Classic groups re-doing current projects

In a recent discussion (password-protected link) on the “We Love Our Southern Gospel Music History” Facebook group, a member asked: “What if a newer group were to ‘re-cut’ a legendary LIVE recording? What record would you suggest, and what group would you like to see do it?”

Not surprisingly, quite the discussion ensued, with many predictable suggestions (Perrys or Diplomats covering Happy Goodmans, Kingdom Heirs covering classic Kingsmen) and a few unique ones (Triumphant Quartet covering Naomi and the Segos!)

I think, however, that it would be even more interesting to turn this question backwards. What if time travel were possible, and a classic Southern Gospel group were to re-cut one of the strongest recordings of the past decade? What record would you suggest, and what group would you like to see do it?

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Turning a Southern Gospel story into a movie

Suppose a Hollywood producer decided to film a movie about something related to Southern Gospel. (Or, perhaps better yet, suppose it was a non-Hollywood producer with similar quality standards but Christian values!) Whether it is the story of an individual, a group, or something else entirely, what Southern Gospel stories would make great movies?

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How should songs be picked?

Whether for a full-time group, a part-time group, or a church music program, many of us will be in charge of picking songs at one point or another. How should we go about it?

Of course, songs have to meet a few basic criteria to be acceptable. Lyrically, it must avoid heresy. Musically, the vocal range required and the complexity of the melody and harmonies need to be something within the capabilities of the vocalists.

Picking acceptable songs is easy enough. Picking good songs is a little harder, but well within the reach of most people with a basic level of musical talent. The lyrics ought to offer unique insight, and the melody ought to be unique enough to be easily memorable.

Picking great songs, though, is a far less common skill. But perhaps one simple technique could make it far easier for those of us who, well, aren’t quite Brian Free or Steve French.

The greatest songs are great for a broad cornucopia of reasons, but they all share one essential characteristic: Staying power. Whatever it might be that makes the song great, that song will resonate in the minds and hearts of listeners of all talent levels for the rest of their lives. These are the songs people request on fifth Sunday hymn sing night or at the product table for years and years. 

Since the greatest songs are great for any number of lyrical and musical reasons, it could be said that staying power is the only universal characteristic they all share. Therein lies the key to finding great songs.

Don’t procrastinate when you’re picking songs. Don’t wait until three weeks before your studio date to start listening to songs. Start six months early. Listen to songs a three or four of times, and then set them aside for a month—or two. Which do you remember without any reference to the lyric sheet or demo?

The same applies to church music. Many churches only introduce 1-4 new songs each year, and even ambitious (or radio-chart-driven) churches rarely introduce more than 5-10 songs. That’s not many songs. With that few slots, it’s perhaps even more important to take the time to pick the greatest songs.

This especially applies if you are also a songwriter. Viewing your own songs objectively gets easier with time; six months may be good for others’ songs, but a year or more helps greatly to provide perspective for your own.

The reasons a song stays with you will be diverse. But whatever the reason, the great songs will be the ones that you simply can’t forget—and don’t want to forget.

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Farewell, Averyfineline

Yesterday, Doug Harrison announced that he was retiring the Averyfineline blog after a nine-year run. This doesn’t come entirely as a surprise, as his postings had become infrequent over the last year or two; this was his first post in over two months.

SouthernGospelBlog.com received more inspiration from his than most readers of either site realize. On a number of occasions, I saw something Doug was doing and decided to try the opposite, just to see what would happen. One specific example would be active participation in the comment area, something that played a huge role in defining this site’s culture.

Anyone who has read both sites over our seven-plus-year overlap might think that Doug and I did not see eye to eye on anything. Yet for all our areas of disagreement, we both want to see this genre of music be presented with integrity and artistic excellence. So I cannot let the occasion pass without a tip of the hat, as one would in respect for a valiant opponent at the conclusion of a vigorous debate.

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Should groups always record the strongest songs?

When a top-tier professional group is preparing to make their next recording, should they always record the ten strongest songs they can find?

The answer might seem obvious, until we start throwing in some other considerations.

Should they be careful to get a mixture of topics? What if most or all of the actual strongest songs they can find are about Heaven?

Should they be careful to get a mixture of songs suited for the different voice types in the group? What if most or all of the actual strongest songs are suited for lead and baritone solos?

Should they be careful to get a mixture of time signatures? What if most or all of the actual strongest songs are 4/4 time, and there aren’t any 3/4 or 6/8?

Should they be careful to get a mixture of tempos? What if most or all of the actual strongest songs are slow (or fast)?

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Are novelty songs useful?

The other day, novelty songs came up as a side discussion in the comments. Is there a place for novelty songs? I proposed the following answer:

At best, it could serve a role analogous to a preacher telling a joke before a sermon. It might get an audience to chuckle a bit and warm up a bit and pay attention when you’re delivering the serious content (through song or sermon). But novelty songs by themselves surely aren’t enough to make the sacrifices of road life worth it!

Two questions: First, is this a decent description of the purpose of a novelty song? Second, if so, what novelty songs have you seen to be effective and actually succeed at loosening up an audience?

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The roar of B-17 engines, and the importance of teaching children hymns

Happy Veteran’s Day!

The other day, as I was outside exercising, I heard a sound that instantly took me back to my childhood.

My apartment lies near the approach path for landing at one of the Asheville Airport runways, so I hear certain engine sounds all the time: The shrill whine of a commercial airline jet engine, the confident rhythm of a corporate plane turboprop, or the quieter sound of a personal Cessna out for a look at the fall colors.

Last weekend, though, the sound I heard was the throaty roar of four radial engines. I instantly knew, even without looking up, that a B-17 was flying by. Of course, though, I did look up, and paused what I was doing as a silent salute to a plane that had played such a crucial role in saving freedom as we knew it. There may have even been a tear or two.

Neither of my grandfathers was old enough to serve in World War II; both were in the service in the Korean War era. One was at Inchon; the other had an injury in training that left him mostly deaf and ended his military career prematurely.

But through my childhood, I found and became friends of World War II veterans frequently, at church and elsewhere. A remarkable number of them had flown in the B-17, so I took a particular interest in World War II aviation history in general and B-17 history in particular. In fact, as a child, I had even toured the very plane that stopped by the Asheville airport.

It seems that something that moves us as a child has the power, later in life, to stir some of the deepest emotions known to the human soul. I’m not enough of a scientist to go out and find reams of studies to back this up, but perhaps I don’t need them. Just watch people, and you don’t need science to prove the power of nostalgia.

This, perhaps, is part of the case for the importance of introducing children to hymns. Yes, of course, also introduce children to new songs that have a similarly solid theology. Perhaps the day will come when we will call some of these songs hymns, too. Every generation of Christian music has good songs, but hymns have been tested and proven in a uniquely pertinent way. The songs that resonate most deeply in the souls of believers are the ones we’ll keep requesting time and again. If a song has that staying power for several decades—for several generations—then we start to call it a hymn.

We can’t know at the outset, of course, whether a particular child raised in a Christian home will come to know the Lord at an early age, and remain a lifelong Christian. That is something we can certainly influence but cannot control. But there is one area where parents and other family members and close friends can have a decisive impact. What sort of songs is that child surrounded with? When that child is 35, or 45, or 55, or 65, what songs will stir the deep emotions that only come with something that has been familiar since childhood?

The hymns—the songs that have been tested and proven to have that staying power, for generations upon generations—should at least be some of those songs.

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Songs about Sanctification

When Jesus called His disciples, he called them to come and follow—to believe and then to take up a cross.

His call today is the same. The Gospel we preach in our sermons and songs includes the glorious moment when we receive God’s gift of salvation. But the Gospel message doesn’t stop there: “… whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified” (Romans 8:30, KJV). The Gospel message includes our sanctification (becoming more like Jesus) and our glorification (being raised with Him).

When we speak of “Gospel songs”—songs that contain the Gospel—we certainly speak of songs that contain the “good news” (the literal meaning of “Gospel”) of the offer of salvation. But the good news we proclaim doesn’t stop with the moment we are rescued from Hell fire. It goes on to say that God permits us to become more like Jesus, to die to our old sin nature. And this good news certainly continues through the resurrection, through eternity spent with Jesus and with the redeemed through all the ages.

This is the Gospel our preachers preach. It should also be the Gospel our songs proclaim.

Certainly, songs that rejoice in the themes of salvation and resurrection are magnificent. Songs about sanctification are a little harder to pull off. But Southern Gospel has certainly seen a few through the years, and needs to see more. What are some of the best Southern Gospel songs that discuss the process of becoming more like Jesus?

Here’s one of the best from recent years, Brian Free & Assurance’s “Die Another Day”:

For readers on email and RSS, a direct link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jHrSY1Gaag

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Random Biblical Group Names: The Contest

Last week, I asked:

It appears that, in other genres, picking rather random group names is currently considered to be cool, and has been for quite some time. What if Southern Gospel groups were to use the idea, but use Random Biblical names? (In all seriousness, this will probably never happen, and it might not be a good thing if it did. But mentioning ideas for random Biblical group names could make for a fun discussion.)

Quite the discussion ensued. So many incredible suggestions, both serious and funny, were offered that it makes sense to highlight some of the best (or funniest) by spotlighting ten of the best and asking you all to pick a favorite.

  • Dry Feet in Jordan
  • Five Smooth Stones
  • Floating Axeheads
  • Golden Calf Milkshakes
  • Heights of Nebo
  • Malchus Ears
  • Outrunning Peter
  • Pilate Error
  • Red Sea Splitters
  • Rent in Twain

Vote by posting a comment naming up to two names. Whichever name gets the most votes will win; I will email the person who submitted the favorite entry and offer them a CD from my current stack of duplicate CDs as a prize. Voting will be open for 24 hours, through 7:30 AM Eastern Time tomorrow morning; any votes submitted after the deadline will not count.

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Random (but Biblical) group names

It appears that, in other genres, picking rather random group names is currently considered to be cool, and has been for quite some time. What if Southern Gospel groups were to use the idea, but use Random Biblical names? 

In all seriousness, this will probably never happen, and it might not be a good thing if it did. But mentioning ideas for random Biblical group names could make for a fun discussion.

I’ll get it started with two:

  • The Sword of the Lord and of Gideon (Judges 7:18)
  • A Bell and a Pomegranate (Exodus 39:26) 

Any others come to mind?

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