and it came up in a conversation; I said, “She’s pretty much my one exception now!”

      • Amy – You’re more than welcome!

        Daniel – I completely agree!

  5. Daniel, I think your original post was concerning more re-cuts of what I’ll call “non-traditional” songs (i.e., not hymns that everybody knows).

    If you listen to the early Homecoming tracks, many of them are re-creations of the early groups’ recordings (i.e. the Statesmen’s “Everybody Will Be Happy Over There,” the Speer Family’s “Some Glad Day,” etc.) I see this as sort of an homage to those pioneers.

    You are right, when many groups record “somebody else’s” song, they usually keep the format and arrangement the same and I’ve wondered before if it’s a lack of creativity. I’m not sure why that’s the case. Whether it costs money to create your own new arrangement or the previous arrangement is so ingrained in your mind.

    However, I’ve also seen the opposite to be true: take Signature Sound for example. Their arrangement of “Get Away Jordan” is definitely their own and not a ‘replica’ of the Statesmen’s. Same with their “Glory to God in the Highest.”

    • Well, given that I mentioned “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art” in my original post, it’s fair to say both are under discussion here.

      I think – well, actually, I guess I know – that sometimes groups don’t bother to put in the creative effort to do something new.

      • There may be other reasons. First, if you really love a particular arrangement and think it is great the way it is (but still want to sing it yourself), you might be more likely to do it as is instead of fixing something not broken. I would not really want to change so many arrangements I love. There are times on other songs that I have my own ideas and do my own arrangements, but some I think can’t be “improved.” I do like what Signature Sound did with “The Old Landmark.” I prefer the Dove Brothers’ “Get Away Jordan” and most (if not all) the Cathedrals’ arrangements I have heard Sig Sound or L5 do. There are times I can appreciate their versions though. In regards to the GVB’s arrangement of “Please Forgive Me” I do like what they did even though I love the original from the Crabbs (on one of their Morningstar CDs as I recall.

        So, I don’t mind different arrangements if they are better or at least also good, but to change it simply to make it different isn’t always better.

  6. And I’ll add this—I burn no incense before the “progressive altar,” but at the same time, I do sympathize with Daniel. Fresh is, well, refreshing, and you can be fresh without being dorky.

    I remember finding a jaw-dropping instrumental guitar version of “Amazing Grace,” and when I told somebody she had to hear it, I was like, “You have to see this… it’s this guy playing ‘Amazing Grace’ on the guitar!” She said, “What… with his feet?”

    šŸ˜†

    • Well, anyone who’s been around this site for a while has probably picked up that I’m not exactly a fan of progressive, myself.

      After all: Slapping a late-90s CCM arrangement on top of a Southern Gospel classic doesn’t bring anything new to it. In fact, it sounds like . . . well, late-90s CCM. (Not to mention discordant, if the song under discussion was halfway decent to start with.)

      I’m rarely for progressive, but I’m all for fresh. šŸ™‚

      • Daniel, if you had suffered through as much 2000s CCM as I have (particularly the last two or three years), then you wouldn’t be complaining about late 90s CCM so much. Trust me! šŸ˜‰

      • Nah – you see, I suffered through what CCM became in the late 90s, and then by the time it got to mid-2000s, I simply quit. šŸ™‚

      • Does every discussion have to end with you guys saying how much you hate CCM? I mean really – we get it already. Many would agree with you, and many would disagree with you.

        As for Daniel’s comment: “Iā€™m rarely for progressive, but Iā€™m all for fresh.”

        There’s not much within the confines of what Daniel considers traditional Southern Gospel to be considered fresh. There’s no room for growth there. To keep it fresh – one needs to pull from other resources (no, I’m not saying CCM) to gain a new and fresh perspective. That is – in fact – the very heart of what is progressive – keeping things new and fresh. To say that you aren’t for progressive but are for things being fresh is a contradiction…

      • I’m not sure if they are synonyms. I have heard women say “don’t get fresh”, but never “don’t get progressive.” šŸ˜‰

      • No, it’s not a contradiction. Given that progressive SG=rehashed ’90s CCM, I would aver that fresh and progressive are, in fact, often opposites in SG. šŸ™‚

      • Actually, I remember enjoying CCM in the very late 90s. I still enjoy that decade quite a bit when I go back and listen. I think it only went bad when we got into the new millenium.

        And Chris, I don’t hate CCM. I think Daniel is probably stricter than I on that front. I enjoy quite a few CCM artists. I just think the genre has taken a turn for the worse of late.

      • And regarding progressive, I agree with Daniel that you need to take into account what people mean when they say “progressive.” Ideally, you may be right about what it SHOULD mean. But that may not be how it is in fact used, interpreted, applied, etc. When Daniel says he’s not a fan of “progressive,” what he means is that he’s not a fan of progressive, in the sense in which everybody else seems to take it.

        Now me, I like 90s CCM, so I just kind of shrug my shoulders when traditional SG fans wrinkle their noses at something like Brian Free & Assurance. To me, far worse things happened when people started churning out “progressive CCM…”

      • Yes, context and genre has to be taken into account. In another context, “progressive” means “ultra-liberal,” and I highly doubt anyone who visits this site is into music advocating an ultra-liberal social agenda! šŸ˜€

      • Yes, we do get it already. Daniel has one opinion; Chris has another. Some of us agree with Daniel; some with Chris. I’m not sure why that means that Daniel by default has to be wrong. I do think that his opinion is more representative of a lot of SG fans.

      • I didn’t say Daniel was wrong for disliking CCM. In fact, I never said anything remotely close to that.

        Daniel said “Given that progressive SG=rehashed ā€™90s CCM”

        If that’s what you think Progressive is – then you have no idea what progressive really is. I listen to Brian Free & Assurance, Karen Peck & New River, and The Nelons and don’t hear ANY rehashed 90s CCM. What I hear is elements of pop, country, blues, jazz, bluegrass, choral, R&B, black Gospel, and worship all mixed in with that core, traditional sound.

        Sure, some groups have that 90s CCM feel – but most forward thinking progressive groups are about finding their own sound – not rehashing something from the past – which is what traditional SG is all about…

      • Some progressive projects do incorporate other influences, but 90s CCM is consistently the strongest.

        Traditional SG isn’t all about rehashing something from the past – it’s about using a proven style from the past (the style of this genre, Southern Gospel) to convey new lyrics, new melodies, new messages.

      • I don’t have a dog in the fight, since I have no idea what CCM from the 90s or any other era sound like, except for those commercials all the time that play little 5-second clips of songs.

        I just wanted to add my encouragement to Daniel to keep on waving the banner for traditional southern gospel music! Adding a new wrinkle or two to a song doesn’t amount to compromising the style we love.

      • Thanks, Brian!

        I love those wrinkles. There is all sorts of room for creativity and for keeping things fresh without ripping off other genres! šŸ™‚

  7. You know, people can enjoy and worship to traditional SG and CCM. A person does not have to be mutually exclusive, nor are they wrong if they choose to enjoy Gold City and Casting Crowns. Different styles convey different emotion and neither is better or worse than another.

    • As a matter of fact, there are a few CCM artists (Michael Card, Steve Green, some of the Sovereign Grace music, Keith & Kristyn Getty) who I do enjoy. I’m not saying CCM is bad, per se; I’m just comparing progressive SG to 90s CCM.

      • Don’t forget Twila Paris! She’s got the whole package—sweet, natural vocals, thoughtful lyrics, beautiful melodies. She da queen in my book.

        I agree that neither style is better or worse per se. However, I don’t think it would be inappropriate to compare and contrast things like lyrics and vocals between genres and render an honest opinion on which is better. Both styles can be done well. Both styles can be done not-so-well. It all depends on the songs and the artists.

  8. Woo-hoo! L5’s Give the World a Smile is here!! And I am perfectly happy to hear that “I’d Like to Say it Again” is done just like the Cathedrals did it. šŸ™‚

    • Well that’s not my favorite song, but I certainly have the same feeling for songs that I really like a lot! It’s like old slippers. Warm, comfortable, familiar…