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.Email this Post