Songs of the Inspirations

Daniel Mount argues that the Inspirations are so popular because their songs are so good. There is a bit of question-begging going on here. Mount seems to assume the songs are good to begin with and then uses that predetermined conclusion to answer his own question, which could have more accurately been phrased something like “Why is the Inspirations’ music so good? Because it’s so good.”

I’m oversimplifying a bit, but not much. Of course an Inspirations fan (such as Mount) is going to think Inspirations music is good (and you know you’re a true dieharder for the Inspirations when even a treacly song like “Two Shoes” can win you over, despite the understandable objections of your better artistic judgment, as evidently happened with Mount). I wager there are exactly zero Inspirations fans who don’t think the Inspirations sing good music.

But such a deeply subjective explanation doesn’t take into account the cultlike following they have in Appalachia. After all, there are countless opportunities in that part of the world to hear simple, earnest religious music sung pitchily by singers of Archie Watkins’ nasally caliber or played by instrumentalists of Martin Cook’s intermediate abilities. Which is to say, the Inspirations’ popularity has more than a little to do with a complex network of sociocultural identifications that their fans make with the group. I’ll pick two details more or less at random: the old timey upright bass and all the nostalgia for folk and mountain traditions it evokes; and the matching suits, whose lack of subtlety could be said to function metonymically as a shorthand for the Inspirations’ anti-intellectualist brand of proud simplicity and their carefully cultivated pose of being not carefully cultivated.

By this I don’t mean they’re disingenuous. Indeed, you would be hardpressed to find a group that seems to take themselves and their music more seriously. But – and now I feel like this is rather stating the obvious – the Inspirations are pretty clearly and primarily about many more things than good songs.

Update: Perceptive reader Trent offers an insightful take on the Inspirations worth promoting from comments to the main page:

I love the Inspirations, but I would have to agree–they are about more than just the songs. They signify conservatism to their fans. How do they do that? The music is conservative (piano & acoustic bass, usually no tracks) the hair is conservative, the talk in between songs is about God & country. The area they are from (mountains of NC) is conservative. Their separation from the whole Gaither, Sig Sound, Mercy’s Mark type crowd (although they did appear on at least one Gaither video in the ’90s) sets them apart as conservative & more down-homey. Certainly they are accessible to their fans at the record table, and in their accessibility you see that the Appalachian-type stage personality is no put-on, but is really who they are. This attribute engages their fans with their music even more. Matt Dibler & Mike Holcomb are both old-fashioned preachers, another element of the group’s conservative appeal. All of these elements of the group add to the rapport the Inspirations have with their fans and give the conservative fan a feeling of “they are one of us” or “they are a lot like us ” or “they believe like we do”. This belief registers at the record table & local Lifeway Christian Bookstore. It also comes into play when the Inspos are appearing at Ebeneezer County High School’s auditorium for a one-night-only concert. The fans who believe they have a lot in common with the group show up.

Later Update:Daniel Mount says I missed his point, that he was really claiming that the Inspirations are so popular because other artists re-record the I’s songs.

My point about the Inspirations’ song selection being perhaps their most notable strength was not based upon how much the groups’ own fans liked their songs. It was based upon the popularity the Inspirations’ songs have had as reissued by other groups.

I’m sorry, but the logic here still seems dubious. Why would other people singing the Inspirations songs drive fans toward the Inspirations? Do people usually hear a song they like, find out it was originally recorded by another artist, and then flock to the original artist and not the one who turned them onto the song in the first place? Man, I really like the way the Perrys sing that song. Let’s go hear the Inspirations! Who says this?

To some extent I’m really asking, though I should also say, I’m deeply skeptical of the suggestion that the Inspirations’ following is based on the renown of their song selection as popularized by other artists.

Even later update: John Scheideman defies anyone to cite chapter and verse in which the Inspirations have been pitchy. How much time do you have, John? But we could start (and end) really with pretty much any time Archie Watkins has put mouth to microphone.

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Trackbacks & Pings

  1. www.southerngospelblog.com » Blog Archive » Inspirations, revisited on 16 Mar 2007 at 10:08 am

    […] Doug Harrison over at Averyfineline noticed my recent Inspirations post and responded to it with a post of his own. Now I suspect that Doug has more raw genius than all the other Southern Gospel bloggers put together, but he missed my point just the same. […]

Comments

  1. Joe White wrote:

    You seem to give articulate observations and arguements concerning your views on SG music and it’s artists. Everyone has opinions (and is entitled to) about this or that artist or subject in SG. However, there are times that you seem to be somewhat cruel and overbearing when it comes to certain artists, particularly the Inspirations.
    I have not noticed them being “pitchy”. In fact, I encourage the group I sing with and manage to learn from the I’s enunciation and tone placement. Maybe I am a bad leader, but I appreciate and respect the I’s as christian gentlemen as well as SG artists. I don’t know why they “bug” you so badly but I wish you would let it go. At least the I’s look professional and show respect for Who they represent and to the people who come to listen. (please don’t read in that statement that I think all artists should wear matching suits, and etc.) Thanks for letting me vent a little frustation. I really don’t want this response to be shown publically.

    Joe White

  2. Bryan Vanover wrote:

    First of all im from ohio and not from appalachia.I have seen the inspirations at least a dozen times here in ohio over the last five or six years and always to a full house.As far as matching suits if you look at the cover of there most recent cd there
    (matching suits) are very up to date.Besides if you thumb through a copy of the singing news what male quartet doesnt wear matching suits.

    Let me ask you this favor.Find a copy of there latest cd (I KNOW)and listen to
    selection 2)IF YOU ONLY KNEW
    4)I HAVE NOT FORGOTTEN
    (which by the way is
    currently number one
    in the singing news top
    eighty)
    5)SHED FOR EVEN ME
    9)LED BY THE MASTERS HAND
    10)MY BEST FRIEND

    Please listen to these five songs that are new and fresh and then tell me there not quality.Although im a huge fan i would still believe that the average listener would agree.

    Finally i have to ask you what in the world does this mean

    MATCHING SUITS WHOSE LACK OF SUBTLETY COULD BE SAID TO FUNCTION METONYMICALLY AS A SHORTHAND FOR THE INSPIRATIONS ANTI-INTELLECTUALIST BRAND OF PROUD SIMPLICITY AND THEIR CAREFULLY CULTIVATED POSE OF BEING NOT CAREFULLY CULTIVATED.

    Now im not a professor but at the same time i have a pretty good understanding of things along with a decent vocabulary
    but whats the deal with that statement.
    Your writing is obviously very good but
    irregardless if you live in appalachia as you like to say or in portland oregon you have to scratch your head on that one.

    Thats all i have and maybe one day by chance we might just run in to each other at a concert.Where we could talk and agree to disagree.

    Bryan

  3. Trent wrote:

    I love the Inspirations, but I would have to agree–they are about more than just the songs. They signify conservatism to their fans. How do they do that? The music is conservative (piano & acoustic bass, usually no tracks) the hair is conservative, the talk in between songs is about God & country. The area they are from (mountains of NC) is conservative. Their separation from the whole Gaither, Sig Sound, Mercy’s Mark type crowd (although they did appear on at least one Gaither video in the ’90s) sets them apart as conservative & more down-homey. Certainly they are accessible to their fans at the record table, and in their accessibility you see that the Appalachian-type stage personality is no put-on, but is really who they are. This attribute engages their fans with their music even more. Matt Dibler & Mike Holcomb are both old-fashioned preachers, another element of the group’s conservative appeal. All of these elements of the group add to the rapport the Inspirations have with their fans and give the conservative fan a feeling of “they are one of us” or “they are a lot like us ” or “they believe like we do”. This belief registers at the record table & local Lifeway Christian Bookstore. It also comes into play when the Inspos are appearing at Ebeneezer County High School’s auditorium for a one-night-only concert. The fans who believe they have a lot in common with the group show up.

  4. thom wrote:

    trent - you are right, “who believe they have a lot in common with the group show up.” That is true of any group. You wouldn’t typically see a load of Inspo fans at at Crabb event or a Crossway concert. vice-versa.

    As for musical style, I don’t find the Inspos enjoyable to listen to. I have to agree with the moderator on the pitchy, nasally vocals, and the elementary musicianship. To each his own.

    As I have said here before; when a group finds something that works for them they should stick with it. Inspos have not changed their style since the 1950’s and the sentimentality works for them.

    Fans vote their allegiance by showing up at the concerts and buying the CD’s. I may find that the CD’s make neat little frisbees, but that’s just my opinion.

    When you find your niche, dig your heels in and work it!

  5. Rob wrote:

    Like em’ or dislike em’ that facts are there. The Inspirations are successful…Be it the songs,the style,the image..doesn’t matter..It is what it is..I wish we had more groups as consistent

  6. thom wrote:

    bryan - there is no such word as “irregardless”

  7. J-Mo wrote:

    I’m sorry, but if you don’t hear pitch problems and tuning issues when you listen to the Inspirations (especially in a live setting) then you simply don’t have an ear for that sort of thing. Preferences in styles of music, stage appearance, or even vocal tones and placements can easily be debated without anyone being definitively right or wrong, but being flat or sharp does not fall into a debatable stylistic category. Solo any of the Inspirations vocalists (again, especially from a live performance) and put them through a tuning software such as Antares if you need scientific proof.

    I’m happy the Inspirations have seemingly found a successful formula in an industry where success doesn’t come easily and I have zero problems with any of their fans, but saying that you are a fan because of the quality of their vocal performance is saying you are a fan of poor vocal performance.

    Bryan, at the risk of sounding as cruel and overbearing as Avery, I must say that seeing you use the word “irregardless” certainly came as an unexpected surprise. I think the consensus of opinion would be that you need to review some basic fundamentals before you profess your decent vocabulary. If you use these kinds of words you’re highly likely to find yourself surrounded on all sides by scrutiny. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some frozen ice I must go unthaw.

  8. Montana Man wrote:

    Can u really tell who they like by their (er, there) misuse of the language?

  9. jb wrote:

    Thom. Are you sure it “ain’t” a word. I didn’t know we had to be well versed to voice an opinion.
    Bryan. I bet everyone knew what you meant, “irregardless” if you used the correct wording or not.

  10. dkd wrote:

    Montana Man..I feel like you do regarding the misuse of the words there and their..it drives me crazy when I see them used improperly..I know this has nothing to do with the topic at hand but when I read the comments I had a hard time concentrating on the context because of the misuse of the words.

  11. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    Doug, I actually didn’t like the Inspirations until their songs won me over. More thoughts tomorrow in my blog…

    Daniel

  12. JL wrote:

    I didn’t know so many Inspirations fans had internet access! Surely they are on dialup. But I applaud their efforts nonetheless. I wonder if that phone cable connected to their laptop reaches all the way to the outhouse?

  13. Trent wrote:

    Yes, it’s common knowledge that all Inspirations fans have dial-up desktop units, while all Sig Sound fans have laptops & satellite internet. All McGrugers fans speak in tongues and write on legal pads, and all Singing Cookes fans still play 8-track tapes and use those fat pencils on extra-wide notebook paper.

  14. John wrote:

    I’ve got plenty of time, Doug, for you to actually give an example of the Inspirations’ alleged “pitchiness”.

    This time, try to find soimething a bit more specific than “…any time Archie Watkins puts mouth to microphone.”

  15. John wrote:

    Actually, “something” will do in lieu of “soimething”…sorry for the late-night typo.:-)

  16. jani wrote:

    Thom,
    look in your webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.

  17. William D. Fortney wrote:

    Archie Watkins is “pitchy.” My, aren’t we astute?! He’s been singing tenor full-time with The Inspirations for only 43 years! I dare you to find someone who has sung that long with any group, especially the tenor part, who didn’t have issues with pitch! The late great J.D. Sumner sang bass right at 50 years, and he had pitch issues toward the end of his career! He could still sing lower than anyone else, but even he had pitch issues from time to time, and he never did have really excellent tone quality. I urge you to listen to some of The Inspirations’ albums from the mid-70s. You will hear Archie at his best, and he is anything but “pitchy.” You will also hear Jack Laws on a couple tunes…he, at that time, was probably the smoothest baritone in SGM.

    Martin Cook’s “intermediate” piano skills, as you put it, is intentional: He plays the way he does–simple rhythm piano–so as to not draw attention away from the singing and the message of the songs. He has never claimed to be in the same ilk as Roger Bennett, or Dino (arguably the rudest man in Christian music, by the way), but his style suits the group!

    You seem to disdain the fact that The Inspirations are too “simplistic” and “conservative” and “Appalachian.” Let me tell you something: you don’t last in a competitive arena like SGM by changing personnel and vocal styles every year or on every whim. The Inspirations are an institution in SGM, and, like them or not, they have succeeded to a level that very few in the industry have. Why? Because they are PROFESSIONALS, they LOVE GOD, and they LIVE WHAT THEY SING! Yes, some of their songs are better than others, but they choose the songs they sing carefully, and they choose only songs that proclaim the power of Christ.

    The Inspirations did appear one ONE Gaither video in the late 1990s…Go Glad!, I think it was…they never sang on it, which was disappointing to me, but, I always wondered why they were never on any of the other Gaither videos. Then, it hit me: apart from the fact that Martin Cook was not about to sign over rights to their performance to Bill Gaither, The Inspirations were simply TOO BUSY TOURING, STILL! A lot of the folks in those videos owe their careers to Bill Gaither, but, even after 43 years together, The Inspirations still have a fully-booked calendar every year–often booking the same venues for years in advance…they don’t need Bill Gaither! They have the most loyal fan-base in all of SGM!

    There’s a reason why The Inspirations are unique: Whereas most SGM artists treat their singing like a profession, the guys of The Inspirations treat theirs like a ministry. That’s a huge difference.

  18. William D. Fortney wrote:

    CORRECTION: The Gaither video I refer to in my comment is entitled, “SO GLAD!,” not “GO GLAD.” Sorry for the typo.

  19. Greg Taylor wrote:

    Martin’s piano skills are what they are because their style never necessitated him advancing those skills any further. He has told me that he loves to play and often adjusts the amount of embellishment he puts in based on the feel of the crowd on a particular night and how the guys are doing (true for most SG pianists).

    A trivial comment about the stand-up bass: It is an Ampeg Baby Bass, which sells on eBay these days for around $2-4K (that’s thousand). The Primitives, no surprise, used to have one too (still do?). I might hazard a guess that both groups got the idea for that bass from the Christian Troubadours, a country gospel quartet from the 50’s through the early 70’s. (Ampeg’s original marketing for the Baby Bass, and the matching B-15 amp, was to jazz musicians in nightclubs.)
    btw, the Inspirations began in 1964, not the ’50’s.

  20. elaine wrote:

    Ok, where do I even start? How sad it is that you would rather discuss the way the message is delivered rather than the message itself. You will never ever ever meet a group that is filled with the spirit of God more than the Inspirations. They are loyal faithful and true. If you want to talk about the point that they may be off key, think about it that many times it is because of the way that they are so emotional during their singing. Pure emotions, not some show. The Inspirations are distinguished and mature. I have no doubt that God’s hand is on all of the current members (Martin, Myron, Archie, Jack, Mike, and Melton). You just wish you could sing like them.

  21. Linda Dillon wrote:

    Dear Lord, some of this is so mean spirited!

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