On holy and high rolling; or, reading the tea leaves

Though I promise at some point we will stop talking about the Crabb Family, right now they are the topic dujour, so there you are and here we go again. I was reminded recently in a discussion with a friend about the dramatic evolution of the Crabb Family, an evolution that calls into question the broader future of sg. When the Crabbs first went on the road, their stage routine was significantly charismatic. Gerald Crabb did a lot of preaching during their program, and the entire family operated on stage under heavy doses of charismatic zeal (jumping up and down, waving arms, speaking in tongues, singing choruses in high holy rolling fashion, over and over, etc.). Unlike a McCray Dove jump-hopping fit, nobody would seriously question the Crabbs’ sincerity. However, I don’t think they realized - in the early days at least - that what was acceptable at a Friday night concert at a Pentecostal Holiness church probably wouldn’t fly at a Saturday night Kiwanis Annual Singing. Or perhaps they knew the difference and consciously moved away from the charismatic mode of performance once they set their sites on broader horizons. There are at least some fans and a few promoters who wrote the family off entirely in the early days because they were “too Pentecostal”, “too wild”, “too much preaching and not enough singing.” Obviously, that’s not so much the case anymore, though they do still evince visible residue from their Pentecostal roots.Anyway, all of this raised a larger issue: the place for charistmatic artists in gospel music, which in turn opens up the issue of sg borders. Clearly, there is ample room at the sg table for the holy rolling style that the early Crabbs typified. The McGruders are or were perhaps the best exemplar of this tradition, and the McKameys are probably the best example of its devolutions. The McKameys’s popularity, I would wager, arises in no small part from what I’ll call their derivative charismaticism. That is, they have a few set piece moves - most famously, of course, Peg’s almost-always reliable moment in the spirit when she kicks off her shoes and waves her Bible - that resonate deeply with charismatic fans and at worst annoy non-charismatic audiences without thoroughly alienating them. And the McKameys turn the charismatic stuff up or down depending … last year at NQC, for instance, the McKameys weekend set didn’t feature any shoelessness and only a little Pentecostal holiness outbursts, perhaps a sign of nothing more than the vicissitudes of performing one night and then another but also perhaps an indication of the somewhat careful balance the McKameys attempt to strike with their loyal Pentecostal fans and those from beyond that narrower circle. Toning down the charismatic stuff in front of big-tent audiences at NQC makes some sense. Someone like me is less likely to automatically go find the furthest concession stand from the stage when the McKamey’s take the room if I have a reason to believe they may tone it down, or reserve the outbursts to a few well-placed moments in the set. This principle of modulation is why a stereotypical Southern Baptist such as Mark Trammell can “get religion” during a concert now and then (which he sometimes does) without putting off the ecumenical audiences. Now and then is fine. Every night, as the Crabbs discovered, is simply not acceptable for artists who aim for wide(r) appeal.

Which brings up an interesting paradox of sg. Those artists who want to make a mark in the wider world of gospel music must moderate their charismatic tendencies, even as they work to establish themselves in an genre (sg) whose fan base is probably increasingly charismatic in religious persuasion. There certainly remains a significant number that are not (and an even more significant number of industry big-wigs who are not), but the trend is toward more the charismatic, I think. That’s because in large part sg is all but gone from mainline denominations as a regular fixture and has sharply declined on the Southern Baptist turf and circuit (the other part is an overall decline in church attendance but a local spike in pentecostal church attendance, which I’ll get to in a minute). And though the large suburban non-denominational churches dominating the metropolitan landscape these days are prime ground for sg expansion, as I’ve noted before, sg doesn’t seem to be taking hold in this territory.

That leaves artists aiming for target markets in Assemblies of God, Pentecostal, General Baptist, smaller (more rural) Southern Baptists, Nazarenes, and the like. The fundamentalist Baptists seem to be separated into two camps: those that wholeheartedly embrace sg and those who subscribe to the End Times Apostasy Database attitude that say sg is the spawn of satan (and that today’s SBC is a bastion of liberalism!). It will be interesting (and potentially dispiriting) to watch these demographics evolve (or not) over the next few years.

The Crabbs have their finger in the wind, more or less. Their moves outward toward bigger markets and horizontally toward more sustainable demographics adjacent to sg reflect the conventional wisdom that no one likes to talk about: namely, church-going Christianity in general is comparatively stagnant or in decline (even the partisan groups that want to spin things positively have to argue that declines are relatively less severe than they would seem). One effect of this trend is that sg artists are fighting for a smaller piece of the pie, no matter how wisely or ignorantly the genre is managed - a kind of economic darwinism also pushes groups to play up the charismatic angle to take advantage of the one sector of evangelicalism that is growing. At the same time, the genre is also reaping what it sowed during sg’s high timesin the 1970’s, the heyday of churches’ influence on and connection with sg. The result of so much church-sponsored growth in sg was an official and de facto retreat within sg away from secular media exposure and into a more “ministry-driven” cocoon that eschewed the cultivation of contacts with a world beyond mostly denominational or sectarian affiliations. The industry actively embraced culturally insular performance styles and lyrical emphases that reinforced a sense of born-again separateness from the world beyond. This strategy usually isn’t up for debate among purists and die-hards, indeed it isn’t even seen as a stratagem at all by true believers. Rather, it was and is considered the Only Way, despite the fact the music got its start in a decidedly secular stew of musical and cultural traditions.

Economically and diagnostically speaking, nobody knows whether or not the boomers will embrace sg as their parents have. That is, we don’t know if the blue-haired tinge to so many concerts is cause for real concern or not. Historically it has not been, as I have noted here, since sg fans tend to age into an affinity for loyalty to the music. But if that trend of aging into sg was itself a product of a particular cultural moment instead of a truism across generations, then watch out (translation: the base is dying off). What we DO know is that young people (about the only reliable music-buying age group these days) will continue to gobble up CCM as long as it remains fresh (not a word you hear much in sg these days).

If the Crabbs can develop the marketing agility to straddle both genres (or several, as the case probably is and will be in reality), it’s all the better. Not only will it be more lucrative for them, but it would forge a path for others to follow or adapt, as well as domesticate the taboo of sg doing bidness with the CCM and other neighboring genres without the sky falling (sidebar: I would love to see the Crabbs continue to record with Daywind or some nominally sg label while using the CCM marketing expertise of Creative Trust, if only to prove that such synergy, as the jargon goes, is possible … but that of course remains to be seen and probably is unlikely, just because CT is probably banking on product sales as part of their incentive to get in on the Crabbs deal in the first place). If the Crabbs end up essentially abandoning sg - that is, making sg fans a secondary or ancillary consideration in their marketing strategy, which is possible - then it’s probably a safe assumption to make that CCM - in some form - is where the future will be. Which is to say, as the only viable sg act with mainstream (Christian) potential beyond the confines of sg, the Crabbs are a kind of canary in the mine shaft. SG isn’t going away, I don’t think, just atrophying.

Of course, it’s always possible that as the younger Crabbs age, they can “come home” to sg in what will by then be a purely Gaitherized fashion, retreading a kind of charismatic-lite reenactment of their early style - since at that point in the future their success would indemnify them against the very stigma surrounding charismaticism that they have more or less distanced themselves from in recent years. Imagine the possibilities … the Crabbs become golden platinum superstars and then return to the fold to shed their light on the folks who didn’t write them off or disparage them or whatever (and to politely do an “I told ya so” tour for everyone else). But that this kind of return probably would be a huge deal in sg only reinforces my suspicion that sg in twenty years will be still be standing in the shadows of others’ greatness (assuming it stands at all and isn’t sitting or hunched over), consoling itself with the leftovers and afterglow of the talent sg wouldn’t or couldn’t sustain.

Depressingly, this may all suggest that sg is going the way of bluegrass. A few generations or so ago, bluegrass faced something similar to the diminished prospects and demographic road-fork that sg is now facing. The decline of rural economies, which hastened the demise of thriving folk cultures of which bluegrass was a product and expression, exerted the same influence on bluegrass that the decline of formal religious affiliations is having on sg now. The bluegrass purist poobahs demanded strict adherence to the standards of the good ole days - something that at the time was perhaps justifiable - stylistic innovation in the music may have seemed like too great a concession to the forces of cultural homogeneity (the strip mall, the cul de sac) not-so-slowly eradicating the way of life that bluegrass grew out of. But while they were purifying the bluegrass landscape, the relevant music industry passed them up, and the music declined anyway. A few talented folks remain in the genre because they love the music, a small but loyal fan base remains, and a spike in interest will take place every twenty years or so, but that’s about it (and before you write to talk about the O Brother Revival, remember that that entire phenomenon relied on an imitation bluegrass, sanitized so that it would please the ear of largely (sub)urban middle-class consumers who liked the downhome feelgoodism of Ralph Stanley imitating himself forty years ago … another way to say this: it’s hard to name one mainstream bluegrass act that’s pushing the style of bluegrass music forward other than Alison Krause). The didactic redux is this: Tying a musical genre to its sound at a particular era is a fraught form of long-term planning that encourages artistic ossification and forces the industry to resort to syndicated sentimentalization (quartet nostalgia tours and the fetishization of “classic” sounds) at the expense of original and innovative propagation of a musical style.

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