The Load Out

So this is it. Avery’s last stand. I’ll try to be brief and I’ll probably fail. Perhaps you’ll indulge me in this valedictory, or not. But then again, that’s always been our deal, hasn’t it.

A little over nine years ago, I launched averyfineline.com as an experiment in online ventriloquism for me … to try on in public a voice that until then I’d only heard in my head. That’s why I’ve kept the icon to the right – a reader generated image, I might add (h/t, ArtCoach). It’s always seemed like a fitting commemoration to my foolhardy attempt to hide my light under a bushel, or a paper sack, as it were, even long after the jig of anonymity was up.

The blog debuted as I was in the throes of a doctoral dissertation about the psychology of American religious experience, and that work was, I realize now (though I saw only through a glass darkly then), disrupting and rearranging my already queerly evolving relationship to gospel music.

Five years earlier, I had begun the process of coming out and when nearly everything else from that world of evangelical Christianity fell away, turned aside, or stalked off vaingloriously, gospel music remained for me. I wondered why, but it wasn’t until I immersed myself in the prehistory of heart religion in America that I began to grasp the connections between my interest in puritan mores and gospel music. My doctoral work effectively scrambled the coordinates I had historically used to approach gospel and my customary ways of interacting with it. And averyfineline became an increasingly powerful part of that realignment process.

It began like this: I sat down one day to write an essay of sorts. It was about … something. Something related to gospel music, I’m sure, but it was also entirely forgettable because I couldn’t imagine an audience. So I decided to create my own audience. In the hot slow months of June and July, I started writing a ghost blog of sorts in a Word document that I’d send to my most trusted and insightful reader for feedback (h/t, JL), and she didn’t hate it. By mid-August, it felt right enough to launch averyfineline into the virtual seas, so I hit the “post” button and Avery (my nom-de-blog, also contributed by a reader … h/t, SL) was born.

I turned to blogging to test a hypothesis that there was an as-yet ungathered audience of other gospel people like me out there: people who wanted to have a conversation as intense as the ones going on in the Singing News forums, and at (what is now) absolutelygospelmusic.com, and other online discussion threads full of Joyful Noisers, but without running into artificial limits on those conversation as determined by the self-appointed piety police. Thus the early tagline for the site: Southern Gospel for the Rest of Us.

I’ve often wished I’d kept that description, but Avery and I were growing and becoming at a pace I could sometimes barely keep up with. And so the tag line, along with a lot of other stuff about the site, evolved to reflect the shifts in everything from the blog platform and the addition of moderated comments (it took a village of tech-savvy readers to make the transition to wordpress, I should note… not least of all, h/t, TT), to my own shifting horizon of interests and tastes.

I look back on those formative years of blogging and recall it as a time of writing furiously, nearly constantly, feverishly, with a kind of deliriously insatiable curiosity for the next discovery that would unfold in the blogging process about gospel music and its (ir)religious culture. I don’t think I was necessarily saying anything new, but for me, and I guess, for many of you, there was something valuable about saying these things in this way about questions and issues I had either taken for granted or assumed were unanswerable before I blundered into the colloquial style of inquiry that is blogging.

Of course this memory is at best embellished. I wrote a dissertation, did a post-doctoral lecturing stint, secured a permanent academic appointment, and later professorial promotion, and a host of other professional milestones, all during this time that my memory tells me I was blogging day and night. But then, memory takes on the warp and woof of the impressions that serious, sustained inquiry makes on our sensibilities.

So that’s how it started: as a larkish, bloggerly diversion from the dissertation, a way to keep my instincts as a writer and thinker grounded in safer, more open-nerved territory than academic work allowed for me. With time, the blog’s themes ultimately merged with the work I was getting paid to do at the university. Gospel music became my primary academic interest and research agenda in its own right, and resulted in part, of course, in The Book (have you bought your copy yet ;).

A funny thing happened on the way to the bookstore: in finding my own voice as a scholar of gospel music culture, I experienced less and less urgency to drive the conversations here online. Some of my happiest memories of the blog come from this era when something previously unheard of in gospel music emerged and flourished: a free flowing, public conversation about gospel, expressed with prismatic and regularly confounding variety. And it all happened with little more effort from me than moderating comments as they streamed in (my Wordpress Dashboard tells me I’ve approved close to 35,000 comments thus far). I always said this kind of conversation is what I wanted, and I was being truthful. But thinking about it was nothing compared to seeing it happen on my laptop screen, my smartphone, the iPad glowing in the small dark hours of insomniac blog-comments moderation.

As readers and fellow travelers in this experience, you all have continuously astonished me, for better and worse, but ultimately for good. There are both individual voices and a prevailing gestalt that make up the averyfineline hivemind, and trying (and often failing) to tune my ear to your frequency has forced me to rethink what I thought I knew about how and why a lived and living religion matters in the daily lives of ordinary people bound by a powerful sensitivity to – and divided by equally powerful but often divergent beliefs about the value of – the close harmonies of the soul’s best song.

I calculated once that I had written over 3 million words here, and that was several years ago (and the blog archives remain incomplete from my super stupid early days of trying to handroll this thing on Dreamweaver; if anyone needs a cybercommunity service project, migrating the rest of the Dreamweaver pages to wordpress has your name all over it!). So let’s just agree that my output here may be among the number no man can number.

One result: for some time now, I’ve found myself regularly having a gospel thought and thinking, that’s a good idea, I should blog about that, only to discover I already had. For a while, during this time, I dragged as many of you as would follow along with me in a kind of meta-academic reflection on the themes and issues that were arising as I researched and wrote the first book and now, have begun the second. But I think we’ve all known that’s not sustainable.

And so, to everything a season. I’d prefer nice round numbers like 10, but nine years and change is an era or two in the internet’s fleeting, forgetful, irresolute sense of time. And in any case, I’ve decided to call it a good set, a long stand, and load out.

This is not an awards speech (though I’m grateful for the recognition that writing about my experience as blogademic has garnered), so a sincere but all-encompassing expression of gratitude will have to suffice: Through the blog, I’ve:

-met many friends (KC, MG, SF, BS, and so on), some who have become as dear-hearted family to me (Edie and Ruth, that’s you), some I’ve never met (SV!);
-made enemies (especially of tenor singers and performers’ mothers, if my annual experience of being cornered, heckled, stink-eyed, and lapel-poked at NQC is any indication);
-discovered colleagues and kindred spirits;
-benefited from informants deep inside the death star mothership of the southern gospel industry (don’t worry, ya’ll, I’ll take your identities to the cybergrave with me), and;
-received more email than a single human can decently manage (from the heavy hearted and soul stirring, to the side splitting and hair singeing).

In short, I’ve learned beyond all manifold measure, about you and me, but mainly about the power of good music (and gawd, there seems to be so much less and less of that these days in professional southern gospel) to exceed the orthodox or official meanings that so many sanctified sangers and their fans, clapping on the one and three, so often insist upon.

Going forward into the foreseeable future, the site as you encounter it now will remain up and open to comments, or until I get tired of dealing with the spam (though I’m sure I’ll get an annual earful from the accounting interns who gripe about the fiduciary sinkhole it has been to run a site whose owner stubbornly, proudly refuses to charge readers or accept advertising). We’ve created a fairly wide and deep repository of cultural experience, history, and memory here, with (at least to my mind) immense artifactual value … plus the long tail of the interwebs mean people will, as they always have, continue to discover old posts and continue the conversation, however fitfully. So Averyworld won’t remain purely encased in amber.

The standard Avery email address will remain active as well for those wishing to communicate with me, and, if you desire, you may keep up with my most recent work here, a page that will be updated periodically to reflect new publications and other professional endeavors. These will ultimately include the new book I’m working on now that’s built around your voices as expressed in a survey so many hundreds of you responded to a few years back (more profuse gratitude).

And with that, farewell, dear readers. Let’s one another meet some glad morning by the bright riverside, on one shore or another.