Goodbye, Joseph Smith

I hadn’t seen the SN’s announcement (the site is down as I write, otherwise I would link to it) about Joseph Smith leaving Mark Trammell Trio before someone emailed me a message with the subject line: “Joseph Smith.” And I honestly thought for just a second, Oh no, someone has come up with a song about the Mormons. You laugh, but I heard a song a while back titled “Mr. Darwin,” which in its own way quite convincingly disproved the theory of the progressive evolution of the songwriting and song-selecting species. Anyway, once I realized we were not talking about the unglamorously named Mormon of yore and were talking about the lead singer for MTT, … well, I guess I didn’t have much of a reaction, which is, when I think about it, my general feeling about MTT: ehhh. There’s just something about MTT that has always seemed … I don’t know … formulaic and Smith had a kind of slightly automatonic quality on stage that in some ways epitomized the sing-by-number formula that MTT has relied on during its first few years. I DO love to hear Mark Trammel sing; he is undoubtedly one of the “finest quartet men,” as George Younce once put it, ever. But that’s just it. What makes a fine quartet man often necessarily can be bad, bad news for a group owner.

The quartet man of the sort Younce had in mind knows his part, never drops a note, and above all, takes orders well. This isn’t a backhanded compliment. Watch Andrew Ishee’s distracting spastic stage-hog antics during a PSQ performance, or (at the other extreme) watch Reva Hoskins or Kelly Bowling phone in her lines during any average Hoskins or Crabb Family stand (I mean, these two could stay home and it wouldn’t really make much of a difference, would it?) and you’ll soon realize how invaluable and rare a good quartet man (or woman) really is. This is the role Trammel performed in the Kingsmen, Cathedrals, Greater Vision, and Gold City. But Trammel is no longer a quartet man. He’s an owner. And an owner must know how to conceptualize and shape a group’s style, to energize a group’s stage presence, to capture the imagination of audiences with a particular mix of words and sounds and dramas. And so far, MTT hasn’t really done that. At NQC, MTT’s set was clean but hardly what you’d expect from someone of Trammel’s stature. After it was over, MNP said something to the effect of, “there were a few good measures in the middle of that ballad they sang.” This was more a verdict than anything else. What MNP meant was that a few good measures doth not a sustainable group make. Partly this has to do with lackluster material (the new project is largely an exercise in rhythmically varied sameness, which could more or less describe all MTT’s stuff so far), and partly it has to do with MTT debuting with a sound much like a 15-year-old Greater Vision: dutiful and familiar but serviceably uninspired (I reserve the right to change my mind about GV after I hear the new project). Of a MTT concert-length stand, reader DJ wrote the other day to say, “last weekend I went to a Mart Trammell concert, I walked out and said “that my friends is why young people don’t like southern gospel music!” You don’t have to appeal to young people to be successful, but I think I know what DJ was getting at about MTT’s remarkable unremarkableness. Smith’s departure is pretty much a zero-sum event, unless Trammel replaces him with someone either much worse (in which case it’s a net lose) or much better (net gain). Either way, at least we can hope for something interesting from the group … finally.

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