Nicked off

The comments thread piling up behind Nick Bruno’s latest column is instructive, indeed much more so than his article, which uses a pretty obviously staged letter from one “Mrs. Smith” to hector sg traditionalists (about which I’ll have more to say later) in the name of progress. Because I find this whole “debate” to be well nigh worthless, the rearguarders and vanguardists are equally obnoxious to me. These cat fights smack of holier-than-thouism … who can position themselves as the person or group that really “gets it” about sg. And it’s interesting that both groups glom onto the NAME “southern gospel”: the traditionalists raising the specter of a name change the way some political demagogues suggest that “Under God” might be taken out of the pledge, while the progressives like Bruno sound the death knell of the name “southern gospel” as an indication that the label can’t adequately comprehend what it attempts to describe. But while these opposing forces have decamped to their prickly patch of preachiness, sg as a musical form continues to thrive and find expression in a variety of forms and sounds.

If you’re tempted to think the evolution of sg music vindicates the self-proclaimed progressives like Bruno, don’t. For one thing, Bruno is an establishment guy if ever there was on, thoroughly plugged into the business, promotion, power network of sg and as much a part of the status quo that enables the stagnation he complains about as anyone could be (and of course Bruno’s notions of what “thinking outside the box” means are, like his fellow columnist Dale Duhl’s, often very intimately related to the kinds of products and services he sells). Secondly, no one can be vindicated in a fake fight: this whole shouting match is, as I’ve described it before, “a matter of taste being dressed up like a monumental discussion of Big Ideas.” Nobody who’s been singing inspo gets up in the morning and says, “you know what, I think I’ll sing traditional sg from now on to the exclusion of everything else” (and good luck figuring out that “traditional” means) or “I think I’ll let go of the past and start thinking outside the box today.” Or “I’m going to sing country gospel and not classic quartet music in an effort to really take sg to the next level.” People may and do prefer one of these inflections or flavors of sg, often strongly (and the way they do business and manage their affairs will inevitably flow directly from the same set of preferences and values that inform their choice of music). But their decision, if it can even rightly be called that, is a product of a whole host of factors: age, sometimes gender, where and how a person is raised, religious affiliation, and perhaps the presence or absence of formal musical training, among many other things I’m probably forgetting. With adulthood comes a solidification of tastes and predilections for many things, including musical likes and dislikes. And those tastes are connected to an underlying vision of the world. But it’s a long way away from preferring something and explaining that preference (nothing wrong with that, of course) to the presumption that your preference somehow more legitimately trumps all other comers and in fact represents the vision that will save sg from itself, as both traditionalists and progressives claim theirs will.

Why sg doesn’t expand beyond its fairly circumscribed borders has to do with a range of issues that are far more complicated and insoluble than this facile rhetoric of “repackaging” sg (Bruno) or thinking “outside the box” (Susan Unthank) suggests. Traditionalists like Roy Pauley and John Rulapaugh are as persuasive to me as a sack of hair (more to say about this later, too). But it’s preposterous to caricature their positions as purely thick-headed self-interest lustily thwarting the well-being, development and expansion of sg, as arguments like Bruno’s implicitly do. Pauley and Rulapaugh really believe the stuff they say, as far as I can tell, and they really do think their way of seeing things and doing business is what sg needs in order to thrive and succeed. There are worst things to be than passionate about sg, even if you’re wrong sometimes. I’d be more worried if theirs were the only ideas and influences shaping sg (just as I’d be worried if the Nick Brunos and Dale Duhls of the world were given the keys to the store, what with their laser-lights-and-fog-machine approach to updating sg), but that’s just not the case. There’s no want of perspectives in sg. It’s the discipline that’s lacking, the fortitude and maturity to stop playing rhetorical paint ball and start focusing on the real infrastructural issues that cut across silly partisan lines and are actually at the heart of sg’s future - radio programming and promotion, charting, A&R, new media, talent scouting and development and on and on. That sg continues to flourish (insofar as alot of people still want to sing sg) in spite of these systemic and chronic problems ought to suggest just how distractingly futile “Mrs. Smith’s” questions really are, how badly they miss the point, and how urgently the subject needs to be changed to things that matter if there’s going to be an industry capable of properly handling and sustaining the interest in sg.

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