Stacks and Homecoming fatigue
Kyle Boreing has an interesting post up about the rise of vocal stacks and the Gaither Vocal Band. It’s worth clicking over to just to hear the 1993 clip of Mark Lowry, Terry Franklin, and Michael English singing “Home.” The song barely rises above a whisper and still manages to be thoroughly electrifying even after the umpteenth time I’ve heard it, sparkling with so many wonderful little vocal details – notice the subtle colorations and carefully calibrated passing tones in the harmony on the words “journey” and “home” throughout the chorus – and generally being about as good a reason to get up in the morning as any I can think of. As Boreing notes, the sense of something special unfolding before you in the moment is palpable, all the more so for the conspicuous flaws in the performance. Boreing contrasts this to the super-slick stacktastic 2002 version of the same song that GVB recorded on an EHSSQ video, but unless you just can’t resist being disappointed at how too much of a good thing can ruin it, I wouldn’t bother.
Boreing’s post implies a larger question though: what’s up with increasing reliance on stacks in Gaither’s music.
Through his facetiousness, Boreing suggests the EHSSQ concert is a sufficiently special occasion to account for the use of stacks, but I wonder if, instead of being a sign how far and polished the Gaither musical phenomenon has come, the artificiality of the sound in 2002 doesn’t actually help at least partly explain the erosion of the GVB’s and Homecoming tour’s popularity (and by extension, Gaither’s symbiotic decision to sponsor EHSSQ). In 1993 the Gaither Vocal Band (and with it, the Homecoming Tour) was really starting to take off. Its rise was fueled largely by the electrifying experience of hearing the kind of impromptu live music that the Franklin-Lowry-English clip captures so marvelously. At its best, the GVB/Homecoming of 1990s guaranteed ticket-holders that they’d hear similarly marvelous music every night. By the time of the EHSSQ taping a few years ago, the Homecoming bubble had burst. Gaither and EHSSQ are now creating half the magic with twice manpower (but, alas, about the same amount of hair product). So why is Gaither so much more dependent on stacks now than in the past (which is not to say stacks weren’t part of those early performances, just that they weren’t nearly as central and regular a part as they are now)?
Partly, of course, everybody’s doing it. Beyond that, the answer may have partially to do with the reality of inevitable decline. Gaither and Co. created an unrivaled musical empire in those heyday years. But of course the sound was not sustainable for any number of reasons. For one thing, there’s the rare and inimitable mix of certain voices. And too the very voices that made that sound so rare and wonderful cashed in on their rising stock price and launched off on their own (or went bust on bad judgment). On top of all that, there’s the haze of nostalgic hindsight that tends to airbrush the past into the good ole days (though judging by those old GVB clips, it’s hard to see how they could get much better, unless you got everybody a hair and wardrobe makeover). And yet, the expectations continue to be just as great or greater, at least among the people whose esteem Gaither is likely to care about. The more he achieved, the more was expected of him and his music; the more he expects of himself. And so nudge by nudge, up goes the vocal stacks in the mix.
It’s not that simple, of course. But you get the idea.
At the same time, there’s the pressure of multi-media bearing down, and along with it the larger issues of market fragmentation that digitization has helped create. Compared to today, those first Homecoming and GVB videos were recorded in the stone age, technologically and economically. In the early years, there was a VHS and then a companion cassette tape. The songbooks and tchotchkes and flea-marketeering would come soon enough, but it’s a testament to how popular the concept (and shrewd the marketing) was that such a comparatively bare-bones product line sold so well. Gaither has of course stayed on the leading edge of technology for the last 20 years, an investment that has helped him in these latter leaner days offset the diminishing take at the box office with a diversified product line that can secure multiple purchases from a smaller core of brand-loyal consumers. But technology is more than an economic force. It has aesthetic effects as well, namely toward slicker and slicker productions, including slicker vocals (read “higher stacks”) at a time when, as we already noted, the mix of live voices in the vocal band can’t really compete with their ancestors.
I’m not sure they’re unable to create the same magical moments, because individual taste aside, I don’t think there’s much less raw talent in, say, a Penrod-Phelps–Hall trio than Lowry-Franklin-English. But for whatever reason and though they do many things very well, the current GVB has lost that certain something. Watching the Homecoming tour last year when it came to town, I was struck by how the very thing that made it impressive – the precision and timing and perfection of … well, everything – was exactly what made it compare so unfavorably to the years of Mark Lowry in a garish suit and Gaither tinkering away at the piano, half-dumbstruck by the beautiful music whose creation he was both responsible for and watching develop right in front of him (on stage these days, Gaither wears his trademark sense of wonderment like a cheap suit).
I see when I look back at my notes from last year’s performance, I jotted “Homecoming fatigue” in one of the margins. And that’s about the simplest way I can come up with succinctly describe all the lines of force running through any explanation for the GVB’s increasing reliance on stacks.Email this Post