GMA Week: SGMG Showcase
I write to you, dear readers, from the middle of GMA week in Nashville the morning after the annual Tuesday night Southern Gospel Music Guild showcase of southern gospel talent. If NQC is a chance to hear the range of what southern gospel offers, the showcase is a quick finger on the pulse, a way for industry insiders and professionals – and a few lurkers like me – to assess prospects and survey the field. My fellow southern gospelites, if last night was any indication, the state of the southern gospel union is lousy.
The first thing to say, of course, is that last night’s lineup was, on the whole, decidedly NOT the best southern gospel has to offer. Whoever booked the talent for this affair seemed to have mistaken it for a horizon showcase at NQC punctuated with a few A list artists. Save for the Booth Brothers, Janet Paschal, and Karen Peck and New River, the showcase was dominated by middle-tier acts, relative newcomers to mainstage spotlights, or downroster artists working their way up: Skyline Boys, Three Bridges, Hope’s Call, Crystal River, Tribute, and Mark Bishop.
First the good news: Devon McGlammery is really growing into the unfortunately minimal role he plays in KPNR’s music. There’s a certain auto-pilot quality to KPNR sets – KP sings 9/10s of the lead lines and does all the talking, Sister Susan stands dutifully to one side smiling benignly, and the Male Third gives KP someone else to look at every once awhile as she sings – so it was nice to hear some of the vocal details McGlammery introduced into his part, not least of all because it reminds you this really is a live performance. They staged some songs from their new project (I think; though I’m going from memory here) and there were a coupla of really nice ensemble moments toward the end. It made me want to go back and listen to the new album again now and give it a second chance.
And then there’s the Booth Brothers. The Booths’ uncontrived, fresh humor, their easy stage manner, and above all the pleasant smoothness of their understated self-confidence almost made it worth sitting through what had come before. Indeed, given what I heard last night, I propose we fire all tenors in gospel music except Michael Booth (and Anthony Facello, if he ever makes a real comeback) and let them back in front of a microphone only after they learn how to sing as comfortably and as fully in their range as Booth is and does. After so much shrillness and thin, tinny high notes, so much oversinging and buffoonery, the Booth Brothers were unquestionably the most accomplished ten minutes of the night. Their tracks were underamped and muddy, their house mix stunk (the sound was execrable all night long), and their last big note was way off but who cares. As they have done just about everywhere they’ve gone lately, the Booths left everyone else looking like amateurs and minor planets in the shadow of their sun.
The bad news is that the good news takes up no more space than this. In general the problems could be lumped into three main categories.
1. Crappy songs. Southern gospel is just broke out with hackilious, lyrically derivative, melodically formulaic, creatively impoverished songs full of predictable rhymes and remarkably unimaginative metaphors and imagery. I’m not counting the hymns Janet Paschal sang from her new project (the hymns we heard last night suggest that the project will be beautifully orchestrated, impeccably arranged, and gorgeously sung, but Paschal forgot a lot of her words – though you might not have known it because she can fake her way through lyric lapses about as well as anyone in the bidness … at one point last night I think her heard her sing “he rides on the wind and ascends on the plains/planes,” which sounded marvelous, but I’m pretty sure that’s nowhere to be found in “Oh Worship The King” – and she opened and closed with mid- and slow-tempo songs that let the attention of an already distracted crowd drift). And the Booth Brothers sang a well-balanced mix of old and new, ending with “He Saw it All.” But even this is illustrative: a two-year old song is the most memorable tune from two hours of music.
Sigh. Perhaps no one cares to disturb the inertia of the average southern gospel fan’s tastes with something innovative or unexpected. Tribute, the quartet spawned from the meltdown of the shortlived Monument Quartet, is full of young guys with a lot of energy. Here’s a natural place to look for where gospel music might be going. And from the sound and feel of their set, they seem to think they’re the Kingsmen at the Black River Electric Co-op annual meeting and picnic in Fredricktown, Missouri, 1979. But it’s not 1979, and these guys aren’t the Kingsmen. I get what they’re trying to do. The Kingsmen of that era were irresistible, charging ahead in Jim Hamill’s hard-driving, sweat-ringed, caution-(and pitch)-to-the-wind approach – driven by a kick drum, a bass, and Anthony Burger’s tendency to rush every song headlong into a wild gallop. But someone needs to tell Tribute that those days are over and that you’re not going to recapture them by leeching Hamill’s style of its electrolytes in a bloodless program of canned tracks, business casual, and lyrically forgettable music.
It’s not just the young ones, though. Three Bridges, staffed with guys well in the middle of the middle life, sang a song that has been very successful for them. It’s hook is built around the line: “in the valley there’s a rock. Jesus is the rock.” I spent three long years of my childhood in Old-Testament style labor picking stones, one by one, out of pasture in a valley my family was trying to farm. But even subtracting my personal bias, notice how this lyric lazily explains its own conceit: In the valley there’s a rock … and just to make sure you get the idea here, Jesus is the rock. … Oh, ok. NOW I get it. Cause it wasn’t clear before.
This sort of decidedly unlyrical music typifies so much of the new southern gospel you hear today: if not full of clichés and rhymes out of a dime-store rhyming dictionary (and often they are that too), these songs sound as though they come from a collective imagination besotted with long-ago successes and no originality to sober up their work. In the garden, Peace in the valley, I go to the rock … In the valley there’s a rock! …. This rock is Jesus, the only one … Jesus is the rock! Another Three Bridges song declared with new-agey solipsism that “perception is reality.” Indeed. This might as well be the theme song playing on the deck of the good ship southern gospel as it runs aground on self-delusion and small, silly songs.
At some point it ceases to matter if such songs are source or symptom of the underlying problem. It’s impossible to tell, and no one seems to really care. “In the Valley There’s a Rock” went to #7 “on the national charts,” as Three Bridges noted on their website. And that seems to be what matters. Nationally renown recording artists. One chart-topping tune after another. Perception is reality.
2. Artists who don’t know how sing to other artists and industry insiders. There are two theories about how to stage a set to an audience overwhelmingly made up of professionals, insiders, and other artists. One is to work it as straightforwardly as you would any other date, which means you ask the crowd if they came to have church, you try to get everyone to clap and sing along with you, and you tell the same jokes and do the same schtick that the folks would get at Piska Heights. The thinking here is that your peers want to hear what kind of show you put on night after night. The other approach is to sing for singers, drop the schtickiness and enjoy the rare space to relax in a crowd of people who have already seen what’s behind the curtain and knows what goes on backstage.
Janet Paschal took this latter route (she wonderfully deadpanned about the lyrics she was singing maybe not being exactly the way the final cuts would turn out, and if you didn’t pay attention closely, it might have seemed she was saying things were still fluid in production), though somehow still managing to exude starriness. And the Booth Brothers seemed completely at ease and themselves, though partly this has to do with the fact that their general-admission schtick is pretty smart to begin with and so translates well across a range of audiences. Still, Michael Booth clearly chose to speak peer-to-peer, with a kind of wink and nod knowingness that was refreshing and unschtickily funny: “let’s do that one song we sing about God.”
But mostly these artists came in three piece suits of High Holiness and Piety. My tolerance for Jesusiness is abnormally low as southern gospel fans go, and anyway I want to be clear I’m not suggesting expressions of religious belief or conviction were inappropriate in last night’s setting. But these displays can go too far more quickly with peers than fans.
It’s one thing to open, as Hope’s Call did, with a song stacked to the stratosphere. The stacked vocals matched the microphone power-pumping and great big happy-in-the-lord smiles and the point-to-Jesus gestures. Hope’s Call = high energy. And let me be clear: they do this well and it works. But the acoustical number, with Eddie Harrison at the keyboard, which followed the stacktastic opening asked us to suspend our disbelief to an extent our honest ears simply could not abide.
You can try this at home: sing along with your favorite quartet song cranked up on the stereo. You sound pretty good, don’t you? Then turn it off and keep singing just as loudly by yourself. Hear that? That’s called vocal whiplash, and you might be able to pull it off with a crowd seated safely in a church pew but the auditory dissonance is too much in a hotel ballroom during GMA week. Be all4Jesus, or be the intimate vocal stylists. Either is fine. Really (though if you want to be the latter, work on your accompaniment skills so the song doesn’t slow down to a caterpillar crawl as you look for your chord and find the note you’re supposed to sing). But don’t try to be both in 10 minutes if you’ve not got it down cold and don’t have time to talk for a while between songs so we forget what you sound like with a big stack behind you.
Because this isn’t Piska Heights and as a matter of fact, no, I didn’t come to have church and I doubt many other people in the room did either. They came to hear a showcase of professional southern gospel music at a weeklong event devoted to promoting professional Christian entertainment. That’s why each artists gets 10 minutes and three songs. To sing. Not minister. Not talk. Not introduce our group and tell you about our new album. To sing.
I suppose if I were an artist with no better abilities, judgment, discernment, and song selection than the majority of what I heard last night, I’d want to do all I could to justify myself professionally on some other grounds, too. But the inability to communicate effectively to your peers is not just a question of pulling off a three-song set once a year. It speaks more broadly of artistic development arrested in the mirror stage: when the only persona you can comfortably inhabit is the one you rehearsed in front of your bathroom vanity with the toothbrush for a mike and the exhaust fan for applause.
3. SGMG seems to have become a wholly owned subsidiary of Compassion International, a Christian charity that sells sponsorships for poor children, mostly in the developing world. Now I should say, I’ve always been skeptical of these outfits. Sally Struthers and all that. But for now it’s enough to note that doing something is indeed better than nothing, but by the time Hope’s call got done singing a song of theirs that’s become the soundtrack for a Compassion commercial and then watching the commercial itself, we got the point: some artists have elected to become involved with something that is deeply meaningful to them and they hope you’ll consider participating too. Fine. The compassionate – not to mention tasteful and professional – thing to do would have been to direct people to the table out front and stop talking about it.
Instead we were subjected to an altar-call to Compassion from Eddie Harrison, a windy pitch from Compassion’s president, another personal pitch from one of the Three Bridges, and a long impassioned appeal from SGMG’s Zane King about how Compassion kept him from leaving gospel music entirely. One gets the sense that whatever good Compassion does, it might at times be despite, not because of, its approach to self-promotion.
If I understand it rightly, artists and/or their labels pay $500 and their own expenses for a spot on the Guild showcase. If I were most of those artists, I’d want my money back. For that matter, everyone in the audience ought to send their $12 parking tab to Zane King, head honcho at SGMG this year, in protest (I would say there needs to be more truth in advertising but this thing really wasn’t advertised beyond a press release on the SN website, which might account for why attendance was so far down from recent years).
The point of this event – the reason a label is willing to shell out the equivalent of a month of radio promotion to bring an artist in to do 10 minutes on a Tuesday evening in a small hotel ballroom – is that it’s a chance for the industry to preview new music and/or create a buzz about an artist’s latest work. If you want to make this event one big wet kiss to Compassion International, interrupted occasionally by some mediocre southern gospel music, I guess that’s one way to go about it. But it really ought to be renamed the Compassion Showcase. That way I’d know to stay in my hotel room next time.
Update: Songwriter Sue C. Smith blogs the showcase here.Email this Post