Someone Else’s Signature

Yesterday evening, I caught a concert by The Old Paths. One highlight of the evening was lead singer Tim Rackley’s version of “I Bowed On My Knees and Cried Holy.” The song, of course, is a signature song for current Gaither Vocal Band lead singer Michael English. English’s vocal gymnastics on the song could not be farther from the solidly straight-ahead lead vocals Rackley typically offers. Rackley wisely did not attempt to match English’s gymnastics, but he added enough runs to his more straightforward rendition to convey an appropriate level of passion.

This got me wondering. What are some of the other signature songs for one singer that have become exceptionally strong showstoppers in the hands of another singer?

(Note: Keep the discussion positive and constructive; no comments, please, about perceived weaknesses of the original renditions of signature songs!)

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The Statesmen and The Blackwood Brothers

Yesterday, reader Bryan Round left a fascinating comment with extensive first-hand observations on life as a Canadian Southern Gospel fan in the 1960s and 1970s. His comparison of Blackwood Brothers and Statesmen sets contained some surprising observations:

The Blackwoods, I seem to recall, were ‘Southern Gospel’ with a few ‘hymn-type’ songs thrown in. . . . The Statesmen, I felt, were also Southern Gospel but rather than appeal to the sausage-fingered, hand-clappers, they catered to the more sophisticated, slicked-back, finger-snappers. . . . Where the Blackwood’s singing was powerful, the Statesmen’s was refined.

But this mixture of groups worked well. Travelling and appearing in pairs meant the Blackwood/Statesmen combo sang to twice as many people than if they performed alone; those of the audience who would curl their lip at J.D.’s swaggering low notes might sit smiling, their heads tilted slightly, as the Statesmen sang. On the other hand, the Statesmen’s intricate harmonies would be totally wasted on the foot-stompin’, hand-clappin’ set. But there would always be a spillover.

As the Statesmen did their finely-tuned material, some of the foot-stompers would start to look at each other, their raised eyebrows saying “not bad”. Similarly, some of those ‘artsy’ uptown folks would be momentarily shocked then amused to find not only their own hands but those of their friends clapping along with a classic Blackwood’s number.

This perspective intrigues me, as all the descriptions I have heard to date comparing the two sets were that the Statesmen were the exciting, energetic showmen who whipped live audiences into a frenzy. Meanwhile, the Blackwood Brothers certainly could do energetic convention songs, but their RCA Victor recordings of the early-to-mid-’60s contain quite a few numbers that suggest sacred music or high church influences. In other words, Bryan’s perspective is diametrically opposed from most previous descriptions I have heard.

Perhaps there is a way to balance or harmonize the perspectives, or perhaps some fans could look at the same experience and draw completely opposite conclusions. Would any of our readers who experienced those days care to shed a little light on the question? (Second-hand observations from those who have discussed this question with older fans are also welcome!)

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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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Logos, Pathos, and Ethos

Several months ago, I was listening to a seminary course on how to preach. The professor was illustrating his point that the actual words said are only a fraction of what is necessary in a successful sermon; he used three Greek words to illustrate his point, partly because seminary professors are fond of using Greek words, and partly because they rhymed while their English alternatives don’t. As I was listening, it struck me that the three Greek words he used—logos, pathos, and ethos—are every bit as central to effectively delivering Southern Gospel’s sermons in song.

Logos is Greek for “word.” The words of the songs we sing are crucial to an effective message, but their effectiveness is highly influenced by the other two factors.

Pathos is Greek for “emotion.” In certain genres of music, like classical music and those portions of sacred music that are essentially classical in their vocal technique, pathos is not particularly important. Vocalists in those genres focus almost exclusively on technical precision. Not so in Southern Gospel; whether it’s vocal inflection, ornamentation, or some other technique, Southern Gospel’s most successful vocalists almost always add something that adds an emotional element to the delivery and strays from a technically precise rendition of the song.

Ethos is Greek for “character” or “credibility.” The seminary professor noted that ethos is what distinguishes decent preachers from the great ones—the ones that are just putting on a show, whether a local preacher or a televangelist whom you know is surrounded by constant scandal from the humble servants God uses to transform your life.

Logos and pathos are not exclusive to Southern Gospel. In almost every genre, logos matters; many other genres of music, especially those that have risen in the last 125 years or so, also incorporate a level of pathos. But Southern Gospel’s emphasis on ethos is somewhat unique. Witness the reactions of dismay when the public learns that a Southern Gospel singer has been living a life offstage inconsistent with their message onstage; you will find an occasional fan who protests, though typically in less philosophical terms, that logos and pathos are all that matter. But most Southern Gospel fans disagree, though they also typically state their responses in less philosophical terms.

This works both ways. In turn, Southern Gospel’s most trusted, believed, and beloved singers demonstrate logos, pathos, and ethos. When Mike and Kelly Bowling or Libbi Perry Stuffle sing of God’s faithfulness through the fire, you’re moved to tears because you know they have lived the words they sing. When George Younce and Glen Payne sang of being tired, but that hard trials will soon be over, they brought something that no teenager could bring to the song. Roger Bennett could not have sung “Home Free” or “Whispers in the Night” at age 20 and gotten the same response in his listeners that he did after a decade of fighting cancer. The generation of singers who went through the Great Depression brought something to “Mansion Over the Hilltop” that most teens born in the 1980s could only imitate, never replicate. And the list could go on.

Southern Gospel is at its best when logos, pathos, and ethos come together for a performance that has the Gospel message and is delivered with passion by someone the audience knows has lived a life consistent with what they sing.

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If You Knew Him

When Joseph Habedank left the Perrys, one question on the mind of Perrys fans was this: Will Bryan Walker or the new lead singer (who turned out to be David Ragan) be the one to sing the song that is equally Habedank’s personal signature song and the Perrys’ signature song as a group, “If You Knew Him”?

It turns out both Walker and Ragan have sung it live, and both have nailed their respective performances. Here’s Walker:

And here’s Ragan:

Both bring something different to the song; Walker offers vocal runs and inflections that sound so much like Habedank’s version that a casual listener who had only heard the song on radio might not even realize a different singer was singing the song. Ragan, on the other hand, gives the song a distinctly different interpretation of his own.

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BMI honors most-played Southern Gospel songs

Several days ago, BMI held a ceremony to honor the most-played Christian songs in their catalog this year. Though BMI is one of three performing rights organizations (ASCAP and SESAC are the other two), it represents somewhere in the neighborhood of 2/3 of Southern Gospel top ten radio singles. (So it’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison to line this up next to a Singing News end-of-year summary.) Nevertheless, five Southern Gospel songs were among the twenty-five honored:

  • I Thirst (Ernie Haase & Signature Sound), written by Beverly Lowry (Homeward Bound Music)
  • I’m Going Home With Jesus (credited here to The Worship Crew, interestingly), written by Carroll McGruder (Best of Zion Music)
  • Love Came Calling (Triumphant Quartet), written by Wayne Haun and Joel Lindsey (Hefton Hill Music, PsalmSinger Music, Universal Music-Brentwood Benson Songs)
  • Saved By Grace (Triumphant Quartet), written by Carroll McGruder (Rex Nelon Music Company)
  • Sometimes I Cry (Jason Crabb), written by Gerald Crabb (Christian Taylor Music, Gerald Crabb’s Songs)

Interestingly, Carroll McGruder, with two songs on the list, picked up the BMI Christian Songwriter of the Year award—for decades-old covers. Add a Cathedrals cover (“I Thirst”) to the list, and only two of the five Southern Gospel honorees are new songs.

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Has the Rick Hendrix Company disappeared?

The Rick Hendrix Company had a successful and sometimes controversial run in Southern Gospel radio promotion; see, for example, our stories here, here, and here. But, along the way, they promoted countless chart-topping hits, with multiple #1s. Last night, I noticed that they haven’t had a song appearing in the Singing News Top 80 charts since January 2012.

Granted, it has been a year and a half, so it’s hardly a news item. But I haven’t noticed anyone else mention it, and a chapter this colorful in Southern Gospel history ought not pass into the history books completely unmentioned.

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From the Mail Bag: Easy-Listening Southern Gospel

A reader writes in to ask:

Do you have any cd recommendations that are relatively easy listening? Acoustic, bluegrass, instrumental, soft-core SG, etc. For a nursing home. 

I mentioned the Isaacs’ almost acapella project and the Collingsworth Family’s upcoming hymns project—which, based on the live performances I heard last weekend of three of their arrangements looks to have at least a fair number of easy-listening moments—but quickly came up empty. So I thought I would pass the question along to you.

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Rich Theology in Southern Gospel songs

Why did I start the Songs from the Books of the Bible series?

Several years ago, I was listening to a message where a very well-known preacher, for whom I have the highest respect, said that Southern Gospel songs were theologically shallow, all about streets of Gold and not about God.

While I knew that Southern Gospel’s songs dealt with a broader range of topics, I also knew that many songs would not come to my own mind. In November 2011, I started looking at one book of the Bible each week, asking for your input on suggesting songs drawn from these passages. This series can serve as a resource for addressing criticisms of this nature.

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This genre’s roots lie in the American South during and before the Great Depression. The worse things get around us, the more vivid and real Heaven becomes, and the more meaningful the promises of Heaven are to us. So, yes, Southern Gospel has always had a fair number of Heaven songs. But equating Heaven songs with weak theology is a false dichotomy. Just because a song is about Heaven doesn’t mean it has weak theology! We could name examples of Heaven songs with deep theology all day; I’ll just mention two comparatively recent songs recorded by Southern Gospel artists, “A Pile of Crowns” and “A Higher Throne.” Granted, Southern Gospel has always had a fair number of Heaven songs. Provided the focus is where it needs to be—on Heaven’s King—that’s hardly a bad thing.

Perhaps the preacher’s only exposure to our genre was the Southern Gospel of the 1950s and 1960s. It would be a fair self-critique of our genre’s history to admit that our genre’s songwriters’ attempts to employ the popular idioms and catch-phrases of those decades did produce a fair number of shallow “man-in-the-sky” songs. (If some of them seem absurdly dated now, let that stand as a warning to any of today’s Christian songwriters who are trying a little too hard to be cool!) Of course, numerous richly theological classics also came from those decades and endure to this day.

I believe a major shift in Southern Gospel songwriting occurred after the rise of contemporary praise and worship music in the 1970s and 1980s. While I will try to avoid committing the same error that prompted this post, painting other genres with inaccurate overgeneralizations, it would be fair to say that there have been some repetitive praise choruses and some double entendré CCM songs that could be taken either about human love or God’s love. I believe that Southern Gospel artists and songwriters reacted to these trends by steadily moving in the direction of deeper and more solid theology.

From a standpoint of theology in lyrics, I believe that Southern Gospel is now the strongest it has ever been. There are still theologically shallow songs; I collect hymnals, and have several hundred from over the last several hundred years, and regrettably, every generation of Christian music has had its weak songs. But a rising number of writers and artists care deeply about rich theology in their lyrics. 

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I would make the case that the crux of our genre lies in understanding life today, with its blessings and its trials, through two lenses—looking back to Calvary to understand life today in light of the Cross, and looking forward to understand today’s trials in the light of Heaven.

As with every other genre of Christian music, Southern Gospel has its weaknesses. It has its songs with bad theology and its hypocrites. Yet, today more than ever, it has songs with rich theology. In fact, I grew up on CCM and Praise & Worship; it Southern Gospel’s richly theological songs that drew me into becoming a fan of the genre nine years ago.

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