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.