On the demise of liner notes in gospel music

Danny Jones has a delightful post up right now about the demise of substantive liner notes in recordings these days. Some choice bits:

Those liner notes [on the backs of LPs] often brought the album to “life.” With just a few paragraphs, a successful writer could either talk the reader into taking the album home or have a made-up mind chomping at the bit to get the record on the stereo. Along with mentioning the merits of the artist, some liner notes called attention to particular songs or perhaps, a theme that coursed through the recording. Sometimes, you’d find one artist endorsing another. Regardless of what was written, it added greatly to the anticipation of hearing what was in the paper sleeve inside the cardboard jacket.

How do things compare today? Not good, according to Jones,

IF there are any liner notes, you have to find a way to get through the sealed package (people can break into banks all day, yet we can design CD packaging that can cause all of us to have to re-dedicate our lives on a regular basis - go figure), pull out the booklet, wade through a list of songs that have split-publishing to the point that it takes a whole panel to just list the publishers, as well as a list of make-up artists, hair designers, creative consultants and other people. And just when you think you’re just about to find “real” liner notes, you find a quick list of thank you’s.

The whole thing is worth reading (I love that bit about having to rededicate your life after trying to get liner notes under those little plastic tabs).

Jones is being too kind, though, about the thank-you-list as liner notes so common in gospel music today. They are exhaustingly tedious, and while doubtless they are sincere, the big blocks of tiny type full of name dropping go beyond irritating to so much nest-feathering. Yes you know Lari Goss and Gloria Gaither. So what? Yes you owe it all to Jesus Christ your Lord and Savior etc. People sort of already pick up on that … it’s gospel music, remember.

Save the love notes and butt kissing for Valentine’s Day and instead of trafficking in church-lady clichés — thank God, quote some scripture – and writing of the sort found in high school year books – shout out to my family, thank dear ole Aunt Blabby (hat tip, CVH), thank some cool people with whom I want to curry favor, end with an exclamation point! … indeed I’ve almost expected the Is to be dotted with hearts in some of the liner notes I’ve read – try articulating in vivid and evocative language the particular way in which this recording gives voice to your faith or expresses your artistic vision and the underlying ambitions of the music collected in this album. So you want to bring glory and honor to our Lord Jesus Christ. Ok, but how? What about the way this music achieves that goal makes it worth buying instead of all those other countless gospel music albums that also want to bring honor and glory etc.?

Explaning the particular vision and the unique accomplishment of an album is what the best liners notes have always done, as Jones suggests, and the fact that thoughtful, entertaining, insightful liner notes are nearly extinct in white gospel music bespeaks the creative poverty and artistic timidity afflicting much of latter day southern gospel.

I suspect more than a few artists say nothing illuminating about their music in liner notes because they either have nothing much to say or no interest in making the effort to say it (or finding someone who can), which amounts to the same thing.

Very few gospel artists these days intentionally record thematically coherent albums (Kenny Bishop’s most recent project is a notable exception). Perhaps they don’t know how, don’t care to, or it simply doesn’t occur to them. More often, though, recording an album is, creatively speaking, a race for the most efficient way of reproducing a formula that meets conventional expectations and happens to have your favorite artist’s name on it. Little wonder people have little to say beyond the politesse of boilerplate thank yous and a few pedestrian pieties.

As gospel music has become more canned, stacked, and pre-programmed, artists no doubt feel pressure to redouble their efforts to appear more “real” (since their music is less so). So in addition to saying nothing much, the ubiquity of the “keepin’ it real” liner notes full of personal references and insider gestures functions at some deeper level as an ostentatious way of compensating for the “authenticity” ever more conspicuously absent from the music itself. And to my pal, Bill Gaither! BFF!!!! …

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  1. Gospel Music on 21 Jan 2007 at 11:44 am

    Gospel Music…

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. Some of them are really interesting…


  1. CVH wrote:

    I know just what Danny is talking about in his piece. I remember a lot of the Benson product (Heart Warming, Impact)
    liner notes were written by Bob himself. He had a whimsical, breezy way of communicating truth that related to the content of the album and ministry of the artist in question without sounding contrived or falsely pious.

    In the jazz world, few wrote better liners than Teo Macero for Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis and others on Columbia. Of course he was a producer and musician himself so he knew whereof he spoke.

    In contrast, many of today’s liner notes are so narcissistic and “inside” I feel like I’m reading a colonoscopy report. And frankly, none of it is of interest to me, the consumer and listener. Do I care about the name of the hot waitress at the waffle house down the street from the studio? No. Well…probably not.

    The other annoying thing (and this is solely a function of aging) is unlike the 12″ x 12″ canvas that WAS an LP cover, the CD booklet’s 4-3/4″ x 4-3/4″ dimensions make reading the 4-pt. type they have to use to fit all the mindless fluff in pretty difficult.

  2. RF wrote:

    CVH, I sympathize with you. As the eyes get older, and the type gets smaller, I just don’t bother anymore. I just listen to the music.

    Back in the old days (I refuse to say “back in the day” because I keep asking myself “which day”?), the 12×12 cover let you know a little about the group. If we were to put one of the current CD’s in a time machine, I could imagine the people in the future wondering who these four guys were and why they were singing. I used to love to get Reprise albums with liner notes by Stan Cornyn (I think that’s how he spelled his last name). You found out a little about the artist and why certain songs were on the album. No more. Minute type and a Bible verse is the rule.

  3. Dean Adkins wrote:

    I always enjoyed the album cover art of Jack Davis - noted cartoonist for Mad magazine. He provided art for LP covers by Homer & Jethro, Ben Colder,Don Imus and many others including “The Bible Told Me So” by the Statesmen.

  4. MM wrote:

    I remember when cd’s were first introduced. they came in cardboard packaging that was at least 10″ tall. I believe that theyhad liner notes similar to those found on lp’s. However, due to the shrinking of the o-zone cause by cardboard, that type of packaging was replaced with the plastic shrink wrap of today.

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