Shuffle board

The question of the day, of course: what to make of this NQC reorganization unveiled yesterday? Like every other bystander, I have no way to know for sure what’s in the minds of the principles involved in all this. So barring a breakthrough in telepathy or an outbreak of NQC loquaciousness, we’re left to piece together what we can from the facts available. There are a coupla layers to this thing as I see it, so I’ll try to move through them somewhat deliberately.At the most basic level, replacing Jim Cumbee and Russ Farrar with Scott Fowler and Gerald Wolfe consolidates the board’s conservative tendencies and on the face of it gives us no reason to think this isn’t an endorsement of the status quo of the past decade or so, a rejection of the big-tent possibilities represented by someone like Cumbee, who works a lot in CCM. The NQC’s official divesture of any corporate stake in the Great Western convention back in the mid-90s seems to me a good place to locate the moment when the board really started visibly pursuing a more protectionist, traditionalist, conservative agenda (conservative both ideologically - as in conservative minded - and artistically - as in conserving the music of a fixed era or tradition), and these latest moves in some ways culminate what has been a roughly decade-long swerve rightward. Farrar and Cumbee brought professional expertise and perspectives from beyond the narrow world of sg. Whether they were pushed out or went happily on their own (and the press release seems to make a point of at least implying there was some coercion involved, though maybe that’s just the inadvertence of bad writing), Cumbee’s and Farrar’s departure, to my mind, comes at the expense of the board’s ability to look regularly and clearly beyond its own borders, without the pressure of one-sided self-interest that comes from having a board full of people with significant financial stakes in the day-to-day sg industry.

As to the rationale for replacing Farrar and Cumbee with sg insiders rather than men (and alas, of course, it is once again all men) whose domain of influence is mostly beyond sg, the press release puts it this way: “In a very real sense, the NQC was built on the record tables of the six groups whose managers used to sit on the NQC Board.” Admittedly, there is some wisdom to having traveling sg performers on the board, people who are more at the center of what’s going on out on the sg circuit these days. Of the incumbent performers on the board, Les Beasley and Ben Speer are far removed from the relevant center of the music today, and Claude Hopper is fast on his way to that stage (which is to say, off the stage). And Steve French’s Kingdom Heirs are, of course, a theme-park group that has never reached elite, megagroup status. But if a view from the road was all that the board wanted, it could have accomplished this with one carefully made choice and brought (or tried to bring) in another quasi-outsider on par with Cumbee or Farrar to maintain some perspectival balance (I realize of course that “outsider” and “insider” are specious words to describe people all so closely related to the business and businessmen of sg, but for the sake of clarity, I use these terms with qualification to indicate how some of the people involved here are more solely connected to sg and others less so). So, refreshing as it for NQC to telegraph its ideological assumptions so plainly, the fact of the matter remains that the board made a very conscious choice to veer to the right. For those of us interested in a more outward-looking vision and collaborative agenda from the NQC, this enthusiastic parochialism is at best an ambivalent move whose true wisdom waits to be proven.

As to Wolfe and Fowler, the replacements, they emerge from the Cathedrals galaxy, both with groups of their own now in the height of their heydays. Bringing Wolfe and Fowler over to the NQC has to be viewed as coup for the NQC camp in its quiet feud with Gaither (though it’s entirely possible this is a feud Gaither never really bothered to show up for). Gaither has long enjoyed a cozy relationship with the Cats and many, though not all, of their offshoots (most notably in the “not all” category, Ernie Haase, who is of course in GaitherWorld up to his ears now, and has been an NQC lost cause at least since the time he resigned his position on the NQC advisory board - boot camp for NQC directorial wanna-bees - and gave up his weekend mainstage appearance to travel with the Homecoming roadshow … not that the board probably cares that much). With male megagroups of the 80s and 90s fading away (Cats gone, Kingsmen in sharp decline, Gold City facing an uncertain future with shaky talent), bringing L5 and GV owners into the boardroom assures NQC of top-tier classy, traditional testosterone for the foreseeable future. Certainly, both Wolfe and Fowler are buttoned-down Baptists, conservative in style and unlikely to rock the boat for anything too contemporary or even terribly progressive: hair combed appropriately (where not bald), proper Sunday-go-to-meetin’ suits and a sound that is pleasing because almost always familiar, and where unfamiliar, it domesticates variety to the conventions of sg (think of something like the Cats’ “Mexico,” a horrendous tune, to my ear, but the musical equivalent of a quaint party trick suitable for mixed company and children).

While the board now does comprise a person from a mixed group (Hopper), one from an alternative group formation (Wolfe), another from an older established quartet (Les Beasley) and another from a younger established quartet (Fowler, and arguably those less obviously French), I still don’t think is a harbinger of progressivism, as one poster suggested over at sogo. This is variety, but of the most unvarious, homogenous kind one could imagine. The board has become more vocal and conspicuous in recent years about its isolationist tendencies (think the Gaither Vocal Band fiasco), and it’s my guess bringing Wolfe and Fowler on board and making Clarke Beasley a director amounts to solemnizing the desire among the most powerful faction of the board (Beasley senior and Claude Hopper) to establish what amounts to an enduring covenant with the next generation of conservative sg powerhouses.

The changes are also significant insofar as they officialize the board’s latent but ever increasing tendency toward micromanagement: “Another important reorganization is taking place as the NQC Board transforms itself from an oversight board to a management board.” I confess this is perhaps the most bizarre part of the reorganization to me. If I recall correctly, the NQC executive office has something like six or seven full-time employees, including a full-time executive director (Clarke Beasley), to put on one six-day event a year. We’re not talking about a sprawling behemoth of an organization that needs copious oversight (you realize, don’t you, that there will now be more people overseeing the operation than there are people on staff at NQC?). How much oversight can this itty bitty gaggle of staffers of really need? Well, I don’t know, but I bet an earnest desire to have more control in shaping the direction of the NQC and industry can sure feel like the need for the board to “transform itself.” And at any rate, the practical reality here is that NQC is not just symbolically traditionalist now. It is officially the incorporated manifestation of old school purists.

[Sidebar: why doesn’t the NQC board just farm out the management of NQC the event the way Gaither outsources the running of the Homecoming shows to ClearChannel? The board could still micromanage every aspect of the weeklong show until it was drunk on jots and tittles, but it could disconnect itself from the high-maintenance overhead of half a dozen fulltime staffers. In this outsourced model, the board’s only function would be to sit around for two days a year and argue over who gets their 10 minutes of fame by being on the NQC stage. And of course to count the money at the end.]

This move to micromanagement will have the effect of sharpening the lines and rigidifying the factions in sg that have been emerging since Gaither’s rise to prominence. With the NQC reorganization, Gaither now exists as the left pole of gospel music, the shining star of innovation and stylistic collaboration. NQC exists as the right pole, the staid institutional authority carefully curating a traditionalist legacy that more or less strictly enforces a somewhat opportunistically defined but consistently conservative vision of sg to reverentially tend in the future. In French, Fowler and Wolfe, the board now has a sustainable coalition of powerbrokers among the Next Generation. It is impossible not to interpret these choices as clear signals. Think, for instance, of the difference between these guys and the likes of Haase, Garry Jones, one of the younger Rileys or even someone like Mark Trammell.

What fascinates me about this emerging polarity is that for all the maneuvering and positioning and making princes of a chosen few in the next generation - all of this done presumably with the intent of concretizing the NQC’s notion of itself as THE driving force in sg - the really exciting stuff musically, creatively, stylistically (the stuff that will keep the music alive and thriving creatively) is probably going to happen between Gaither and NQC, or perhaps in some kind of orbit around Gaither or in tangents glancing off him and his entourage. Point is, this largely unmarked territory between these two poles exists as a kind of industrial terra incognita, where the absence of clear business influences or ideological entrenchments creates a musically fertile space in which young, savvy artists (of course The Martins or The Crabbs or LordSong comes to mind) can explore the limits of various sounds and styles and modes of performing. In this rich space between, stylistic interests and legacies overlap, combine and recombine in ways that generate the freshest sounds and most invigorating music. It’s not that nothing new or energetic will come from the likes of L5 or GV or other traditional top-tier groups. It’s jus that the GVs and L5s will not be the cutting, or bleeding, edge of the best new work in sg (for proof of this, see GV’s latest project). In the end, then, the most significant effect this NQC reorganization may have is on the people it will officially exclude, the sounds it will refuse to endorse, the artists it will give only tepid or reluctant or begrudging support to.

“Although still in charge of the NQC staff, office and show office, Clarke [Beasley] will be leaving his full time staff position [as NQC executive vice president] to pursue another opportunity with the state of Kentucky for the development of Convention and Trade Show business…” Which brings us, finally, to the $64,000 question: What on earth is going on with Clarke Beasley? Beasley maneuvers the contract extension for the NQC to stay in Kentucky, throwing over a competitive offer from Nashville, and then turns around and goes to work for one of the two outfits that was courting the NQC. The only thing more jawdropping would have been if he had gone to work for the TENNESSEE tourism and convention bureau, and in NQCland, I wouldn’t necessarily rule that out either. More to the point, though, how will “board oversight” work if Beasley Junior is now serving two masters: running the day-to-day operations of NQC - operations, mind you, which Beasley now also oversees as a board director under the new NQC organizational model (talk about your cognitive dissonance) - at the same time that he’s working full-time for the state agency that brokers deals with big events like the NQC?

First, the easy answers: for anyone wondering how one person can work two seemingly demanding full-time jobs, it’s pretty clear that one of these two jobs may be fulltime in name and pay, but can’t possibly be in the traditional sense in which one would think of constant, forty-hour work weeks. I’m only speculating here, but it seems hard to believe there’s a regular forty-hour work-week involved in running NQC, especially with five or six staffers to fob tasks off on. That, or the “other opportunities” with the state of Kentucky involve consulting or contract or by-the-job gigs that don’t require a full-week’s worth of eight-hour days. Otherwise, it would probably be fair to ask if Clarke has a twin (my luck it will turn out he does have a twin), or possesses superpowers or is secretly hoarding a cloning machine or something.

That question aside, here are some others: Does Beasley get to keep the presumably lucrative position with the state if NQC steers its flagship event out of Kentucky and into Nashville? I don’t know the answer to that, but in the meantime, just asking it seems to sort of shed some new light on the whole murky, mystery-shrouded convention vote, doesn’t it? Not that the NQC probably carried enough weight with the state to foster a quid pro quo or anything like that. Beasley Junior has run a successful, high-dollar event on a scale that has proven he is capable of playing ball well enough to be ready for government work. But I think it’s safe to assume that Beasley made friendships in the negotiation process that: A) helped land him the state job; and, B) would’ve probably soured had NQC migrated south. The real stick in the craw, though, is whether or not there will be a conflict of interest for Beasley Junior when the NQC relocation issue crops up again in a few years? Sometimes, the best we can say is that ways of God, the government, and the NQC board are beyond the comprehension of mere humans.

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