Wherein I meander through some thoughts on my generation in gospel music

Around the time I wrote that post on loyalty a bit ago, I started getting emails (and thinking) about the state of the junior generation of gospel talent (that is, my generation, I suppose). This isn’t a “state of creative crisis in sg” post. There are plenty of examples of professionals in their 20s and 30s doing good work, working hard, and putting out good music. But as a journalist friend of mine once said, tonight we’re not writing about all the planes that landed on time.

Inarguably, gospel music is a different bidness now than it was 15-20 years (which I gather is still the rough measure of a generation). The declining influence of and demand for white gospel music in Christian entertainment and the precipitous rise in what might best be described as full-time amateurs have created an unstable market full of middlin-to-fair-to-downright-crummy music. The rise of Gaitherization has simultaneously broadened the commonly accepted definition of what gospel music is and (because of the enormous success of the Homecoming phenomenon) homogenized singing and showmanship – a truly big finish is synonymous with a choir of old friends and everybody wants to sing like David Phelps or Michael English or Guy Penrod.

And finally, the anxiety and instability created by the erosive effects of the first two forces have fueled a pietistic backlash: it’s reassuring to explain the decline of gospel music as a collective backsliding rather than admit it’s at least partially about a collective failure to innovate, think creatively, and acknowledge that times change. If this is a spiritual (not an artistic) problem, then you fix it not by making better music but by being holier lest the forces of darkness continue to ruin southern gospel. This turn toward ostentatious ministry-mindedness has a twofold effect: for the self-deluded and joyful noisers, it converts the ever shrinking market share and diminished influence of gospel music into a badge of spiritual honor (nobody may know who we are or buy our music, but we love the Lord and won’t compromise for the world). And it makes showy demonstrations of religious conviction at least as important as artistic ability and musical talent. It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!

Enter the young professional, the aspiring artist, the talented idealist. Drawn to the music by a generation of masters (and their way of singing and doing bidness) that held sway in the 80s and 90s (and who have been slowly, sadly disappearing over the last decade or so), these young artists face a monumental paradox: of living up to a standard of artistry and showmanship that today’s gospel music infrastructure is far less able or willing to support.

The Martins, Anthony Facello, Chris West, Loren Harris, Kenny Bishop. There are many others. Their circumstances are all as individual as they themselves are and ultimately we ourselves are alone responsible for our careers and the choices we make. But they all strike me as good examples of people whose fitful and sporadic relationship with southern gospel bespeaks something of the instability roiling white gospel music. Perhaps they would have drifted away from or flirted intermittently with professional performance in another time as well, but a thread of disaffection might also be said to connect their careers. To illustrate what I’m getting here, let me quote from an email I got a while back from a young professional (not any of the above named) around the time of my Loyalty post:

There is no loyalty in SG. No other genre is like this. From church house to auditorium all I’ve heard for [years since I started singing professionally with a group] is “just stay together,” “Dont go contemporary,” “your the future of SG.” But it seems that the older groups try to run you out and destroy you as soon as you get your head above water. It’s like in the wild where a male will kill it’s young to ensure it’s survival. I love this music. When I started I had such a passion for singing and getting to know my sg heroes in the process. Now, except for a select few, I have to watch my legs at all times because I understand that anybody could cut them off.

To what extent does a more senior generation of artists have an obligation to the younger? Not much, I think. Bidness is bidness. And the social Darwinist in me thinks that maybe if there was a little more competitive aggression out there, better music would issue from the struggle. But the reality is, the best artists are not always the strongest (Judy Garland anyone?), and the people who survive the starving artists’ struggle are in many cases simply those willing to live on less and settle for diminished expectations (make your own list here). Or those who don’t need the money that rarely comes (ditto).

Certainly the prunings and consolidations that yielded the clunkily christened TK & McCraes suggest a sort of desperate hopefulness born of no more options than to throw a hail Mary – what if we downsized and merged! – or put the stuff up for sale on ebay, shutter the dreams nurtured since God knows when, craigslist the van, and see if Grace Community Faith Chapel needs a music minister, or the Gap a shirt-folder. Similarly, one senses in the Martins on-again-off-again schedule, in Anthony Facello’s real-estate-turned-solo-ministry, in Chris West’s and Loren Harris’s starburst careers, in Kenny Bishop’s singing-political-operative hybridity – in all of these cases (and others) one senses more than a certain persisting, unresolved ambivalence (in the psychological sense of holding both positive and negative feelings toward something that pulls you in opposite directions at once). Stay or go. Road or home. Sing or silence. I just can’t decide.

I’m grateful that in most cases they can’t and keep at it, however fitfully, though to be honest, I am also sometimes a bit ambivalent myself about the implications of my desires, my demands as a fan and a consumer.

And yet … To hear Katy Peach sing a melody or Anthony Facello gently cradle a lyric or Joyce Martin fill the air with flawless intervals is to hear, for me, the voice of God (Kenny Bishop, more of a minor prophet). I have no idea if this is a calling for these people (and anyone else for that matter) or not. I think I understand why people need to believe their favorite singers are suffused with holiness, full of sanctification, and brimming with the gifts of the spirit. But it’s foolish to assume we know why people do what they do. That they do it, and do it well (if they can do it well), this ought amply to take the measure of their conviction, the sufficiency of their faith, since it is no small feat to open oneself up, vulnerable and needy, before a crowd of strangers and sing of the soul’s lament, the heart’s salvation, of grace and redemption and make it real - make it felt - in and for we who so often little understand what these things are, or mean.

If it’s harder today to meet the mark of authentic artistry in gospel music, more likely that you’ll be cut off at the knees or felled by your own top-heavy expectations, I believe (well, I want to anyway) that the result will be a better brand of beauty. Sounder for the struggle. Heartier for being brutalized.

PS But hang on to those early Mercy’s Mark albums, and your Martins collection, just in case I’m wrong.

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Comments

  1. Kyle wrote:

    Why has innovation become synonymous with rebellion?? If you think about it, any group who dared to go against the grain saw their fair share of criticism. And unless these people are truly willing to stick it out and ignore the backlash, it’s an implosion waiting to happen.

    The only explaination I can possibly come up with is jealousy. A new group comes along who is better both musically, artistically, creatively, and commercially, and blows an established group (by established, I mean a stable lineup of at least 5 years) out of the water.

    The established group has good music, predicable arrangements, makes decent money, and does the “flat-footed” singing. Nothing spectacular, but they have a loyal blue-haired fanbase who will clear out the product table after the show - er, MINISTRY is over. They’re not the best there is, but they’re the best that SG had to offer…until now…

    This new bunch of kids has seemingly come out of nowhere and ran said established group over. Several things can happen:

    1. The established group can see what’s making this new group so popular and try to learn from it

    2. The established group can use this as a chance to really boost their own career by competing directly with the new group

    3. The established group can take the easy way out and say, “Well, why should WE change? We’re doing what God called us to do, THEY’RE the ones who are in it for themselves.”

    Who are we kidding here?? Times change, music changes, audiences change, and the market changes. Those who sit and refuse to budge might as well just hand over their paycheck now.

  2. thom wrote:

    interesting comments avery. you’re right, no one knows exactly why many of these artists that you have mentioned have chosen to “leave the group” or “go solo” unless it is simply to make a living. I suspect that is the reason in most cases. If fans will not come out and support the concerts and buy the products how are the artists going to make it financially.

    Gaither deserves his props for the resurgence of interest in this genre of music that was experienced back in the 90’s when the “homecoming video” series launched. What it has morphed into now is a convenient way for fans to get their SG fix “on demand” by popping in a Gaither video in the comfort of their underwear and easy chair. Why bother to go out to a concert when you can just watch the ole tape for the umpteenth time.

    If not for the younger artists trying to enter the field, we are a generation or 2 away from simply fading into history. I think it’s great that we have the younger guys and girls wanting to be part of this great music. Groups may come and go, some singers may enter the field for a few years then “come off the road”, but each one leaves his mark and adds their unique flavor to the music.

    We had the joy of hosting the Florida Boys last night. They are some of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. Very personable and professional. Their harmony was spot-on, their sound mix was great, and they even had some unique arrangements on a couple of their songs. These guys have been at it for over 50 years. I am sure they have had their rough times and lean times like everyone else, but one thing is sure - they have stayed true to the genre. They have not been swayed by every musical fad or stylistic whim that has come down the pike and they have a loyal fan base.

    THe point - when you find something that works for you stay with it and do it with all your might. In my mind there is room for all sorts of “stlyes” within our industry. If you like the old style and can pull it off with class - do it. If you like a newer look and more modern sound and can pull it off with class and professionalism - do it. But either way, do it well with sincerity.

    The public will either embrace and support you by coming out to see you and buy your latest CD, or they’ll stay home and scratch in the recliner while watching the gaither tape. Let’s be real - the audience votes with their pocketbook.

  3. Rhonda Berry wrote:

    Kyle is right in his assessments of what happens when a new group comes on the scene and suddenly the established group isn’t the favorite anymore. It happens at all levels of this business. I am not sure that I agree,however, that the established group has to change their way of doing things in order to keep up.
    Thom is right when he says that when you find something that works for you, stick with it. Why? Because that is what you do well. I have enjoyed the Florida Boys myself in the past and have also enjoyed Ernie Haase’s group as well. It would be crazy for the Florida Boys to try to change to what Ernie’s group does because that is just not them, but there is nothing wrong with what either one does.
    That being said, it is a good thing for all the groups to be willing to try something new as well. They may find that they grow and their audience does as well. The key is to be willing to look at and try new innovations whether it is sound or whatever, but stick to your core.
    Of the groups that I have seen that have made change work well for them I list the Booth Brothers at the top of the list. Why? Because they are willing to try some new things, but they are also firmly grounded in who they are and where they want to go. They have tried new things without completely changing who they are and it has increased their following significantly. But they aren’t worried, as far as I can tell, about who is ahead of them in some imaginery race.

  4. thom wrote:

    well said Rhonda. THe Booth Brothers are fantastic and have worked with some great producers of late that have brought of their best.

  5. Trent wrote:

    IMO the thing that sends most singers back to the house after 2 or 3 years is the road. It is hard to travel from state to state every weekend. It’s hard on the body, mind, and spirit. No other genre of music (country, pop, etc.) tries to keep up the grueling pace year round. Sure, country artists, for example, may tour when their album is out and hot, but then they’ll slack off for a few months. Not in SG. The money flow is slight and the crowds are so thin–even for the top-tier groups today–that the road life is necessary to stay afloat in most cases. If you’re not the owner of the group, after burnout sets in, why stay on the road? Unless an artist feels a special calling that dictates no quitting, it is a lot easier to just call it quits and get a 9-5 job. That’s the sad situation, but true.

  6. DM wrote:

    It would really be entertaining to see the Florida Boys do what Ernie and his group does. I would like to see them dancing with short ties and spiked hair. Talk about a solded
    out concert.

  7. Rhonda Berry wrote:

    DM,
    Yeah, it would be hilarious and funny a few times, but after that they would fold because their fan base would become offended. Unless, of course, they were just having a little bit of fun.

  8. Kyle wrote:

    Rhonda, I understand what you’re saying. I guess what I SHOULD have said is, the established group need to learn to ADJUST, not necessarily change.

    If groups were unwilling to adjust and grow, we’d have no tracks, we’d have no huge sound systems, and we’d only have two mic’s on stage….

  9. thomrawls wrote:

    kyle - that might not be a bad thing! hehehhee

  10. thomrawls wrote:

    I went to see the Perry’s last night at Grace Church of the Nazarene in Nashville . Remembering some of the critical comments that were made when Loren Harris left the group and Joseph Hadebank stepped into the lead position – I felt it appropriate to send you this post.

    Joseph has really come into his own as the Lead singer for The Perry’s. His range was great and he is singing with a freedom that has allowed him to add his stylistic nuances and phrasing to really own the song.. In my opinion, the ability to effectively “paint the picture” or “tell the story” is one of the qualities of a great lead singer. Joe has this ability and is performing better than ever. He deserves his props. If he stays on the current track he has the potential to become one of the greatest lead singers ever. He already has an ability beyond his years.

    Nick Trammell is singing with more confidence and appears much more comfortable on stage. He has a good tone and placement for the baritone part and blends well with Lib, Joe and Tracy . He makes good eye contact with the audience and sings with conviction.

    Lib and Tracy were both in great voice last night, too. They are pros and keep the crowd in the palm of their hand and will be the first to tell you how blessed they are to have these great young men traveling with them.

    I don’t know how Matt can play the piano with Tracy continually picking on him and pushing him in the back, but he seems to go along with the joking in a good natured way. Matthew is a musical prodigy in the vein of Anthony Burger. He is an amazing musician and deserves to be showcased as much as possible.

    This is one group that works hard and lives what they sing about. And the cherry on top is that they are just good folks. If you would consider posting any of these positive comments, I believe it would be an encouragement to them.

    SG is safe in these hands.

    Thom Rawls
    Southernsonrise.com

  11. Kyle wrote:

    Thom, you have a point….

  12. L5GVFAN wrote:

    Note to the PS…How about those early Legacy Five CDs(Josh Cobb)???

  13. FRT wrote:

    HEY DOUG…OPEN UP THE YOUNG HARMONY COMMENTS AGAIN…UNLESS YOU’RE CHICKEN…DO IT!!!!!!!!! I GOT SOMETHING I WANNA SAY AND IT WILL BE MY FIRST POST ON THAT TOPIC.

  14. bgc wrote:

    I think the YH section is better left as is. It seems a shame that some think they have to buy their rewards here on earth rather than keeping their focus on laying up rewards in heaven.

  15. Rhonda Berry wrote:

    Kyle you are right on the word adjust. Oh, no, a synonym for adjust is progress. (Sarcasm intended). While we hear people gripe about progress in SG, it is a necessary thing. What isn’t realized is that the same good songs of the past can live again with some of the progress that has been made. There is nothing wrong with the solid stuff of the past, but to get people to that we have to interest them in it. That’s where progress comes in.

  16. FRT wrote:

    i really hope you’re not suggesting that YH is doing that…if you are you are retardedly mistaken and didn’t read ANY comments on the other blog…but since you seem to think that’s the truth, i’m running for town coroner and i could use some help in buying some votes so i can win the election…how would i get in touch with jonathan bond?…

  17. bgc wrote:

    FRT
    You obviously have concluded how I think on your own. “Some” means what it says, Not Someone in particular. I did read ALL the previous comments and they speak for themselves.

  18. Rod wrote:

    The public will either embrace and support you by coming out to see you and buy your latest CD, or they’ll stay home and scratch in the recliner while watching the gaither tape. Let’s be real - the audience votes with their pocketbook.

    ABSOLUTELY FALSE!!! If the SG radio, SG record labels, Singing news will not put you out there then who’s going to buy them. The old guard (thankfully) is finally turning the reins over to the next generation but during the eighties and nineties if you didn’t conform to THEIR standards (ie hair, dress, music content etc.) you weren’t going to make it and THEY made sure of it. remeber most of the leadership in this industry had those established groups…Get it???

  19. Dusty Wells wrote:

    I always love reading these posts, and hearing the different feed-back from all of you….I love it that we have the freedom to dig deep and share our thoughts, words and hearts. As an individual who works in the Christian music business day in day out…lives it..breathes it….walks in it…I can still say its my PASSION for over 25 years. I will be the first to admit, that I do not like everything that is out there that is so called “Christian Music”. And I have challenged many of the projects that are put out…. I love challenging our artists in the southern gospel music field to be different, be unique and true to their calling yet follow the Lord and let him lead their hearts and then make great music that touches and impacts lives…Stand frim and true to always admire, affirm and respect the past legacy of this music and the groups and yet do not be afraid to help grow this industry. I do believe sincerely with all of my heart that Anthony Facello is one of the most incredible talents that has ever graced our precious industry, and I know his heart and he wants to impact lives with his music, whether it be with a group or on his solo dates! I love that you wrote, the way “he cradles a lyric”…love that description of his voice…he is one of the best ever to come along vocally…and his performance and the way he passionately delivers the song never ceases to amaze me and so many others…He is here to stay believe it or not!
    Keep writing! I will keep reading!

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