Whither loyalty?

Jeremy Lile’s move from Crystal River to BFA, coupled with the recent loss of the CR’s former baritone, Jeff Snyder, reminds me of an email I got months ago from a friend, who wrote: “I find it troubling how easy it is for some people to leave one group for another. There seems to be very little loyalty anymore.”

I can imagine the shrinking remnant of Crystal River might feel something similar right about now. If there’s any silver lining here, it’s that you can pretty confidently count yourself among the solid middle tier of gospel music when a revolving door of talent regularly blows the papers off your desk before ink has dried on the latest hire.

Just ask Ed O’Neal. The owner of the Dixie Melody Boys famously says all he ever wanted to do was sing a song, but he’s spent a lot of his career filling holes in his line-up created when one of his many many boys has taken the next best offer.

The cynical (or economically realistic) might cast a sidelong eye at all this and surmise that groups like the DMB and Crystal River essentially function as farm clubs for groups with more money to offer the stand-outs.

Is loyalty dead in southern gospel?

Empirically speaking, I’d be surprised if people are averagely less “loyal” today than they were in times past, if we define loyalty narrowly as “staying with the same group for long stints.” But of course we’d first have to define “long” (two years? Four? Five+?) and then analyze personnel records of a fairly representative sample of acts and individuals. And I just don’t have that kind of energy.

I do see in my handy Murray’s Encyclopedia of Gospel Music that in the 19 years between his start in gospel music and joining the Kingsmen, Jim Hamill sang with the Songfellows, the Weatherfords, the Blue Ridge Quartet, the Rebels, and the Oaks. That’s an average tenure of less than four years with a group. George Younce had a similar experience, singing with at least five different groups in the space of about 20 years. And/but these are just two of the most well-known figures. How representative they are is debatable.

I suspect group owners and managers would disagree, but four years doesn’t seem like that long to me in the arc of a 50- or 60-year career. But I also recognize that four years is a lifetime by the gospel artist’s professional clock these days. My judgment is also blissfully unencumbered with the stress of staffing (and keeping rehearsed) a high-turnover group for a roster of dates to which I am contractually obliged (any time an emcee says the new guy just stepped right in and sang with us like he’s been here forever, you know they’ve either had to rehearse like the dickens or default to singing a lot of old standards and greatest hits that any averagely alert singer would roughly know the parts to already). And too, personnel changes can get expensive (Danny Jones has suggested the number heads toward $10,000 for one change in some cases, which strikes me as a tad hysterical, if not impossible).

All this being said, though, it seems unfair and, from a bidness standpoint, unrealistic to expect – in this or any other era of gospel music – long tenures in the name of loyalty if the market will bear more money for a person’s skills. (Plus, personnel changes make for great gospel theater and even better blogging.)

What has changed, it seems to me, is the socioeconomic context in which personnel changes take place. Gospel music has always been a bidness, but one way to view the history of gospel music’s rise in the last half century is as a story of increasing professionalization.

What started out as a clubby, avocational undertaking for a lot of people who were attracted to life on the road not least of all, as James Goff notes, for “the camaraderie of their fellow singers,” has given way in these latter days to more unabashed careerism among artists and performers who see themselves as individual marketable commodities rather than equally yolked members of an artistic or business enterprise. Inevitably it starts out this way for most groups high on idealism and low on experience. But Palmetto State’s demise is an instructive example: most of the group members were official owners of the group and things still fell apart within a few years.

This kind of thing is, I think, both a reflection of increased economic strain that gospel music is under as an industry (you have to look out for you and yourn, as they’d say back in the hills, when times are tough) and a broader cultural trend in modern American life toward a valorization of the individual over group identity.

Of course people can and do enjoy the road today for the same reasons they did in olden times, just as artists today can bond and stay together for years at a time a la George and Glen (or Rodney and Gerald or Libbi and Tracy). But the blandishments of stardom (however small time it is for most sg stars) have pretty definitively trumped the sense of a business compact or covenanted bond that might have helped the center of groups in an earlier time hold faster, longer.

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  1. RF wrote:

    I really don’t think loyalty plays into this too much. Take my father’s amateur group. It went through numerous changes over the years. The same four would stay together, strangely enough, for about four years and then one of them would get tired and jump ship to another group or decide that all the traveling was too much. There was always someone to fill in every time.

    We, as fans, get too accustomed to the same people performing. Some of us liked Mercy’s Mark with its original makep and hated the change, but now enjoy the new group. Gold City now only has Jonathan Wilburn from the group that sang in 2001. The GVB only has Guy and Bill in the same time period. Change happens, but groups with good leadership and resources survive and prosper. That’s all that matters.

  2. fan of EHSSQ wrote:

    Loyalty doesn’t have anything to do with it. (with people going from group to group). I think money is the problem. For most of these groups (not all)… The leaders of the groups want to make all the money so they pay the people that work for them very little. That is why these groups change members as often as they change socks.. And what is so funny, compared to country and other types of music. Gospel groups really don’t make that much money.. However, they really think they are rolling in it…… Gospel music has become so off course that it is ridiculous….

  3. James Hales wrote:

    Also, in the business world, loyalty isn’t what it used to be period. People used to stay in their respective jobs 20-30 yrs…now you’re lucky people stick around for 5 yrs.

    I know I’m old school…I’ve been with the company I’ve worked at for 10 yrs, and have no plans to leave. Great place to work, great pay, excellent perks and simply put, I’m very comfortable here. But, most people in the working force don’t stick around that long. I think the formula is pretty much the same in gospel music.

    I think it truly boils down to money and what will make your life better (happier).

  4. jb wrote:

    We were blessed to have the Dixie Melody Boys in our church Sunday and I will say, WE HAD CHURCH…..A young lady from our youth group was saved. We then ate lunch with them and shared our hearts with them. The only difference in any group and the people in the audience is the 6 ft. between the stage and the floor. They all have families, wives, kids, and yes problems. They are just like you and I, but, they are in the spotlight. As far as loyalties and how many yrs. one stays with a qt., I was raised in a ministers home and every 4 yrs. we were moved. Not always by choice. I know there a lot of things that go on. Some we know about, other things we don’t. Just keep singing and following God and everthing will fall into place.

  5. KB wrote:

    I did the math yesterday for a post VERY similar to this on another forum, and here’s what I came up with….

    The Cathedrals performed their final concert in 1999, which means that we’ll start our experiment with 2000 and go up until 2007.

    Right from the start, we had two acts: Legacy Five & Ernie Haase Minus Signature Sound. From there, as many as 11 groups and 17 members have been directly or indirectly involved in group changes branching from these two acts. Without naming every single group or member involved, here is a summary of my findings….

    L5, while fairly stable with four of the same original members (two of which were relatively new to the “big time”), is on their third tenor. One tenor got bitter and quit gospel altogether, another went solo, then joined another group, and the third joined, started to leave, then changed his mind.

    Ernie was solo, then half-solo, half Old Friends tenor (which, I don’t care how you slice it, was pure novelty), then solo again, then started Signature Sound with Garry Jones (”Taco” from the peak Gold City years). Then less than a year into the group, Garry and Shane Dunlap (former owner of N’Harmony) left. Garry started his own group, which itself has already lost two members, and Shane went solo while working the occassional “Trio” date with Kirk and Anthony until Anthony’s death. Two more members were brought in to Signature Sound take their spots, both from other groups.

    Not counting groups who lost members, gained members, or traded members, this is quite a bit of turnaround.

    Oddly enough….the most stable lineup of the Cathedrals was from 1991-1999 with George, Glen, Roger, Ernie, and Scott!! Maybe it’s more a question of the group owner’s ability to KEEP talent. Maybe….just maybe George and Glen learned over the years how to keep members happy AND productive like good managers should do….

  6. NG wrote:

    If you don’t think money is the main issue in changes in SGM consider two country-pop groups who eventually made big money.

    The former SGM group the Oak Ridge Boys have the same four singers they did in 1973. Only change in 34 years was that Bill Golden left for a few years and then returned.

    The Statler Brothers had only one change in a career of about 35 years and that was because of Lew DeWitt’s health problems.

  7. KB wrote:

    You have a very good point there, NG. Even at the height of the Oaks’ gospel popularity, from 1966-1972, they had Willie Wynn, Duane Allen, and William Golden consistently, with the only change being in bass singers (Herman Harper left in 1969, Noel Fox left in 1972, and Richard Sterban has been with them since). When Joe Bonsall replaced Wynn, this became the group that everyone identifies as The Oak Ridge Boys today. And the Oaks have a large and EXTREMELY loyal fanbase, thanks in big part to this stability.

    It seems that every time you buy a new CD from a group, someone has left and someone else has been added since their last project. Groups that have a constant turnaround run the risk of fans losing interest because it’s not the same group they originally wanted to hear. I’m sure the Cathedrals had to deal with this, especially in 1990-91 when Ernie and Scott came aboard, but they wisely released a “live” (cough, cough) album in which they did a bunch of their older material with the new members to get people comfortable with them.

  8. Thom wrote:

    I know it has to be tough for a group owner/manager to keep the group together. Just being on the road with the same people 150 - 200 dates a year would be tough enough, then confine everybody to a bus - (sometimes 7 or 8 people, sometimes with the owner’s kids, and pets!) - then add in sleep deprivation, not eating right, and missing mama at home, and it’s not a likely scenario for success. It’s a wonder that any group can keep personnel for the measly few hundred a week that most of them can afford to pay.

    I can’t blame anyone for wanting to better their situation whether the motivation is for a more comfortable living, more opportunity, or simply to find a more harmonious personality mix. I would suspect that most of the time people moving around comes back to the issue of money.

    The issue of “loyalty” to one group is an interesting topic though.

    blogger “James Hales” above says -” in the business world, loyalty isn’t what it used to be period. People used to stay in their respective jobs 20-30 yrs…now you’re lucky people stick around for 5 yrs. ”

    Here’s a good question -I wonder how many group owners/managers cultivate and encourage loyalty with benefits like health insurance, retirement plans, merit raises, etc.

    It is a known fact that some group owners/managers simply don’t have the good management/motivational skills to keep their employees happy. (i am not casting any dispersions toward CR or any other group mentioned in this post)
    It takes more than money to keep someone happy. I know of a couple of people who have “jumped ship” for the proverbial greener grass, only to find out the reason the grass was greener on the other side of the fence was all the extra manure you had to walk in once you got there.

  9. Trevor Haley wrote:

    Based on what I’ve experienced in the last couple of years, this is a real problem. When someone joins a group solely to be seen by another group - I question the motives. Some of today’s up and coming performers see it that way. This attitude hurts a lot of what you call the mid-level groups that are trying to make a name for themselves. There should also be more respect between the groups of the consequences hiring someone away from another group may cause also. It’s not unreasonable that a change could cost a quartet $10,000.00, when you figure in the cost of product they have that’s going to be harder to move and the cost of publicity and pictures, which can be thousands.

    Some change is inevitable, and sometimes God opens a door of opportunity that must be taken. That may be the case with Jeremy Liles, who seems like a good guy and a good bass. He’ll be a good fit with Assurance. But others will join a group merely to use it as a stepping stone to another, better gig, and that’s not fair to the audience, the other members, or yourself. Yes, it’s a business, but our business should be done with Christian love and honesty.

  10. DM wrote:

    Some of these groups, such as DMB do not pay enough to even survive on the road.

  11. Thom wrote:

    is Jeremy Liles related to Buddy Liles?

    Trevor: you are right, all decsions should be made with Christian humility and considering how it will impact the other group. I remember hearing of one very well known group manager/bass singer/emcee - who is not on the road anymore - wanting to hire someone from another group, but first he called the manager of the other groups to say “I’m gonna try and hire your_____singer.” and once he had the other managers permissions he proceeded to do so. that was considerate.

  12. Montana man wrote:

    Speaking of money … How much are we speaking about? $400 a week is $20,800 a year … $500 a week is $26,000 annually, $600 a week is $31,200. And how many groups are paying more than that? Somebody mentioned “benefits” such as health insurance, retirement. How common are such benefits? Do non-owners get any share of CD sales? Are singers treated as independent contractors who pay their own social security? The poverty level for a family of four is somewhere around $29,000, I think (haven’t checked that recently), so you might be on the road with a gospel group and qualifying for food stamps. So much for stardom.

  13. Baritone77 wrote:

    Jeremy is not related to Bill Liles. Jeremy’s last name is Lile. I think one of the major things in the mid-tier groups is that they can’t pay even close enough to the upper tier groups for guys to consider loyalty.

    I don’t see how anyone could blame Jeremy for leaving Crystal River for Brian Free and Assurance. I mean if you have a chance to go from the Royals to Yankees and make more money, who wouldn’t?

  14. Ben Harris wrote:

    I truly understand what Ed O’Neal has been going through. Over the past year we have been treated like a farm club for other groups. It costs a ton of money to bring in anyone new, not even addressing the lost momentum, and hard work that it creates for those left in the group. If another group owner wants one of our guys, surely they would have respect enough to come to us and ask permission to talk with that person. There is right way and a wrong way to these things. I think many times when a group needs someone to fill a position, they do not even consider the damage they do to the other group. And damage can occur whether the guy being asked to jump ship actually moves or not. A sense of not knowing what tomorrow holds and who can be counted on can cause hardships. We should consider these things before we so quickly hire away another singer.

  15. quartet-man wrote:

    James hit the nail on the head about loyalty. Unfortunately, businesses are not loyal to employees either anymore. They take away benefits and often will look at someone who has been with them for a while as a liability thinking they can hire someone off the street for less money. It works both ways. I read an article a few years ago that talked about loyalty no longer being there. There was a person who said that they had been there for 2 years, loved their job, made good money etc. but all it would take was $.25 more an hour somewhere else, and they were gone.

    Back to the places of employment, so many have taken away true retirement, and other perks that would make people want to stay. Some have fired people months or less before that person would start retirement. Things like that are not right. There was a time when if an employee took care of their employer, the employer would do the same. Now it is every man for himself. I gave over half of my life to a company (that had changed hands a few times) and have little to show for it. I didn’t like change and had no idea what else to do. I should have been out of there years before I was. I blame myself for that. However, the company started as one that although it underpaid, at least had some caring and concern about employees, to being bought by ones that gave good lip service, but little else. Each change did increase the pay to some degree, but that too came with a price and later worked against longer termed employees.

  16. Ron wrote:

    Plese someone tell me is this a Rumor or is it true. I hear Bill Gaither is going to start bringing the Statler Bros and the Oak Ridge Boys to his concerts. They say that this will boost the attendence since so many of the HC Stars have died. Is this true? I find it hard to beleive? RonF

  17. Rod wrote:

    Ron…that’s old news…He’s had those guys on for several years now. He’s just going to make it more permanent.

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