The (unrecordable) sound of a Life

The George Younce Tribute project that Gaither released earlier this year rotated around in the mix of things on my iPod the other day (I had forgotten to listen to it after I initially digitized the album), and about half way through, I found myself wondering, “Why is this so unsatisfying?” Partly the answer lies in the question, why is GAITHER’S tribute to Younce so unsatisfying? This is a fully Gaitherized compilation, which means we don’t get anything that didn’t get recorded on the stage of a Gaither event, which in turn means the earliest of anything we get here is the early 90s. It’s not that Younce wasn’t at the top of his game in his final years (even when his health and voice were in decline his presence alone realigned the center of gravity when he took the stage). But the emotional climatron of Gaither’s events - the way everyone competes to be even MORE thrilled than the person next to him about how much more outrageously fantastic and gloriously glorious each performer is than the next, the thou-protesteth-too-much guffawing at things that are only mildly funny, how Gloria’s poems ALWAYS make somebody cry, Jessy Dixon’s makeup - all of this manages to (inadvertently) give two false impressions simultaneously: that Younce was just another loveable Old Friend and that anything he sang was fantastic. Never mind that’s not true. Because the material collected here is live, it receives the Gaitherized responses of Gaither’s live audiences (both performers and regular fans alike) who tend to respond with undifferentiated enthusiasm to just about everything officially sanctioned by Gaither Himself.First, Younce of course was so much more than an Old Friend. I suppose if the choice was between releasing a project full of Gaither-owned Younce and Cathedrals recordings and releasing nothing at all, this is better than nothing. But Younce’s best moments - and the thing that made him such a superstar - was not his solo ability. And this brings us to the second point: Not everything Younce sang was all that great, especially not his solo numbers. These solo songs often had a novelty or carnivalesque feel to them: here, that would be represented by the insufferable “Laughing Song,” the talk-singing of “Led out of Bondage,” the syrupy “God Loves to Talk to Little Boys” or even “This Ole House,” which (though popular) has always struck me as formulaic and an unremarkable giddy-up set piece (what IS enjoyable to hear on the “This Ole House” recording is the response of the crowd to this song, which was recorded at Gaither’s Farewell concert for the Cats and so feels a little more authentic than a typical Gaither Homecoming).

These are the kinds of songs that become essentially trademark acts for stars of a certain stature, but what made the bass singer for the Cathedrals a legend - what made him Just George to gospel music - was his way of being at once fully in command of the stage, the room, the show and yet fully a part of the Cathedrals. Younce was not a soloist, nor was he a one-man show, which makes a Tribute to George Younce alone problematic from the start. What he was, was a showman, in every deep and reverential sense of the word. As the term itself - showman - suggests, the man cannot be separated from the show, and the show in which Younce glowed so brightly was an ensemble act. Which is why I find the most effective and representative moments on the project to be songs that at best co-feature or momentarily spotlight Younce: “Sinner Saved By Grace” (Younce and Glen Payne share the verses); “Up Above my Head” (Younce and Jake Hess share verses; this is perhaps the most enjoyable tune on the project,); “Child of the King” (Younce and, it sounds like, Brock Speer share verses).

These songs come closer to capturing the ineffable way he created moments of transcendence and grace on stage with other performers - that is, the way he was Just George - often without singing at all. Sometimes it was just a little laugh, a soft word spoken where a note might more typically be sung (I describe one such moment here). At other times it was nothing more or less than standing off to the side of the stage and smiling and pointing and tapping his foot (you can see this on the Can He, Could He, Would He video during “Land of the Living”). Or calling out “oh boys that’s the way to sing that song right there … do that little trio part again … I LOVE that little trio part …” And away we went.

Ok, so maybe as Tribute projects go, this one isn’t any less successful than a different collection of George Younce songs might have been. What, after all, does a life sound like? What we have here is no more or less than we’re left with when someone is dead - memories - and memories differ from person to person. Gaither’s are, in the end, as accurate and as partially successful as anyone else’s would be. Perhaps all we can hope for - ever - from Tribute projects are these kinds of feeble approximations from a recording archive that at best send back to us faint sounds of a life that always seemed to exceed and outshine the meager scale of even the largest stage and the biggest crowds.

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