As the gospel music market continues to be ever more saturated with all the self-produced albums, custom-recordings, and generally unlistenable music being churned out daily, I’ve been taking refuge in several nostalgia compilations of “classics” and “greats” that purport to pluck the pearls from among the swine of the past. Right now, I’m listening to Homeland’s four-volume Southern Gospel Collection from 2000. These shouldn’t be confused with greatest hits or even “the best.” It’s just someone in a record label somewhere using an educated and informed sensibility of sg to bring together more or less good music. There are plenty of choices I’d quibble with (the Florida Boys’ “Saved By Grace” is just a four-part smash up from start to finish and let me be clear about Walt Mills and Vern Jackson: Please. No More.). But it’s sort of like shopping at a thrift store: it’s kinda fun pushing through the crap because you know there are plenty of jewels waiting to be discovered by the patient and perseverant. Some random reactions.

  • My favorite cut right now is “Love will Roll the Clouds Away” from an old Kingsmen live album. It just reduces me to fits of howling laughter because it’s so funny … it’s shameless, hamfisted, slapstick gospel vaudeville. This is not, if my ears have it right, the KM of the Garry Shepard 80s when they had pretty much started parodying themselves … and ruining Shepard’s once pretty marvelous instrument in the process. This recording sounds like it’s from the 70s. Hammil is still in fine vocal form and he simply drags everything and everyone along with him. Barking out the front end of notes, jumping up to stomp all over the tenor’s lines at the beginnings of phrases and then settling back into his own register, where he runs herd over the baritone. But what I really just cackle uncontrollably at – every time I play and replay it – is how completely the KM upended song forms and structural conventions with no concern whatsoever for anything but gettin’ em on their feet. It’s as though they took the expected parts of a gospel song (a bass solo, say, and an instrumental interlude, a modulation, expressive variations in rhythm and intensity), shook them all up in an empty Hardees hamburger sack on the bus floor and sang the song in whatever order the elements rolled out onto the stage. From an ensemble verse (that just takes off from Hammil’s lead, no introduction or anything), we get a modulation up to a bass solo, and then immediately proceed into one of a classic piece of gimmickry: the instruments and voices dial the volume back to hushed and whispered tones and the pace slackens. In this case, a harmonica actually takes the lead and the KM sing back up to it. This is all pure music theater, or like trying to find your way through a gospel fun house. The point isn’t to showcase the harmonica; it’s to build up an expectation of what comes next: an explosion back into hard driving full voice and kick drum. And sure enough, Hammil bites the head off the first word of that final phrase and off we go, barreling toward the ending, with its vocal collisions … Hammil bestride it all like an imperious Lord of Vocal Misrule, taunting the crowd, defying them not to yell and scream and throw babies and get saved again: Yaarrrh! Did you really enjoy the Kingsmen tonight. But of course, this is not a question.

  • Miscellaneous: How have I missed for so long that the intro to the Hoppers “Steppin’ on the Clouds” cut from Live in Greenville is Shannon Childress’s homage to the LeFevres’ long ago cut of the song? I guess I missed it the same way I missed Anthony Burger’s “Blessed Assurance” from several years back pretty much cribbing CeCe Winan’s vocal arrangement of the hymn from her Alone in His Presence album. And while I’m playing this game, I should note that the Cathedrals’ recording of “He Didn’t Throw The Clay Away” fully realizes the song’s magisterial scope in the way the original doesn’t, but I still prefer the Lesters’ ending.

  • The Weatherfords (and with apologies to the great Perry Miller): they made insights into harmony and rhythm so far ahead of their time that our own can hardly be said to have caught up with them.

  • The Hoppers need to start singing “God Raised the Ransom” more, or do they and I’ve just missed it?

  • Does anyone else get the feeling sometimes that the Speers of the 80s and early 90s were singing some savvy material that really anticipated and prefigured the inspo influence that was about to become a main feature of sg with the rise of Gaither Vocal Band and their Big Anthem? I’m thinking at the moment of “In the Midst of it All,” but that’s only what comes most readily to mind from that Homeland volume I was listening to earlier today.

Anyway, I realize this is kind of no-brow and probably vaguely anti-artist of me, but I hope these compilations keep getting released, and there’s no reason to wait until recordings have suitably aged with time to collect them on compilations (see the annual WOW releases from CCM), except of course that it undercuts the artists’ album sales. Indeed, sg could use it’s own WOW. The SN’s annual Just Call it Southern give-away cds with subscriptions at NQC are nice and all, but they’re more like a spotty garage sale than a fun flea market or good antique mall.

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  1. Seaton wrote:

    I don’t have the compilation you are speaking of but I believe the Kingsmen’s “Love Will Roll The Clouds Away” is from their 1973 Big & Live album. At least from your explanation it sounds like it. As far as the Hoppers staging “God Raised The Ransom”, they did. The song was a single for them back around 1999 and they used to stage it then.

  2. John wrote:

    Although I was never a huge Kingsmen fan, I always enjoyed their version of “Love Will Roll the Clouds Away”. Classic Kingsmen style. Tenor Johnny Parrack played the little harmonica lead on that chorus before all heck broke loose as the three chords and a cloud of dust combusted! Nice memories there, Avery.

  3. KB wrote:

    There was a “Shout” compilation that tried to duplicate the WOW idea for SG released by Spring Hill, but it seems to have fizzled a little (instead of using years in the title, it became “Shout! Amen,” or “Shout! Hallelujah,” making it hard to discern the most recent release).

    As for the cuts, I think that “Love Will Roll The Clouds Away” came from the Kingsmen’s “Big & Live” album (I know that song was on that album, anyway)…

  4. Glen Asbury wrote:

    Shannon Childress had left the Hoppers by the time they recorded “Steppin’ on the Clouds”. My guess is that we owe the arrangement to Lari Goss, who produced the “One Foundation” album on which the song was originally recorded in 1998. Lari has certainly been around long enough to have remembered the way the Lefevres did it.

  5. CVH wrote:

    Actually I’d venture the thought that the Speers always had a sense of (what would become known as) the “inspo” sound even back in the 70’s. Between Ben and Harold Lane, they anticipated and pursued musical trends that were outside the traditional southern gospel style yet gave those songs a distinctly ‘Speer Family’ finish that enabled them to work in the broader context of the songs they were doing at the time.

    It might have been in part because of the period of time when the children Steve, Marc and [Hottie Alert!] Susan were with the group, although that was relatively short-lived. It may have been the vocal ability of Dianne Mays, whose voice had a wonderful character that lent itself to other genres of song. It wasn’t just doing Gaither songs - they were singing songs by writers not associated with Southern Gospel, like Phil Johnson’s “I Wish You All Could Know Him” and Carolyn Gillman’s “And He’s Ever Interceding”. Whether this mix of inspo and southern gospel worked or not (sales, concert revenue, etc.) in the long run I don’t know, but they were one of the few groups of that era that seemed to reach outside the traditional boundaries of southern gospel to bring something fresh and different to the scene.

    Listen to some of the songs from the Heartwarming albums like ‘A Family Affair’, ‘Between The Cross and Heaven’, ‘Cornerstone’, ‘Interceding’ and ‘Something Good Is About To Happen’ and you’ll find a rich variety of styles that were a precursor for what was to follow in the years to follow.

  6. John wrote:

    CVH, you’re exactly right. The Speers were always “cutting edge” without being “edgy”. I personally thought some of their greatest recordings were released just prior to the period you mentioned. I don’t know of many gospel albums that are as technically pleasing to my ear as “Especially Warm”. Their acapella version of “I Sure Do Love the Lord” from that LP is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard in any genre of music.

    The Speer boys, Harold Lane, the lovely alto voice of Jeannie Johnson, and the talented piano and and soprano vocals from Linda Robinson formed one of the finest and most cohesive gospel groups I’ve ever heard. Although this was never one of the most heralded group of Speers, nevertheless, it was one of the finest.

    Although I’m a quartet guy at heart, the Speer Family from that era was always one of my favorite groups.

  7. thom wrote:

    I love the way you describe the Kingsmen on stage with Jim Hammil - he certainly knew how to work a crowd ! This sort of thing was always the highlight of going to a Kingsmen concert for me.

    I saw the Kingsmen recently with the new lineup and they sounded great. Brian Hutson is doing a fine job as the emcee and baritone and Harold Reed is hitting some tenor notes that I didn’t realize he could hit. They’re good, but there will never be a better master of the stage than Big Jim Hammil!

  8. youngartist wrote:

    Glad to hear the new Kingsmen with Harold and Bryan is doing well, thom.

    Avery you crack me up. I died laughing reading your version of how the KQ sang that song.

  9. David wrote:

    Too bad the intro to Love Will Roll the Clouds Away was edited out, as it is classic KM as well. Hamill, after one of his legendary mini-sermons(see also the intro to Shake Hands With a Poor Boy from Live: Naturally! as well as the one to He’s Still Living from Mississippi Live) simply says: “Boys, lets do Love Will Roll the Clouds Away, just gimme the key-mmmmm…AS ALONG LIFE’S ROAD YOU GO…”

  10. Angie M wrote:

    I’ve got to agree with all those who love that old Kingsmen recording. I heard it for the first time when I was fourteen or so (and it wasn’t new then), and I’d love to hear it again. I’ve got to find that Homeland compilation set. Was Squire Parsons with them then?

  11. Morey wrote:

    The intro to “Stepping On The Clouds” on the One Foundation CD resembles closely that of “Something Happened On The Way To Heaven,” a single from Phil Collins’ …But Seriously CD, though I doubt, however, there was any intention of such.

  12. Trent wrote:

    Your best writing in recent weeks, Avery. Thanks.

    I must take issue with your disdain for custom recordings, though; I think some of the custom projects coming out today are on the cutting edge of the best stuff in SG right now.

    Regarding the impromptu-ness of the Kingsmen, hardly. A group at their level with their success and consistency in creating a rise in the crowd hardly ever does anything on the fly. I believe that Hamill was very calculating in most of that stuff he did. What you heard on a live recording had been rehearsed, no doubt, at Mt. Pisgah Separate Baptist Church or Ringgold High School gymnasium the previous night, and the previous weekend, and the weekend before that.

    Someone mentioned the “Shout” CD series. These were the very best compilations of SG music in the 2000s, and it’s a dirty rotten shame Spring Hill quit putting them out. I’m hoping someone else will step up and start giving the fans great double comp discs like the “Shout” CDs. I miss ‘em.

  13. Jeremy wrote:

    What is the name of that Homeland compilation and how can I get a hold of it?

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