The Rise of Cross Songs

Songs about Heaven have always been a huge portion of the Southern Gospel repertoire. But while songs about the Cross have always been present, has their presence increased in recent decades?

I decided to turn to my collection of Southern Gospel songs to do some statistical analysis. The collection is deep enough to be representative of major recordings by major groups in each decade.

  • 1950s: 4 of 408 (1%) Southern Gospel tracks include Cross or Calvary in their title. Three were hymns or classics, leaving 1 (0.2%) as a new Cross/Calvary song.
  • 1960s: 79 of 3367 (2.3%) Southern Gospel tracks include Cross or Calvary in their title. Of these, 31 were hymns or classics, leaving 48 (1.4%) as new Cross/Calvary songs.
  • 1970s: 95 of 3902 (2.4%) Southern Gospel tracks include Cross or Calvary in their title. Of these, 34 were hymns or classics, leaving 61 (1.6%) as new Cross/Calvary songs.
  • 1980s: 38 of 2736 (1.4%) Southern Gospel tracks include Cross or Calvary in their title. Of these, 7 were hymns or classics, leaving 31 (1.1%) as new Cross/Calvary songs.
  • 1990s: 110 of 4407 (2.5%) Southern Gospel tracks include Cross or Calvary in their title. Of these, 22 were hymns or classics, leaving 88 (2.0%) as new Cross/Calvary songs.
  • 2000s: 209 of 8924 (2.3%) Southern Gospel tracks include Cross or Calvary in their title. Of these, 61 were hymns or classics, leaving 148 (1.7%) as new Cross/Calvary songs.
  • 2010s: 66 of 2847 (2.3%) Southern Gospel tracks include Cross or Calvary in their title. Of these, 22 were hymns or classics, leaving 44 (1.5%) as new Cross/Calvary songs.

Eliminate duplicates for a strictly numeric count of new Cross/Calvary songs recorded by a major group each decade:

  • 1950s: 1 new Cross/Calvary song
  • 1960s: 27 new Cross/Calvary songs
  • 1970s: 36 new Cross/Calvary songs
  • 1980s: 21 new Cross/Calvary songs
  • 1990s: 56 new Cross/Calvary songs
  • 2000s: 86 new Cross/Calvary songs
  • 2010s: 29 new Cross/Calvary songs

From the 1960s on, there has been a fairly steady ratio that 1 of every 40 songs in our genre mentions the Cross or Calvary in its title. But it does seem that over the last 20 or 25 years, there has been a sharp climb in the total new Cross/Calvary songs, and, therefore, in the percentage of Cross/Calvary cuts on Southern Gospel projects that are new songs.

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The Value of a Piano Player

From time to time, we’ve had lively and insightful discussions here about the value of live instrument players in Southern Gospel performances. But it seems that I may have left the wrong impression.

You see, I framed the discussion in the context of live bands. Live bands are great, if you can afford them. A good piano player, bass player, drummer, and utility musician can create some downright incredible music. But amidst the flurry of discussion over whether groups can afford three or four extra salaries, the point I actually wanted to make got obscured: My point isn’t the necessity of live bands—it’s the value of live music.

 The roots of this genre are in three or four vocalists accompanied by a piano player. We could debate what Southern Gospel’s greatest decade or era was until the cows come home, but there’s little question that the 1950s and 1960s were the golden decades that moved Southern Gospel to the forefront position in the Christian music scene. From Southern Gospel’s founding through those golden decades, three or four voices and a piano player was enough. Done right, it’s still enough.

Over the last few years, I’ve heard concerts by several prominent artists with and without piano players. Our genre’s finest can pull through the challenge of a soundtrack-only program to put together a decent experience, just like they can pull through other challenges (like 90 degrees, rain, or an early Sunday morning service!) But, almost invariably, there is a noticeable improvement in spontaneity, excitement, and flexibility in those concerts where there is a live piano player.

One more clarification: Tracks aren’t bad. The Cathedrals’ mix of mostly live music with a few tracks worked so well that they’re the gold standard of live Southern Gospel experiences in the modern era.

Give a Southern Gospel group the right piano player, the right vocalists, and the right songs, and that is all most groups need. Additional instrument players are nice, but, as countless group owners point out, they’re simply not feasible in this economy. But a live piano player adds so much that a pianist should not be counted as a luxury.

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Dale Shipley launches solo ministry

Former Perfect Heart lead singer Dale Shipley recently announced a solo ministry on Facebook:

I am now beginning to take some booking engagements. New CD and new website @ On the CONTACT page you can find links to contact Duane Garren who is doing my booking. You can also find a couple of songs from my new project on the STORE page.

For Southern Gospel newcomers who never saw Perfect Heart live, here’s a video of Shipley in action:

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Song Snapshots #25: Sweet Beulah Land

Here’s a recently-posted video where Squire Parsons tells the story behind writing “Sweet Beulah Land”—forty years ago this year:

Interestingly, this was recorded at the church where he first sang the song, so there are some local details that he probably doesn’t usually share.

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Urgent Prayer Requested for Tracy Stuffle

Tracy Stuffle’s brother-in-law Randy Perry just posted: “They are fixing to take Tracy to hospital he is either having seizures or in the process of another stroke, please pray.”

UPDATE, 5:30 P.M.: The Perrys posted: “At hospital here in Lebanon with Tracy. He’s either having seizures or a stroke.”

UPDATE, 10 PM: The Perrys posted:

Here’s the latest: Along with having 3 seizures, he also has a urinary tract infection. Which could have brought on the seizures. All this caused his heart rate to go up over 200 and potassium which messes with the heart. He’s back on trach. He’s on several drips and they have him sedated. Dr said, he’s very sick!! They just moved him to ICU. To those who want to throw at me, where’s your God now? And say, I thought you said God was healing him. I still stand on God’s Word regardless of what you may say to me!!!! God is still here, He still has His hands on Tracy!!!! No, I don’t know what God’s will or plan is, but I still choose to stand flat footed and trust Him!!! Whatever God’s will is, He has us covered with His hands!!! He IS our strong tower and shelter in the storm!!! He has us under His wings and shielding us!!!! 

UPDATE, 7/7, 3 PM: Libbi posted: “Dr just came in and said Tracy has a touch of pneumonia on left side. No UTI. Blood cell count is down to 18,000 from 27,000. Feels like bowels being backed up threw everything out of whack. That made potassium high and electrolytes high. all this would bring on seizures. So they are loading him with enemas. He said everything seems to be slowly returning to normal. Taking him off vent here in a little bit.”

UPDATE, 7/8, overnight: “Things are quiet tonight. Have been all day. Things seem to be pretty stable. Blood pressure is still elevated on the bottom side. Dr is working on tweaking his Meds some more to get it more leveled out. Heart rate has been good. They are weaning him off the trach a little at a time. They don’t won’t to do it to quick. … We should be able to tell in the morning from new blood work how things are doing as far as number wise.”

UPDATE, 7/10: Libbi posted: “Y’all pray for Tracy, he has a blood clot in the entire right arm and they are checking his left arm and both legs now. Can’t give blood thinner due to previous bleeds in brain. Not sure what option will be. Will update as soon as I know more.”

UPDATE, 7/10, 9 PM: Libbi posted: “Tracy has no blood clots in legs or left arm! PTL They think clot in right arm was caused from pick line so they removed it. The clot should dissolve itself because it’s a superficial clot and not a deep one. He’s also off the ventilator and just on trach collar. Another step forward! He’s still in ICU. But if all goes well, will move to a regular room tomorrow. Thanks for all the extra prayers today!!! God is still good and we are still trusting Him and His will.”

UPDATE, 7/11: Last night, Libbi posted: “Tracy just smiled at me and then smirked! PTL And he moved his mouth and said amen when I got done praying! Woop, woop God is good!!! Thank U God for Your sweet blessings on me!!!! I love You!!!”

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Saturday News Roundup #179

Worth Knowing

  • David Mann is leaving the group he founded, Promise, to rejoin Mark Blackwood’s Blackwood Quartet. In an open letter, Mann cited the financial pressures of raising a family with three young children as his reason for the move. Promise tenor T.J. Evans, who was practically a founding member—joining just a couple of weeks after the group’s launch—will be carrying Promise forward.
  • Leslie Taylor will be rejoining The Taylors, marking a return to the sibling foursome’s founding lineup.
  • Tracy Stuffle has been making significant progress in therapy this week, as he recovers from his stroke and multiple brain hemorrhages. This week, he has been able to kick a ball, fist-pump with his left hand, and take a shower.

Worth Watching

Few videos have surfaced of the Blackwood Brothers since Michael Helwig replaced the retiring Jimmy Blackwood at lead. But this video from the Memphis Quartet Show demonstrates just what this lineup can achieve:

Worth Discussing

It’s open thread Saturday—you decide!

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Furman Wilson passes away

Furman Wilson, a founding member of the Primitive Quartet, passed away on Tuesday. The Primitive Quartet was originally founded in 1973 by two sets of brothers—Furman and Norman Wilson, and Larry and Reagan Riddle. When Furman left, later in the 1970s, he was replaced by a third Riddle brother, Michael Riddle. Though other instrumentalists/vocalists would be fifth and sixth members through the years, this would be the sole change in the group’s four core/founding members during its forty-year-to-date run.

Furman Wilson was also a founding member of Bethesda Baptist Church in Candler, North Carolina, where he served as pastor. His funeral will be held there today; he will be buried in the church’s cemetery.

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Song Snapshots #24: I Love This Land (Gold City)

Let’s celebrate July 4th with the story behind a patriotic Southern Gospel song!

Songwriter Ben Storie grew up with virtually no exposure to Southern Gospel music. “The closest I came was when my church would sing some Gaither choruses as part of the praise and worship. But if it wasn’t in the hymn book, or it wasn’t a Gaither Chorus, then I really had not been exposed to it.”

In 1994, a young lady he knew, Tonya Norrid, invited him to fill in with her group for an event. Her family had toured for ten years, and wanted to enter a local talent contest. Her brother, who had sung with the group until that point, had moved on to other interests and did not want to travel. So Storie learned “Beulah Land” and “March Through the Water.” He recalls: “We entered this talent contest and won it!”

He ended up staying with the group—and marrying Tonya! They traveled under the name of Sweeter Rain for ten years. He recalls that they had some success in those years: “We did one recording with Jericho Records, which was on the Zion label, produced by Zane King. Then we did a project with Phil Cross and toured nationally with him and with the Ruppes. We had some measure of chart success, but after ten years, when our daughter Maggie was born, it had just kind of run its course.”

The Stories moved to Nashville, Tennessee so that he could pursue writing professionally. They lived there for three years and saw very little success. “It was a very frustrating time,” he recalls. “Right before I left Nashville, kind of as a last-ditch effort, I wrote and did some studio demos for about a dozen songs, and I took them to the National Quartet Convention. One of the nights, I handed it out to everybody. I’m sure there are probably like a few janitors with a copy of that CD!”

Discouraged by the lack of the response, he eventually moved home to Oklahoma. But even though nobody recorded any of the songs on that CD at the time, it included several songs that would eventually get recorded, including Liberty Quartet’s “Peace Like a River” and Gold City’s “I Love This Land.”

Gold City recorded “I Love This Land” on their 2008 album Moment of Truth. Their vocal lineup at that point was Steve Ladd, Bruce Taliaferro, Daniel Riley, and Aaron McCune; Bruce Taliaferro had the featured vocal on the song.

They performed the song as a tribute to America at the National Quartet Convention September 11, 2008. The performance was captured on video:

“I didn’t get to be there that year,” Storie recalls, “but a friend was taking pictures and texting me from the front row.”

He was humbled by the reaction the song received: “Gold City was performing a song that I wrote in my kitchen in my small apartment in Nashville, Tennessee, in front of this huge National Quartet Convention arena crowd, honoring the memory of folks who passed away in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It’s very humbling and overwhelming that I could be a part of encouraging somebody who had been through that kind of pain and hurt.”

“I think it’s just really beyond your scope of imagination as a writer,” he continues, “when you write songs in your car or living room, or a writer’s room at some publishing company on an off street in Nashville. You have no idea about the thousands and thousands and sometimes millions of people that can be encouraged or challenged or uplifted. It’s just very sobering when you actually consider. It’s kind of a heavy responsibility, but you really take it seriously. You’re responsible for not just entertaining, but saying something that’s going to make somebody’s day matter, or challenge them to dig deeper in their faith.”

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Harold Gilley passes away

Former Palmetto State Quartet bass singer Harold Gilley passed away yesterday. He had been in declining health for some time. A visitation and funeral service will take place on Saturday in East Stone Gap, Virginia; a graveside service will take place on Sunday. An obituary posted on the Kingsport Times website offers details.

Many of his fellow performers posted tributes on Facebook, including these:

  • “What an incredible voice and was a very kind gentleman. My prayers go out to his family.” – Pat Barker
  • “I loved Harold as a friend and bass singer . . . we laughed a lot.” – Duane Allen
  • “We have lost one of the greatest talents Gospel music has ever known. Like the many individuals he imitated, Harold was a unique character! Some of my favorite quartet stories are either about or were told by Harold. For whatever reason, his time in the spotlight came later in life and was far too brief. I had the pleasure of traveling and singing with him on two different occasions, once when he filled in with the Florida Boys and later for a brief time with the Blackwood Quartet. … Praying for the Gilley family tonight. You will be missed, my friend!” – John Rulapaugh
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