Writing about Writing About Jesus

I’ve had to put off writing about WAJ for so long that I think extensive remarks would probably be pointless. And even if they weren’t a week old and stale, they’d probably resonate with only a handful of people who were there or know about the conference personally. So I’ll be brief, and if not brief, then general.In general, the conference is deeply impressive, at least what I saw of it. I snuck into a master’s class, a co-writing session (one is described in detail here), and listened to the Songwriter’s in the Round concert. The conference has a coherent group of faculty who started teaching for WAJ back when most of them were just starting out or were not nearly as established as they have become now. With each passing year, this means WAJ’s got an increasingly knock-out faculty, an all-star cast of some of the top-tier songwriters, publishers, and producers in CCM and sg (Sue Smith, Kevin Stokes, Joel Lindsey, Marty Funderburk, Wayne Haun, Chad Cates, Johnathan Crumpton, Belinda Smith, and Twila Labar [keep an eye on her, I tell you], among them). These people get nothing for their time, financially; they give it freely. And they give generously of it, spending (as far as I can tell) pretty much every waking minute of the conference in front of or among participants.

Why does this matter to average listeners and fans? Because this is the kinda place where the future of the music is shaped and where you get the best glimpse of what tomorrow will look and sound like stylistically, lyrically. Trends in music develop so subtly that it’s nearly impossible to nail down the moment that something begins to shift, but in workshops where WAJ participants are trying out their lyrics and working with melodies, you can see, for just a moment, how careful and intense listeners have absorbed the musical past of CCM and sg, have contemplated it, and responded to it with their own music, in turn shaping the music they have been shaped by. The best of this music (the kind of thing that you ultimately hear on the radio and in your churches and in concerts) is not derivative, though it does emerge from within a tradition - even if that tradition is one of defying traditional conventions; iconoclasm is really only homage cloaked as resistance. In the best cases it’s a synthesis of both the things a writer likes about the music she loves and a move away from what she doesn’t. And this is how new styles and traditions take hold, how genres change, and how they remain lively and responsive to the needs and desires and feelings of contemporary listeners.

Which is why I, in a time in which a crisis of creativity and an economic downturn in sg have put a big question mark over the future of southern gospel, I wish sg types were more supportive and participative in WAJ. It is, in short, a solid investment in the future. There are lots of sg writers and producers at WAJ, but that’s less a sign of sg’s interest in the conference and more because these faculty also do crossover work in CCM (not least of all because CCM pays better and more reliably than sg). I heard just one participant who had written a sg song (and even then it was really more of a inspoy ballad written by a Perrys fan and less a stylistically southern song), and though I know that’s not statistically representative, it does capture the CCM slant of the whole thing. This is too bad, both for sg and for CCM. Each could benefit from hearing more of the other’s stuff. But sg could really benefit (when CCM is in crisis it just starts setting Old Testament prophecy or the various names of Christ to melody and calling it our latest PW anthem … ok, that’s not true but sometimes it sounds like it is). Labels will often support first projects that sound promising as a way of cultivating new artists for future contracts. So why aren’t sg labels doing something similar with their up-and-coming writing talent, sending, say, ten or so young writers to this thing each year? Why don’t publishers and recording companies do more than send free cds and sponsor faculty dinners and underwrite the purchase of WAJ t-shirts? I mean, why don’t they give cold, hard cash? Why don’t labels and the SN subsidize some proper and prominent advertisement for the seminar each year? It’s not a for-profit thing like a lot of other schools and seminars, so there’s no risk of anybody being accused of cronyism.

More robust support from the industry makes sense not just because WAJ is the kind of event that ensures there is a fresh supply of marketably good music for artists to perform and record and fans to buy and churches to incorporate into their services. Beyond that, the conference could probably use the help financially. I’d be surprised if the conference barely breaks even each year, considering the expenses associated with it (feeding more than a hundred people three meals a day for a long weekend; putting up a dozen or more faculty; renting facilities and that sorta thing). That it has survived this long owes less to any serious institutional support it has received from the industries it helps keep alive and more to do with the commitment of Sue Smith and her industry colleagues who come back year after year. Next time the Inspirations come out with a “new” song that rides the one chord for measure after numbingly stupid measure and talks about thanking, being thankful to, or just thanking you Lord, you’re getting a glimpse of what sg would be like without writers of the kind that WAJ helps produce.

Finally, on a practical note, the name of this conference simply has to go. It’s not inaccurate, per se, but it’s about so much more than just Writing About Jesus, which is both far too literal and mildly infantilizing - like a Vacation Bible School theme or something. The event is about the craft of songwriting, the art of writing well, the challenge of marrying evocative lyrics with appropriate melodies; it’s about hooks and diddies and inter-rhyme and good tags and strong bridges and makin’ ‘em throw babies from the balcony. Shouldn’t a songwriter as first-rate as Sue Smith (the organizer and herself a lyricist, no less) be able to come up with a better name? Guess not. So let’s see what we can come up with. Send your suggestions for a new name for the conference.

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