The Power of the Cross

Let’s finish this project by placing the spotlight on what matters most.

To survive and thrive in the future, Southern Gospel needs young talent. We need to encourage talented young singers who love this music, because if there’s going to be a Southern Gospel worth hearing fifty years from now, they will be the ones singing it. But vocal talent alone never saved a single soul. The power of the Cross alone saves souls.

To survive and thrive in the future, Southern Gospel needs live music. Live pianists or full bands formed a key portion of the appeal that created this genre’s glory days. But live music alone never saved a soul. The power of the Cross alone saves souls.

To survive and thrive in the future, Southern Gospel needs well-crafted songs. Our leading groups shouldn’t have to settle for cliché-filled songs. But well-crafted songs alone never saved a soul. The power of the Cross alone saves souls.

Of course, I use “the power of the cross” as a shorthand for the Gospel message. The first man and woman, Adam and Eve, rebelled against God. Ever since, each member of the human race is born a sinner, in a state of rebellion against God.

“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, KJV).

“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23, KJV).

Sin is the bad news. Here’s the good news: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit” (I Peter 3:18, KJV).

While we were yet His enemies, Jesus came to this earth to live a sinless life and pay for our sins by dying in our place.

How are we to respond? Faith and repentance.

Saving faith in Jesus isn’t just an intellectual acknowledgment that He came; it’s something that changes our lives. It’s not just intellectually acknowledging that the ice over a lake is thick enough to hold our weight; it’s stepping out on that ice.

Repentance includes remorse (feeling sorry for our sins), but it isn’t just remorse. It also means turning away from those sins. It’s not that we become instantly sinless at our conversion. But as sanctification continues, we steadily become more and more like Jesus and less and less like our former sinful self.

We are called to profess our faith (Matthew 10:32-33 and many other verses). Once we have experienced the truth and the power of the Gospel to change our lives, we do those around us an injustice by keeping it to ourselves!

The power of the cross must always remain central.

* * *

And with that, farewell.

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The Encouragers

Southern Gospel is filled with people who have made an incredible impact through their music. But there are quite a few people involved in this genre whose on-stage product is only a small portion of their legacy. I like to call them “The Encouragers.”

Neil Enloe is an excellent example of this. The impact of his singing and his songwriting is vast; as long as there is a Southern Gospel, there will be singers singing “Statue of Liberty.” But I suspect that the secondary impact he has had is even more vast. I could not count the stories I have heard from singers—and perhaps a journalist or two—whom he has found a way to encourage.

There are others: Michael Booth, Kenna Turner West, Dianne Wilkinson, Pat Barker, and the list goes on. Concerts, recordings, and songs contribute to a legacy, but ultimately, the people you touch are your legacy. And the legacy these writers and singers are leaving is massive.

Who are some of the people in Southern Gospel who have encouraged you?

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The Power of Simplicity

The Southern Gospel songwriters of the 1970s produced a decade of enduring classics that has never been matched. The decade’s greatest writers, including Bill & Gloria Gaither, Rusty Goodman, Dottie Rambo, Ronny Hinson, and Squire Parsons, all hit a creative peak at about the same time (~1967-77), and what a time it was.

Each of these writers kept writing into the 1980s and beyond. But we would all say that their strongest output was in the 1970s. Why is this? Why would so many of the greatest writers of their generation hit their peak at the same time?

It’s quite an odd phenomenon. I’ve been pondering it for several months. And I think I have found the answer: Simplicity.

To a man (or woman), each of these writers’ great songs from the 1970s had a distinct simplicity: Simple message, simple lyric, simple melody.

But about the time the calendar rolled over to the next decade, each of these writers shifted to a more intricate and involved style of songwriting. One of Dottie Rambo’s finest songs from the 1980s is “When His Kingdom Comes“; compare that to, say, “The Holy Hills.” For Bill & Gloria Gaither, compare “I’ve Just Seen Jesus” to “Because He Lives.” For Rusty Goodman, compare “Only For His Eyes” or “Standing In The Presence Of The King” to “Had It Not Been.” The difference is simplicity.

Let me be clear: There’s nothing wrong with intricate songs. Sometimes songs need to explore complex topics. In fact, those are often my personal favorites. When it comes to Squire Parsons, I’ll take “Crown of Bright Glory” over “Sweet Beulah Land” any day. But at the same time, I know which of the two pretty much any Christian in the South can sing by heart, and I think I know why.

There’s always a time and a place for songs that explore complex topics. Our genre has plenty of those right now—plenty excellent ones.

But it’s time to bring the simple songs back.

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The Inspirations at 50, Part 3

This year, the Inspirations celebrate their fiftieth anniversary. We’re going to commemorate this landmark milestone with a series looking at ten of their all-time greatest albums. Also see: Part 1 (7-10), Part 2 (4-6).

#3: I Know (2006)

inspirations2006iknowmaxAs this top-ten countdown nears its final stretch, it’s rather unavoidable that superlatives abound. But the Inspirations’ career deserves superlatives.

I Know is the strongest release of the Inspirations’ Crossroads era. Two of the three #1 hits they have had in the last thirty years—”I Have Not Forgotten” and “If You Only Knew” came off this recording. Yet this recording is packed with songs so powerful that it wouldn’t have been surprising to see one or two more.

Song list: I’ve Never Gotten Over Geting Saved; If You Only Knew; I Know; I Have Not Forgotten; Shed For Even Me; At His Feet; When I Walk On Streets Of Gold; Living Like There’s No Yesterday; Led By The Master’s Hand; My Best Friend.


 

#2: On Heaven’s Bright Shore (1976)

inspirations1976heavensbrightshoremaxEvery list of this nature needs at least one surprise, and this is it. Ask casual fans and serious fans to name the group’s all-time strongest releases off the top of their heads; this isn’t always one of the first to come to mind. But that only goes to show just how much this album is underrated.

The Inspirations’ releases from this era, the era when they were the fan’s favorite group in the genre, are all distinguished by instrumental and vocal excellence. What, then, sets this apart is its song selection. Songs like “Land of Living,” “I’ll Live Again,” “Rose Among The Thorns,” “On Heaven’s Bright Shore,” “The Redeemed Are Coming Home,” and “When Fair Heaven I See” make this the group’s all-time greatest studio album.

Song list: On Heaven’s Bright Shore; Rose Among The Thorns; A Mansion Is Waiting; The Redeemed Are Coming Home; Land Of The Living; Far Better Than This; When Fair Heaven I See; Are You Listening For The Lord; He’ll Wipe Away The Tears; Help Me Lord; He’ll Do A New Thing; I’ll Live Again.


 

#1: A Night of Inspiration (1976)

inspirations1976nightofinspirationmaxThe 1970s were an era of compelling live performances. We’re still talking about the Kingsmen, Rambos, Happy Goodmans, and countless others from this era. A Night of Inspiration shows how, even in this august company, the Inspirations became the decade’s most popular group, winning six of the ten Singing News Fan Awards for Favorite Artist handed out that decade.

Some groups used live albums as an occasion to introduce new songs. Here, the focus was more on live versions of songs like “Touring The City,” “When I Wake Up To Sleep No More,” and “Jesus Is Mine” that were already beloved hits.

It would perhaps be a theoretical possibility to read about the Inspirations’ hit songs and live appeal and have an intellectual understanding of how this decade made them legends. But once you have listened to this album, it’s no longer theoretical. You feel it in your bones as you feel the energy and the messages in your soul.

Song list: Touring That City; When I Wake Up To Sleep No More; The First Million Years; When God Dips His Pen Of Love In My Heart; Amazing Grace; Tears Will Never Stain The Streets Of That City; I’ve Got More To Go To Heaven For; These Are They; Thanks For Loving Me; Jesus Is Mine.


 

A Video Highlight

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Never, No Never, No Never Forsake.

Yesterday morning at church, we were singing one of the grand old hymns of the faith.

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?

The song was keyed low enough that I was singing an alto harmony. I heard a voice in the row behind me joining in. I didn’t have to look back to know who it was. There is a precious elderly saint in our church who, years ago, sang alto in a local Southern Gospel quartet. When I started attending this church, she was on the worship team.

Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.

She had to step down from the worship team when she came down with Alzheimer’s. The brilliance that made her a high school valedictorian has faded away. Yet she still remembers the old hymns, and on this one at least, the alto part.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of grief shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

Then I realized what I was hearing. She has been called to go through the deep waters. Yet she still sings this song.

When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

She knows a promise. I say “knows”; whether or not her mind remembers, her heart still knows: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).

That’s why she can sing:

The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.

I’ll admit, I cried through the last few verses. I don’t know if I sang a word.

But it was just as well, because it meant that I could just listen to her sing. It was one of those moments that I will never forget—unless, of course I am someday called to walk through those same deep waters. But hearing her sing this song reminds me that should that day come, I have the same promise that was made to her: Nothing can pluck one of Jesus’ sheep out of His Father’s hand.

Not even Alzheimer’s.

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Southern Gospel Journal to retire in June

This has been one of the greatest blessings of my life. But “to every thing there is a season,” and this season is coming to an end: I have decided to retire Southern Gospel Journal in early June.

For my entire adult life, writing a post every morning has been the only routine I have known. So this decision was certainly influenced by a number of factors.

Perhaps most significant is how the world has changed over the last eight years. In 2006, we needed news websites. Now, we follow our favorite artists directly on Facebook or Twitter. That has decreased the need for this site. But I truly don’t regret it, because it is better for the genre.

Something similar happened with CD reviews. Thanks to Spotify, we don’t need a reviewer to tell us if a CD is any good when we can hear it for ourselves.

When it comes to commentary, I have said my piece. After writing over 3,100 posts here, I find that most of my post ideas are ones I’ve had before.

There are also a few personal reasons. I need to lose weight, which means that I need to spend more time away from the computer, exercising. And I am ready to pick back up several book and songwriting projects that had been on the back burner.

I’m making this announcement a month early, for several reasons. First, there are several posts already promised or scheduled for the next few weeks. Second, this will allow time for anyone who wants to pick up the mantle of daily news and commentary to get up and running. Finally, it lets me get this post out of the way and save the final post for a more fitting subject.

I have been very active in this genre behind the scenes. That won’t change; I still love this music deeply.

With this season in my life drawing to a close, I’m tempted to complicate the transition by refusing to let go of the past. Instead, I’ll focus on the future, looking forward to seeing what the road ahead may hold both for me and for this genre of music that has touched all of us so deeply.

Thank you to all of you who have made this project one of the greatest blessings I have ever experienced.

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The Inspirations at 50, Part 2

This year, the Inspirations celebrate their fiftieth anniversary. We’re going to commemorate this landmark milestone with a series looking at ten of their all-time greatest albums. Also see: Part 1 (7-10).

#6: Wake Up In Glory (1972)

inspirations1972glorymaxThe Inspirations’ first album with Canaan, Our Inspiration (1971), was a nice first step. This, their second, seems to have been a breakout album. Granted, I don’t have Canaan’s internal sales numbers from the era to back this up, but it’s not hard to make an educated guess based on the relative rarity of Our Inspiration today, compared to the plentiful copies of this album still in circulation.

This album may not have had a single signature song—the closest is “Rocked On The Deep,” a popular feature for Mike Holcomb for years—but it was a solid all-around performance. It was probably the first Inspirations record in many households. Fans decided they liked what they heard. They came back for more, and they’re still coming today.

Song list: I’ll Wake Up In Glory; Oh, What A Day; Bring Your Burdens To Him; I’ll Never Die; Where The Shades Of Love Lie Deep; We’ll Be At Home Again; I’m Going Up; Rocked On The Deep; A Place Called Heaven; Everybody Will Be Happy Over There; Obey The Spirit; One By One.


#5: The Son Came Down (2009)

inspirations2009thesoncamedownmaxWhile we didn’t know it at the time, this ended up being a transitional lineup; baritone Melton Campbell and bass Mike Holcomb were long-running fan favorites, while Dallas Rogers and David Ragan were debuting. But what we did know at the time was that this was a really, really good project. I reviewed it here, giving it five stars, and if it were possible, my respect for its strength has only increased as the years have gone by.

In the five years since this came out, there have been a number of personnel changes. But within the last few months, two of the vocalists featured on this project (Rogers and Campbell) have returned to the Inspirations lineup, bringing with them an infusion of energy and excitement—not to mention spectacular live renditions of “Dealing With Gold.”

Song list: I Know Where He Lives; Dealing With Gold; Stone’s Throw Away; The Son Came Down; Crown Him King; Heaven Knows Where I’ve Been; Thinking More Of Heaven; The Potter; Thank God I’ve Made It; Walkin’ By Faith.


 

#4: Golden Street Parade (1975)

inspirations1975goldenstreetparademaxThis album comes squarely in the middle of a 1972-78 run where the Inspirations were named Favorite Group in the Singing News Fan Awards for six out of seven years. Perhaps it is no surprise that fully half of the top ten albums we’re commemorating in this series come out of that era. With songs like “Golden Street Parade,” “I Love To Tell Of His Love,” “On The Sea of Life,” and “When God Dips His Love,” the Inspirations produced one of the most exceptional studio albums of the decade.

Song list: Golden Street Parade; Tears Will Never Stain; I Love To Tell Of His Love; I Found A Treasure; Will Someone Be Waiting; Glorybound; When God Dips His Love; I’m Going To Meet You In Heaven Someday; When The Saints Gather Home; Haven Of Rest; On The Sea Of Life; God Still Cares.


 

A Video Highlight

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The Inspirations at 50, Part 1

This year, the Inspirations celebrate their fiftieth anniversary. We’re going to commemorate this landmark milestone with a series looking at ten of their all-time greatest albums.

#10: Two Shoes (1998)

inspirations1998twoshoes1000The Inspirations’ Canaan era made them legends. After signing with Crossroads, they quickly returned to the top of the genre. Two Shoes is the strongest release of the interregnum. It contained two songs, “Two Shoes” and “Resurrection Ground,” that remained concert favorites for over a decade. Perhaps partially because of how much the song meant to him personally, the latter song became Matt Dibler’s signature song. With Dibler’s recent return to the group, the song returned with him.

Song list: Thousands Of Tears; In God’s Hands; It’s Been Worth Every Mile; Walk A Little Farther; Anything Goes; Don’t You Want To Come Along; Resurrection Ground; Always Have, Always Will; I Want To Go There; Two Shoes.


 

#9: Touring The City (1973)

inspirations1973touringthatcitymaxIf for no other reason, this album deserves a spot on any top ten list for its title track alone. “Touring That City” became tenor Archie Watkins’ signature song.

Song list: Touring That City; The Fa Sol La Song; I Know He Hears; Love Reached Down; I’ll Make It To Heaven Some Day; Matthew 24; On Higher Ground; Only One Door; I Believe He Died For Me; When I Walk On Streets Of Gold; I Can’t Do It Alone; After The Sunrise.


 

#8: Pure Vintage (2001)

inspirations2001purevintagemaxAfter spending over a decade as an independent artist, the Inspirations’ decision to sign with one of the genre’s premier labels, Crossroads, proved momentous for the group’s history. After years without a major presence in awards or #1 hits, this album, and its mega-hit “I’ll Not Turn My Back On Him Now,” immediately put the group back on top. The song was a #1 hit for two months in January and February 2002, and it also won Song of the Year at the Singing News Fan Awards.

Song list: I’ll Not Turn My Back On Him Now; The Great I Am; He Broke The Chains; Prayer Moves The Heart; Mercy At Midnight; Heaven Gets Sweeter; He Swept Me Off My Feet; When Jesus Shall Reign; The Book, The Blood, The Blessed Hope; Endangered The Christian Family.


 

#7: Cool Water (1964 or 1965)

inspirations1964coolwatermaxWith how amazing the Insiprations’ run with Canaan was, it’s easy to overlook how strong their early work is. (Or perhaps it’s because of how hard these albums are to find.) They had been together only a year or two when they recorded this album, yet it is filled with strong performances in their already distinctive style. Songs like “On The Sunny Banks” and “He’ll Hold to My Hand” would make at least intermittent apperances in their live concerts for decades. This remarkable release is the strongest of their early years.

Song list: On The Sunny Banks; I Will Follow Thee; Gettin’ Ready To Leave This World; Gonna Sit Down And Rest A Little While; When We Get Home; Cool Water; I Love To Call On Jesus’ Name; Glorified Body; Well Done My Child; He’ll Save My Soul; He’ll Hold My Hand; Come Spring.


 

A Video Highlight

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Audience Response

We’ve all heard a tenor or bass singing out of his natural range, a worn-out comedy routine, or a challenging song attempted by someone who isn’t able to do it justice. I cannot tell you how many things I’ve heard justified with this line: “But the audience responded well.”

Here’s a little secret: (Most) audiences are rooting for the person who is on stage to succeed. If a tenor is pushing the absolute limits of his vocal range, going for a note he probably should have left in the practice room, most audiences aren’t hoping that his voice cracks and he totally flubs the high ending. Even if an audience has heard a joke (like the “sister tenor” joke) so many times that it’s no longer funny, they’ll probably laugh to be polite.

The best emcees recognize that audiences will respond favorably to a lot of things. But they don’t use that as a crutch. Instead, they keep the big picture of what their group wants to accomplish in that concert in mind—edification, entertainment, ministry. Then, from the wide variety of things to which audiences respond positively, they utilize the ones that most effectively take them toward their desired result.

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The Grand New Hymns

Lee Black has written or co-written numerous Southern Gospel hit songs, including the #1 Brian Free & Assurance hit “I Want To Be That Man.” But he doesn’t only write Southern Gospel hit songs; he also writes modern hymns on the side. Here is an example:

Here’s another.

Lee hasn’t been the only one writing songs reminiscent of the grand old hymns. Dianne Wilkinson has written several through the years, from “Of Thee I Sing” (Greater Vision) to “I Am Free” (Mark Trammell Trio) to the recent “Man of Sorrows” (Mark Trammell Quartet). When “Man of Sorrows” came out earlier this year, I noticed a comment criticizing the song for not sounding like a traditional Southern Gospel big ballad. I didn’t reply, since online arguments are usually futile and counterproductive, but I did think, “It wasn’t written to be a big ballad; it was written to be a hymn.” There’s no point in criticizing a dog for not looking like a cat!

There is and should always be a place in our genre for doctrinally sound, Biblically rich lyrics with majestic melodies. To their credit, Southern Gospel has always found a place for the grand old hymns. We need to make sure we also have a place for the grand new hymns.

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