By way of amplification

Two quickish points by way of amplifying stuff I said last night (and thanks to readers who raised the points for/with me).1. One reader wrote to wonder how I squared my claim about the trend toward somewhat greater influences of Pentecostalism in sg with Gaither’s success, which is pretty obviously NOT about any one sectarian style of music or performance but ecumenical. My response is that I don’t think it’s viable to compare the church and county-fair circuit of the average sg group to Gaither, whose success is on a completely different order and of a completely different nature than regular sg groups. I should probably have made it clearer sooner than unless otherwise stated, my remarks about “sg” usually always have to treat Gaither as an exception. Gaither is sg only insofar as that style of music is at the core of his style and was the foundation for his rise to fame. But his success has at least as much to do with how he does business as the music he features.

2. In passing, I made some remark last night to the effect that CCM could be where the future of gospel/Christian music is. That could stand for some explanation. Specifically, I meant that over the next decade or so, CCM has a good chance to become the loose category under which much of gospel/Christian music is organized, both conceptually and economically. It’s not that the sounds of country or sg or any other subgenre will go away, mind you. Rather, like the Crabbs, the real superstar acts with national-mainstream potential are going to operate more and more through CCM networks, and/because CCM could expand generically to admit a wider and wider range of sounds. One way of illustrating what I mean. Creative Trust, the management firm that just signed with the Crabbs, is merging with the other prominent Nashville CCM artist management company, Blanton Harrell et al (think Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, and so on). At the same time, Creative Trust is, as I understand it, planning to move the Crabbs toward the country world, which would allow the family to keep at least some substantial portion of their sg base. What I think these two things, taken gather, suggest is an expansion of what started as purely CCM infrastructure to accommodate “genre-busting” (in the words of the CT/Crabb Family press release) work, to promote artists and music in genres like country and country Christian that are at the moment generically distinct and have historically tended or tried to operate with their separate business systems and parallel infrastructures. Now, think about a group like the Martins or the stylistic flexibility and multi-genre appeal of a group like LordSong or the Isaacs. It’s not a coincidence, I don’t think, that these groups represent the truly fresh sounds in sg right now and they are precisely the artists with the potential to reinvigorate sg among demographics and audiences that might otherwise tune out.

3. Southern gospel isn’t going away. But it’s contracting economically and there is little or insufficient creative energy at its core (real creativity is mostly happening on the margins with trans-generic groups like the ones I mentioned above). Those who survive in sg in the long run will be of two kinds: 1)the traditional powerhouses that relentlessly focus on polishing their more conventional sound and are able to commandeer the lions share of the best of the dwindling traditional sg dates and promotional events (think Legacy Five, Mercy’s Mark, Greater Vision, the Perrys, etc). And 2) those like the Crabbs who keep a foot in two or three or four worlds at once.

Survival, though, is a pretty meager goal, in my opinion. Southern gospel won’t ever thrive if it can’t find a way to institutionalize the creation of new, fresh sounds. That doesn’t mean scrapping the past. What it does mean is finding a way to preserve the past and remain faithful to its creative spirit without turning pastness into a sacred cow or a holy grail after which all future generations must strive to be considered worthy. Keep in mind: “classic” quartet music that is such the rave among the myopic crowd these days was popular in its day precisely because it was NOT classic. It was new, innovative, possessed of a freshness in both sound and performance style that resonated with people in their own time for reasons specific that era. Anyone who thinks apish re-creations of decades old music is the best way to honor and curate that wonderful heritage is woefully shortsighted.

The GMA has songwriting workshops for aspiring CCM writers. Songwriters themselves organize annual writers conferences that assemble the best creative talent in several industries to run intensive seminars for emerging writers and arrangers and producers. Southern gospel needs to replicate the ideas behind these kinds of innovations. Here are just two:

  • Establish an SGMA or NQC writing seminar every year focused on the creation of creatively original sg music (which is not the same thing as just plain ole new songs). Bring in writers from sg and other genres, and visibly, meaningfully reward the best new work - not the stuff that apes “What A Lovely Name” or some solefege number but music that is genuinely, technically and audibly innovative. Let the winners perform their song at some big event and/or have a high-profile artist or group perform/record it. Example of a song of the sort I’m talking about: “Wandering Heart” from LordSong’s Soul Food project, or “I will Find You Again.”
  • Retool the NQC talent contest: bring it out from the entrails of Freedom Hall at unattractive times of the day and make it a multi-stage event in the tradition of American Idol, with skilled and somewhat high profile judges who are willing to make tough public calls as a way of signaling that quality matters.

There are other ideas, some I’m sure I haven’t thought of (which is a good place to say, let me know what your ideas are for freshening up sg). If you don’t do these kinds of things, the generation of musicians and writers and other creative talent will go where the money and resources and interest in them is located. The goal, after all, ought to be for sg as a musical style and artistic expression of religious culture to develop and flourish, rather than plod along well-trod paths of the dead masters.

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