Working hard, historically

David Bruce Murray revisits the ongoing discussion about work load and labor trends in southern gospel and their relation to the success (or not) of sg. Most notably, he provides the kind of historical comparison I was pining away for the first time he wrote about this. You can see today’s Kingsmen’s schedule lined up against the KM in 1976.

Focused primarily on comparing the number of dates the group sang now and then, DBM concludes that “when Southern Gospel was supposedly riding high [in the 1970s], before ‘CCM’ had ever taken hold, the Kingsmen Quartet were already working themselves ragged.”

DBM seems to be suggesting the “decline” of southern gospel is an historically unsupported misreading of the data, that in fact white gospel music has always struggled, or at least had to work above averagely hard even in its heyday. There is doubtless some truth to this. Gospel music has long preferred nostalgia and dubious oral histories to factual reality.

But this claim almost entirely ignores the most striking feature of the Kingsmen comparison: percentage of “big dates” worked. In 1976, almost 30% of the KM’s dates were big ones. Today it’s less than 3%. Even allowing for the subjectivity of what constitutes a big date, that’s a staggering decline.

When you work 10 or 15 dates a month and a third of those are large, packed houses, the break-neck schedule mainly betokens demand. Working 10 to 15 dates a month in front of mostly small-potatoes crowds suggests that’s what you have to do to stay afloat, that these are the only people who will listen to and support you.

What these statistics can’t fathom, though, is the cultural component so heavily influencing gospel music. Gospel radio stinks for the same reason gospel music is glutted with hackilious “talent” and groups have to work a dozen dates a month just to make their modest payroll and immodest fuel bill: gospel music fans – and a preponderance of artists and industry professional – are perfectly content dealing in mediocre music as long as its robed in pious sentiment.

Things need not have turned out this way. There is – both obviously today and historically – a sustainable appetite for good gospel music. The Blackwoods, Statesmen, Stamps and the rest of that high-flying crowd created music as popular on a 1950s scale as the Homecoming brand headlined by the Gaither Vocal Band is today.

What interests me about these success stories is that both mid-century white quartet music and the Homecoming series emerged from within a religious context but placed more emphasis on superior musical artistry (sophisticated, disciplined arrangements and accompaniment sung with precision and stylistic integrity by people of superior talent, both natural and formally cultivated), excellence in stagecraft, and consistent attention to the ephemerals of the complete music experience (lighting, seating/venue, promotions, etc). In short, both are examples of professional entertainment by contemporary secular standards. This music isn’t purely nor, I’d argue, even primarily, religious. Rather it’s good music that happens to have a Christian inflection.

When people talk vaguely but wistfully about the “quality” of those mid-century quartets or Gaither’s “genius,” what they really mean is that this music can, did, and does hold its own with the best secular entertainment of its time.

Sadly (and, I think, stupidly) most of southern gospel as an industry seems, over the past quarter century or so, to have not only surrendered the audience for, but also eagerly portrayed gospel music as an alternative to, mainstream Christian entertainment.

DBM’s charts render statistically the reality of this stupendously bad decision: southern gospel today is mainly a scramble among groups to “out minister” each other for the attention and meager resources of an ever-dwindling subset of Christian music fans – denominationally affiliated, mostly rural or non-urban conservative evangelicals – who prize fundamentalist religious enthusiasm over all else.

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  1. Dean Adkins wrote:

    “But this claim almost entirely ignores the most striking feature of the Kingsmen comparison: percentage of “big dates” worked. In 1976, almost 30% of the KM’s dates were big ones. Today it’s less than 3%. Even allowing for the subjectivity of what constitutes a big date, that’s a staggering decline.”

    I think much of the difference can be traced to the decline of events under the auspices of promoters who would book multi-group concerts in auditoriums. When the bottom fell out of this market (reasons a subject for some other time), most groups filled the void with concerts in churches for a love (or lack thereof) offering in lieu of a flat.

    I randomly chose April 1976 as an example.
    J.G. Whitfield promoted the following concerts with this information: “J.G. Whitfield Presents the best in Gospel Concerts Featuring Hinsons, Dixie Echoes and Florida Boys.
    1 Phoenix AZ
    2 Fresno CA
    3 Salinas CA
    4 Turlock CA
    8 Springfield Or
    9 Seattle WA
    10 Portland OR
    11 Vancouver B.C.
    12 Lewiston ID
    13 Boise ID
    14 Denver CO
    15 Ada OK
    16 Meridian MS
    17 Birmingham AL
    22 New Orleans LA
    23 Tuscaloosa AL
    24 Tupelo MS
    30 Opp AL

    Other Promotions:
    Jim Hefner Albertville, AL - Marshall County Colesium – Goodmans, Southmen Torchmen

    Jacobs Brothers York Fairgrounds (seat 3000) – Blue Ridge Qt, Willie Wynn & Tennesseans, Klaudt Indian Family, Jacobs Brothers (ad also indicated that the Jacobs Brothers sponsored 3 day Memorial Day Weekend concert)

    Roy Brookshire Jackson MS City Auditorium – Oak Rideg Boys & Cathedral

    Wally Fowler’s God & Country Spectacular – Beaumont TX City Auditorium -Jerry Clower, Goodmans, JD Sumner and Stamps, Singing Christians
    also same program next night in Amarillo TX

    W.B Nowlin’s Battle of Songs
    Ft Worth Will Rogers Auditorium – Bob Wills & Inspirationals, Wendy Bagwell & Sunliters, Galileans, Johnny Cook
    Little Rock AK Robinson Auditorium – Cathedrals, Wendy Bagwell & Sunliters, Mid-South Boys, Majestic Sound

    Also the Inspirations were doing “An Evening With the Inspirations” which was scheduled in many auditoriums (I counted 14).

    Six of the Speers dates were concerts with Doug Oldham in large auditoriums.

  2. Doug Sword wrote:

    I think yours and Dean’s comment go to the heart of the problem with Southern Gospel today.

    In the 1950’s and 60’s, most of the major groups performed on programs promoted by one of a number of powerful promoters, most of whom never promoted their events as anything except entertainment. Nobody referred to a concert as a “service”. Musically illiterate, poor quality performances by groups in that setting would have meant their quick and permanent exit from the concert circuit.

    The Statemen, Blackwoods, and Speers recorded for RCA, one of the two major secular labels of the day. James Blackwood was even an RCA regional distributor. For a current group to have a similar deal, they would have to record for Sony, a situation that would scandalize many of today’s fans.

    While I do not go as far as Roy Pauley, there has clearly been a diminishment of the talent level. There are a number of fine groups today who perform well and have financially viable organizations. They are however outnumbered by groups of marginal talent that cover and excuse their shortcomings under the mantle of “ministry”. Any three or four people who can cobble together a few thousand dollars can have a “latest” project. Even the major players on the gospel scene have to invest their own money in their recordings. Does any think the Statesmen or Blackwoods invested any front money in their RCA recordings.

    I am not optimistic about gospel music ever returning to the heights of the 50’s and 60’s in terms of general popularity. We could, however, do better in terms of use of current technology. Another step forward would be to accept groups who think outside the box with respect to performance, staging, appearance, etc. If we would worry more about who can sing and play and less about who was most annointed, we might make some progress.

    The Lord can use the music as He sees fit. He doesn’t need us as performers or fans to worry if someone is sufficiently holy or set apart.

  3. RK wrote:

    You again hit the nail on the head. Clearly, there is no gatekeeper within SG that can meaningfully seperate the wheat from the chaff. The fans won’t do it. Radio won’t do it. Singing News hasn’t done it. And NQC and the record labels have been largely powerless to do it (though AGM–whether it succeeds or flops–is a step in that direction).

    Though there is plenty of blame to go around, I will complement many of the promoters who have tried. Too often, however, they are undercut by cheapskate fans (unwilling to pay a decent ticket price), the Gaither phenomenon, and groups themselves.

    As an example, I remember attending a concert in a 5,000 seat arena in southern Missouri one Saturday night in the early 90’s that featured J.D. Sumner and the Stamps, the Kingsmen, and (I believe) the Easters. It was a very solid lineup for that era and tickets were a decent bargain at $12-$15.

    Driving in, I was very surprised to see a large Pentacostal church with a sign that said the McGruders were performing the same night there with free admission (a love offering, I assume). The multi-group concert only drew about 400 fans that night–a big letdown for all involved–but driving out I noticed that the Pentacostal church’s parking lot was overflowing with cars lining the nearby streets. Needless to say, there haven’t been many major concerts in that locale since.

    I say that not to necessarily point blame at the church, the M’s, or anybody else; who knows who booked whom first or if local religious politics, etc., were in play. The bottom line is that there was no gatekeeper in place–be it a local SG radio station, a booking agent, or even vocal and concerned fans–to help avoid such a calamity.

    What we have is a race to the bottom. Free admission and/or cheap flats in the churchhouse win out, forcing more and more groups to fan out to faraway locales where they can “minister” within a church. The fans’ standard for quality diminishes, which in parts drives radio and record sales to the lower standard. Indeed, a race to the bottom.

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