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.Email this Post