Creating Trends

Every good group needs great vocalists and great songs. Great groups have one more thing: They either do something nobody else does or do it better than anyone else. Many of these can be described in ten words or fewer. Four examples:

  • Statesmen (50s/60s): Modern harmonies and an energetic live delivery
  • Isaacs (90s/00s): Gospel bluegrass with tight family harmonies
  • Bill Gaither Trio (60s/70s): Group members writing enduring classics for every record
  • Gold City (80s): Cutting-edge progressive Southern Gospel

The point isn’t to be unique for the sake of being unique; those acts are novelty acts.

If a group does something innovative and is successful, others will eventually copy the unique factor, and perhaps even the songs. Regional groups, and sometimes a few groups on the national scene, are content to jump on the bandwagon of the currently successful trends. The great groups create those trends.

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When should artists be at the product table?

When you go to a concert, do you expect to see artists before a concert, at intermission, or afterwards?

At intermission and afterwards are fairly standard practice. Before a concert is a little more complicated. Hovie Lister and the Statesmen would not stand at a product table before a show; they believed that there wouldn’t be the same excitement and aura around a live appearance if fans had been talking to the artists at the product table beforehand. There is also the issue of artists not wearing out their voices before concerts.

There’s a great case to be made for artists not manning product tables before concerts. But, on the other hand, enough artists do come out before concerts that artists who don’t would be wise to prepare accordingly. Perhaps a volunteer or a bus driver could man the table before the concert, or perhaps artists could place a cover over the product racks to signify to fans that the table will be closed until intermission.

(Hat tip to an anonymous artist for the post idea.)


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Are the charts too slow or too fast?

Prevailing wisdom can be interesting—especially when it is contradictory.

What does Southern Gospel radio need?

Quite a few fans will answer that radio needs a chart that moves faster. The Singing News’ monthly Radio Airplay chart is widely recognized as the industry standard. Right now, a #1 hit will often take 5-7 months climbing the chart to attain the top position. Other genres’ charts are updated weekly, so songs can climb charts in 6 weeks instead of 6 months. These fans will tell you that radio needs to cycle through singles more quickly to offer more fresh content to keep audiences’ attention.

(In point of fact, Singing News does offer a weekly radio airplay chart, here, but perhaps since it’s only visible to subscribers, it hasn’t developed into an industry standard. Other publications, like AbsolutelyGospel, also offer weekly charts, but no weekly chart has overtaken Singing News’ in terms of recognition.)

But keep asking that same question to others, and quite a few other fans will give you a contradictory response. Back in the good old days, when a song hit #1, it would often stay #1 for 3-6 months. Landmark songs would stay #1 for 9 months or more. So you would see fewer songs in the top 20, but you would hear them for long enough that you would certainly remember them by the time the next #1 came along. These fans would tell you that if truly landmark songs stayed #1 for longer, radio would be all the better for it.

So who is right?

Particularly insightful responses from each side will be considered for tomorrow’s “Letters to the Editor” column.


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Doing the Little Things

Yesterday, I bought the new Gaither Vocal Band hymns CD at Wal-Mart. As I was checking out, the cashier, to my surprise, commented that she remembered when Larnelle Harris was with the group, and particularly enjoyed that lineup.

Then she told a story. Back in the mid-’90s, she was a security guard at a local mall. The mall didn’t like trucks parking in its lots overnight. So when she saw one, she was supposed to ask them to park somewhere else.


One night, she looked out into the parking lot and saw a bus. She went out to see it and saw a little sticker that said that the bus belonged to the Cathedral Quartet. She knocked on the door anyhow, and asked the bus driver if he could go to a nearby hotel instead. He said that he had already been there, and they didn’t have any vacancies.

The cashier told me, “I thought God would be mad with me if I didn’t let The Cathedrals get a good night’s sleep.” So she told the bus driver that she wouldn’t turn them in.

The point of this story isn’t whether or not the security guard made the right decision, and the point isn’t whether or not God would have been upset with a guard who asked them to park the bus somewhere else. The point is in what happened the next morning: The Cathedrals tracked down the security guard, thanked her for letting them get a good night’s sleep, and gave her complimentary tickets to their concert that night. 

Thanks to that little gesture, twenty years later, she is still telling people—even strangers—how gracious the Cathedrals were.

Why do the little things? Why go out of your way to be gracious to people who probably won’t do anything to advance your career? And why does it matter what a cashier at Wal-Mart thinks of you, fifteen years after your retirement?

That’s your legacy. 

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What is news?

What is news?

While this site also features commentary, interviews, and an occasional review, well over half of the 3,505 stories we have posted are news. So it’s rather important to understand what is and isn’t news.

A couple of elements make something “news.” News is recent, relevant to the genre, and, usually, unexpected. 

This element of the unexpected is the most misunderstood element of newsworthiness. There’s a classic saying in newspaper circles: “Dog bites man isn’t news. Man bites dog is.” Applying this to our genre:

  • If the Booth Brothers going out for their usual weekend of concerts, and their members are Michael Booth, Ronnie Booth, and Jim Brady, it’s not news. It’s expected. But if one of the members were different, it would be news.
  • If David Phelps gets approximately thirty-two standing ovations at the next Gaither Vocal Band concert, it’s not news. It’s expected. If he’s ill and cannot sing that night, it would be news.
  • If Tribute Quartet’s bus makes it through the weekend safely, it’s not news. It’s expected. If it burns to the ground, that would be news.

Yet the other day, it struck me that the single most newsworthy thing that ever happens in this genre is something that might strike us as the most expected and least newsworthy.

You see, Southern Gospel is an evangelistic genre of music. Every weekend, several hundred national groups and several thousand local groups are performing concerts and presenting the Gospel. Every weekend, hundreds or thousands of people are coming to saving faith in Christ. From the vantage point of eternity, it’s not that big of a deal if Adam Crabb or David Ragan goes from sharing the Gospel in one group to sharing the Gospel in another group. But sinners coming to saving faith in Jesus Christ is a very big deal.

That, after all, is the most unexpected thing that ever happens in this world. Because Adam and Eve sinned, and because we are their descendants, we are born sinners. That’s normal. The unusual is when God steps into eternity as one of us, lives a sinless life, atones for our sins, and makes a peace with God that we could never make on our own.

The normal is that we are a fast track to Hell. That’s how every human story begins.. The unusual is when God steps into our story and re-writes the ending.

That’s why the good news is the most important news of all.

One closing thought: Stories of temporal significance have their place. Let’s just keep them in perspective.

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Have any Southern Gospel projects been certified Gold Records or Platinum Records?

Over the weekend, a reader asked for a column examining whether any Southern Gospel projects had ever been certified Gold or Platinum.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) instituted the Gold Record award in 1958. At the time, it was awarded to an album with $1,000,000 in retail sales. That came out to about 250,000 units. In 1976, they changed the criteria, instituting the Platinum Record award for 1,000,000 units, and awarding the Gold Record for 500,000 units.

Through the years, no Southern Gospel CDs or LPs have been certified gold or platinum. “Wait a minute,” you might ask. “The Chuck Wagon Gang’s website says that they have sold forty million units, and the Blackwood Brothers’ Wikipedia page says they have sold fifty million units. Surely, with a total like that, at least one record sold 250,000 or 500,000 units?”

In all likelihood, the Blackwood Brothers and the Chuck Wagon Gang each did have one or more records that sold 250,000 or 500,ooo units. And I have no particular reason to believe that the claim of the Sego Brothers & Naomi to have sold more than 1,000,000 units of “Sorry, I Never Knew You” is exaggerated, either.

But here’s the catch: The RIAA only tracks retail sales. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, a strong percentage of Southern Gospel records were sold at concerts. No matter how many total units were actually sold, groups like the Blackwood Brothers, Chuck Wagon Gang, Statesmen, Bill Gaither Trio, Cathedrals, and Gold City never sold enough units in stores to achieve Gold or Platinum certification.

However, there is an interesting side note. The RIAA’s certification for a Gold Video or Platinum Video only requires 10% of the number for a CD. A gold video only needs to sell 50,000 units, and a platinum video 100,000. Twenty-four Gaither videos have been certified gold, while six—Special Homecoming Moments, Church in the Wildwood, Going Home, Israel Homecoming, Jerusalem Homecoming, and Hymns—have been certified platinum. The Cathedrals had three certified video releases: The Best of The Cathedrals (gold), 50 Faithful Years (platinum), and A Farewell Celebration (double platinum). This double platinum certification is, to the best I can determine, the highest certification the RIAA has ever given to a Southern Gospel release.

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Southern Gospel’s most successful soloists

On Monday, Daywind announced that it had signed Joseph Habedank to a solo recording contract. Ever since, I have been pondering the question of what, if anything, Southern Gospel’s most popular soloists have in common.

It’s not too hard to identify Southern Gospel’s most popular soloists over the last quarter-century or so. Ever since Singing News added a Favorite Soloist award in 1997, only three soloists have won: Kirk Talley, Mark Bishop, and Ivan Parker. If the award had been launched five years earlier—when Kirk was still with The Talleys, Ivan was still with Gold City, and Mark was still with The Bishops—it is quite probable that Squire Parsons would have picked up the first few awards, given his popularity in the 1980s and 1990s. 

There are, of course, any number of common threads here, including that these are all male singers who came to prominence singing lead or tenor for the genre’s leading vocal groups. But one common thread stands above the rest: With one exception (Ivan Parker), these singers were all songwriters writing most of their material, as acclaimed for their pen as for their voice. All three had written #1 hits; in fact, Kirk and Squire both wrote #1 hits for groups they weren’t traveling with at the time (“Wedding Music” and “I’m Not Giving Up,” respectively).

It’s not hard to see the similarities in Joseph Habedank’s career. He was a longtime lead singer for one of the genre’s most popular vocal groups, but by the time he left, he was as acclaimed for his writing as for his voice. He had written a #1 hit for his own group (“If You Knew Him”) and a #1 hit for another group (“That’s All I Need / He’s Everything I Need,” The Kingsmen).

Southern Gospel fans appreciate soloists from a variety of backgrounds and specialties. But it seems there is a special place in a Southern Gospel fan’s heart for soloists who are both one of the genre’s finest vocalists and one of the genre’s finest songwriters.

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Look at what the Couriers did. Do that.

In the mid-1950s, Duane Nicholson (tenor), Neil Enloe (lead), Don Baldwin (baritone), Dave Kyllonen (bass), and Eddie Reece (piano) started performing together as The Couriers. Within about a decade, Baldwin and Reece had left, but Nicholson, Enloe, and Kyllonen carried the group forward as a trio, with Kyllonen moving up to baritone. They retired the group twice (1980 and 2000), but eventually came back both times. There were periods where others sang in the group, including a particularly extensive stretch where Kyllonen toured with his family and Neil Enloe’s brother Phil sang baritone instead. But throughout their lives, Nicholson, Enloe, and Kyllonen kept reuniting. Earlier this year, they decided that 2013 would be their final year on the road.

Last Sunday night, they performed their final retirement concert. I had the privilege of watching most of it, and it was a special and unforgettable experience. It got me to thinking about the peaks and valleys they had throughout their career.

When they started as a Bible College quartet, a student ministry outreach team based out of Central Bible Institute in Springfield, Missouri, they undoubtedly spent a lot of their time on small and medium-sized church stages. But they did so well that there was enough demand for them to go full-time in 1958. 

In their early years as a professional group, there were definitely lean years. They shared a story Sunday evening about how, between two concerts, they only had the money to buy two hotdogs and split them three ways. But they kept going.

By the mid-1960s, doors started opening for a place on the national Southern Gospel circuit. They signed with Canaan in 1965 and did a couple of records with them. But they found their greatest success while recording with Tempo Records in the 1970s. They toured the nation, won a Dove Award, and introduced a signature song—”Statue of Liberty”—that is still a classic standard today.

But then, a voice surgery gone bad for tenor Duane Nicholson forced a premature retirement in 1980. Within just a couple of years, Nicholson’s voice had recovered enough that Nicholson and Enloe returned to the road and brought the name back. God opened doors for them to sing again, but it wasn’t necessarily the same doors opened in the 1970s. By and large, they didn’t have the radio hits, Dove Awards, and other trappings of a national Southern Gospel career that they had in the 1970s.

I believe that it’s in the final decades of their career that they built their greatest legacy. They didn’t spend these decades chasing the spotlight and pining after their glory days. Instead, they walked through the doors that did open and sung at churches large and small—blossoming and bearing fruit where God planted them. 

Over the course of a long lifetime, the spotlight comes and the spotlight goes. God places singers in different places at different times for different reasons. There’s nothing wrong with touring regionally. There’s nothing wrong with being invited to the national stage. But wherever God has placed you, do your best to be faithful.

Look at what the Couriers did. Do that.

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When the screen goes blank

I got an blessing yesterday from a most unlikely source. The musicians at church planned to sing five songs, but forgot to tell the overhead/projection team about one of them, “In Christ Alone”:

(Video: The Booth Brothers singing three of the four verses in a medley.)

I have heard it said that congregations can only remember repetitive choruses.

I have heard it said that we live in a Twitter and Facebook generation, and that we may as well get used to expressing our theology in 120 characters or less.

I have heard it said that it is too much to ask of a congregation in today’s world to remember three or four verses packed with good theology.

When “In Christ Alone” started, the screen went blank. Now my church has a couple of excellent singers, a number of decent singers, and, like any church, quite a few people who can barely carry a tune. So surely, when the screen went blank, the congregation sang the first 120 characters—the first line or two—and then went quiet?

No. At least 90% or 95% of the congregation sang every single word of all four verses.

Don’t be scared of good theology, and don’t be scared of taking three or four verses to express it. But more than that, don’t underestimate your fellow Christians. Even the ones who aren’t particularly musical might just be learning and remembering more than you thought.

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First Impressions Matter

Every radio single will be someone’s first exposure to that artist. It doesn’t matter if it’s an artist’s first single or if the artist has had thirty years of hits; it will still be someone’s first impression.

It was 2004 when I first tuned into my local Southern Gospel radio station. This is not the time or place to name names, but three particular singles in rotation then struck me as highly repetitive and lyrically unremarkable. For a while, I just assumed that all three were representative of the normal fare those artists offered. One of the three artists disbanded before they could prove me wrong, but the other two both eventually changed my mind. In fact, today, I think of one of those three artists as typically offering some of the most lyrically powerful material on Southern Gospel radio today. That was their only weak single in the last decade. But it took several years before I had fully shed the impact of that first impression.

But Southern Gospel radio in 2004 as a whole certainly left a strongly positive first impression. Hit songs around the time I started listening were the Talley Trio’s “Jesus Saves,” the Perrys’ “I Wish I Could Have Been There,” the Hoppers’ “Jerusalem,” and the Kingdom Heirs’ “I Know I’m Going There.” To this day, I still consider those four as among the strongest songs those groups ever sent to radio. I became a fan of those four groups almost immediately. Good first impressions matter, too.

Of course, the same thing applies to many other aspects of what we do. Many blog posts here are someone’s first exposure to a Southern Gospel news website. Many comments you all leave are someone’s initial impression of how friendly and welcoming our genre is. And that’s not even to mention the first impressions we leave on people near and far—from drivers in rush hour to customer service agents in India—of how Christians should speak and act.

First impressions matter.

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