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.

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Comments

  1. quartet-man wrote:

    I have liked many versions of the GVB. John Mohr was the best bass they had and I do like some of the stuff on those first two albums although some is too vanilla for me. They had a good sound with Harris, McSpadden, Gaither and Mohr on the third album. English brought a different sound and he and Larnelle trading off with some McSpadden was great even though not all the songs were great on that album. I never heard them with Miller with them, or for that matter any of the groups up till now live and in person. Murray added a nice sound to the GVB and Wings had some good songs. I think a Few Good Men was a nice direction for them and Lowry made them sound a bit more smooth and pop. Once again some great songs, and not so great.

    Franklin was talented and he and English had a lot of fun singing together, but I never liked this combo as much as some. Part might be material, but not all. Mullins was okay and Pierce was okay on tenor, but really needed to be a Michael English sort of lead instead. Penrod did some great stuff and he, Pierce and Lowry worked well together on the Loving God CD. A lot of good stuff here and on SG Classics 2 as well as Back Home In Indiana.

    Phelps at first seemed to fit in and sound good, but maybe not stand out particularly. However, but the time the I Do Believe CD came out, watch out. A great CD and video and one of my favorite times. I have liked some of the songs and combos since then, but I too feel that they have lost some of it.

    When I heard them live (after Homecoming, but before the big thing took off) Murray, English, Lowry and Gaither did well. I do think there was some stack use then or at least they used some of the tracks with the harmony vocals on them, but maybe not all. It was great though. If I had to pick my absolute favorite combos I would probably have to say (in order of creation, not necessarily preference)

    Larnelle, Gary, Bill, Jon
    Larnelle, Mike, Gary, Bill
    Jim, Mike, Gary, Bill
    Jim, Mike, Mark, Bill
    Jonathan, Guy, Mark, Bill
    David, Guy, Mark, Bill

    That isn’t to say that I didn’t like others, just not as much.

  2. RF wrote:

    In my humble (very humble opinion), the appearance of fatigue and lack of excitement over the Gaither Homecoming Concerts has something to do with the fact that they have been doing it so long. Even Elvis couldn’t keep that going as the years marched on. The fact that they still can pack the Charleston (WV) Civic Center every year says something that I can’t fathom. Nothing lasts as long as Gaither Homecomings, but it still exists.

    The stacks debate will go on forever. It has a lot to do with sound and sounding good. Modern technology at work. As long as there is technology, artists will use it to put on a better “show”. The fact that Gaither uses them is proof positive that Old Bill is on the cutting edge of technology, and has been since this phenominon started. The only problem with the HC tour and the glee that detractors seem to feel when they don’t sell out a venue has a lot to do with the absence of Jake Hess, Vestal Goodman, and others, who are no longer there. It also has a lot to do with the downsizing of the Homecoming Concerts, a mistake, once again, in my humble opinion.

    One more thing. I’ll probably never hear a goup as good as the Phelps, Penrod, Lowry, and Gaither GVB the rest of my life. It was simply wonderful. The earlier versions were good, just like the present group is, but it was without a doubt superior. The group still blows away 90% of the competition in technical skill and still gets the crowd on its feet.

    As Bill gets older, you can expect a decline. It’s the natural thing that happens to all of us, but he still produces the best sonic sg experience in the industry. To publish his obituary so soon is premature. Just got through listening to the hyms video two-pack. Nothing compares to what he can do in this industry. And that’s saying something nearly twenty years later.

  3. RR wrote:

    No matter how much you disect the past to compare, in the present time, when I want to hear good music that does not distract my listening pleasure, I simply put in a GVB CD. Yes, I’m talking about the present group. I think they are unparalleled in 2007 for producing consistently good, enjoyable music.

    And even back in the days of the Gaither Trio, they were experiencing record sales in certain venues that amazed some of the full-time groups. Gaither magic did not begin with the Homecoming Tours.

    Without Bill Gaither and his multi-faceted contributions to gospel music, we would be missing a lot.

  4. Alan wrote:

    Interesting post, Doug, and not surprising that relatively few are responding. I wonder if many of us get somewhat uncomfortable even reading negatives about the Homecoming Tour or the GVB. Simply put, precious few other quartets have ever risen to the level of any ensemble of the Vocal Band. Likewise, never in the history of sgm has there been anything like the Homecoming Tour. Chances are, there never will be anything like it again. In its heyday it was magical…Howard and Vestal, J.D., Jake, George and Glen, on and on we can go. But, they - and so many more - are gone, and there isn’t a lot that Mr. Bill can do about it. The Hoppers have moved on, and many others as well, from the live tour. Change is always inevitable, but if there’s any truth to the Homecoming “fatigue”, it might have something to do with so many of the grand old-timers dying in such a short period of time. So, it isn’t as strong of a lineup as it was, but who else is out there offering anything like it? Bill and Gloria have kept the church singing for 35 years, Bill has always been able to search out the best new talent, and the Homecoming videos and DVD’s have been a global blessing. Ultimately, I think that they will continue to be filmed and sold, even after the tour itself closes down. And if that day comes, we’ll still have a world of memories of the golden era of sgm. We have a lot to be thankful and grateful for, and we owe them a debt of gratitude. Finally, for what it’s worth, I completely agree with RF. Phelps, Penrod, and Lowry were the three best upper voices ever assembled in one quartet, I feel. I don’t say that lightly, as there have been some great quartets through the years. But, voice-by-voice, they’re me benchmark. As for stacks, I don’t think they’re a huge deal. We all try to take advantage of any of the new technologies that we can, and that’s just one. No one can sing perfectly every night, and stacks represent that one time that we sang it as close to perfectly as possible. After all, it was good enough to be the final take on a CD. It adds fullness to the sound, and it allows a singer to ease up a bit on the nights when there’s some vocal strain. I just keep thinking that way too many groups don’t sound all that great with 4 voices, so why would it sound better with stacks of 4 or 8 additional voices?! You have to have the ability first to make stacks work. So, if you have it, why not use them? It’s just not a huge deal to me, one way or the other.

  5. Leebob wrote:

    I whole heartedly agree on the contributions of Gaither to gospel music in general, let alone SG.

    The whole thing about stacks is this:

    Is it used to add a part that 3 or 4 people cannot possibly do? Or is it added to make a group sound fuller than it is? The original to me is acceptable, the latter is disingenuous to the fans and a slap in the face to the groups who choose not to use stacks and still manage to fill up a room with sound. I even heard one group use a nationally known group’s track WITH the background voices. Give me a break!When soloists sound small and then all of a sudden your group sounds like a choir you have abused the privilege of technology. Make it live not memorex, even if you are Ernie Haas.

  6. Howland Sharpe wrote:

    One thing not mentioned: Each GVB group after English-Franklin-Lowry has had the advantage of pitch/time corrected recordings. In laymen’s terms, this means they could lierally sing almost a half step off key and nowhere near in-time, but magically….on the CD it sounds perfect. There is no blend like an electronic blend.

  7. Trent wrote:

    I heard a Gaither interview some months ago, and he said that he is striving to put out music with GVB that people will listen to in 30 or 40 years and say, “Hey, that’s good stuff.”

    I think that’s a noble goal. If SG groups today would realize that they are going to be heard in 20 years….whether their CDs shine or stink, somebody will pick it up & listen to it….they would spend more time in the studio and in the practice room. These records being made where the group does all their vocals in one day are never going to shine like the ones where the artists spend a great deal of time to get it right. Basically, we need to quit slopping records together and take the time to do it well.

  8. CVH wrote:

    Good post and comments. I agree that Bill and Gloria’s cumulative contributions to all of gospel music cannot be underestimated. From their songwriting to their mentoring and development of upcoming artists to the excellent marketing and brand strategies they have built over the years (the Trio, GVB, Homecoming concerts/product, etc.), no one comes close to having achieved what they have.

    There have been other people who’ve made great contributions to gospel music but Gaithers have always somehow been able to be on the cutting edge of what’s new (while at the same time anticipating the trends yet to come); they’ve always had a great team around them; and they’ve been blessed to be able to finance it all and bring it to market with great success.

    Has every project been a winner, every endeavor without flaw? Of course not. But for whatever shortcomings there have been, their overall contribution is, to me, unparalleled.

    I’ve enjoyed some of the GVB configurations better than others, but a lot of it for me comes down to song selection and the production/arranging. I have my favorites and less-favorites in those areas too. But again, all in all, the accolades they’ve received are well-deserved.

    I think we touched on the Homecoming ‘fatigue’ issue a few months back on some other topic. I agree, it’s a bit tired and bears little resemblence to how the series began. But ticket sales are still strong and I just read in one of the trades Friday that their cumulative total sales of Homecoming videos has now topped 20 million with many of the titles platinum or multi-platinum. Two new titles release next week. I don’t think the product cycle is anywhere near peaking even if the shows themselves are different from what they were.

    One other thought that hasn’t been mentioned here: the use of stacks has been commonplace in secular pop music and on Broadway (and in touring companies as well) for years. Sometimes they’re overused (just as in SG) and sometimes they enhance the performance without taking away from the “live” aspect. When used sparingly and tastefully I don’t have a problem with themt; when they’re over the top and the group is dependent on them to sound good, they do a disservice.

  9. wackythinker wrote:

    I remember the first confirmation I had that groups were using stacks in concert: At a Homecoming concert, The Old Friends Quartet was singing, and the guys held out their last note, then cut off about 3 beats before the track voices cut off. That should have been an embarassing moment, but either they didn’t hear it happen, or it happened often enough they didn’t care.

    The last time I saw EHSS, their track was stacked so much it just didn’t sound believable. I don’t mind if a group uses stacked voices so as not to sound hollow, but to make 4 guys sound like a 100-voice choir? I don’t think so.

    And a friend mentioned he caught a soloist lipsynching at a concert. The sound came out, but the singer’s mouth wasn’t moving. Oh, maybe that was part of Tayler Mason’s ventriloquism act?

  10. clyde wrote:

    I bet Doug is a little miffed that he only has a few nay sayers on his anti-Gaither rant page.

    Seems to me that, the older I get, I find that the folks who are able to make a splash get out there and do it. The wannabees who can’t just sit around and write about those who do. And ususally put down the ones who are the most successful. Can’t wait to see Douglas and the Singing Harrison Family live, and see what their sound is like.

  11. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Howland,
    You make an excellent point, but I wouldn’t sell the level of talent short. I remember watching a video Mark Lowry had made of them in the studio. Several of the shots were of David recording a single line over and over…sounding nearly perfect each time (at least as much as you could tell with an internet video), but the version of the line that ended up on the CD was the one where he intentionally “scooped” it. If they had corrected the pitch on that one, it wouldn’t have had the same effect.

    One thing I’ve learned in the few opportunities I’ve had to sit in a studio and watch true professional quality singers record is that they don’t have to fix as much as you might think.

    You closed with, “on the CD it sounds perfect. There is no blend like an electronic blend.” I disagree. Digital tools can be used to tweak a performance and make it slightly better, but that’s all. When it’s been used so much you can tell that’s it’s been used, it’s no longer better.

  12. Canuk wrote:

    I’ll take this opportunity to express the displeasure I felt after watching the GVB sing “Give Up” on the Goodmans “50 Years” DVD. Guy sings one line behind which you can clearly hear Michael English. Uuugh. It seemed criminal…blatantly criminal. :P Especially with three very capable vocalists standing there.

  13. Howland wrote:

    DBM,
    In no way do I mean to take away from the talent level of more recent GVB groups. There have been some great singers, no doubt.

    But digital pitch-correction has changed everything. And quite frankly, some of us who are around it every day of our lives can hear it, even when used judiciously, within seconds after hitting the Play button.

    What you heard “scooped” may still have been pitch corrected — very few mix engineers are doing the “correcting” surgically, a note here and a note there. Most are either running the whole vocal through an auto-tune function that tunes every note in real time or they’re literally tuning, graphically, every single note while at the same time moving it around to place it “in the pocket” rhythmically. The most savvy engineers will even run it through a tuning function while the vocalist is recording their vocals so that, on playback, it sounds almost perfect. It makes the day go much shorter when recording little family singing groups! And (some Nashville recording engineers are smiling right now) this technique has been used on some more well-known talent as well.

    The operative words in your post are “…tweak a performance.” It’s being tweaked more than you probably care to know.

  14. Canuk wrote:

    By the way, I don’t think this was from EHSSQ’s 2002 DVD….the latter performance of “Home” is from Ernie’s latest…”Get Away Jordan.”

  15. Gaither Defender wrote:

    – Stacks vs. No Stacks…who cares? When you hear a group live, you can
    hear the distinct parts and individuality of each voice that guarantees it
    is a live vocal (trust me…you listen to the recorded version enough,
    you’ll recognize any variations). All groups use them…get your big girl
    panties on and get over it.

    – Having heard many different incarnations of the GVB live, all I can say
    is it’s not fair to say that the GVB has declined in talent. I’m the
    biggest David Phelps fan there is…there isn’t a tenor past or present
    that can touch him vocally or stagemanship. The Phelps, Lowry, Penrod
    combo is the best quartet to ever take a stage period. Now, the present
    Hampton, Penrod, Hall combo is amazing in different ways and will only
    continue to get better as they go along.

    I find it incredible that every SG blog makes Gaither and company weekly
    fodder. There is not better quality SG than what Bill and the his quartet,
    as well as the homecoming friends provide. Years from now people will
    remember the Gaithers, EHSS, and etc, but the rest will burn with the
    chaff.

  16. QN wrote:

    Gaither Defender,
    But when I can’t hear the live vocals because of the stacks, I get very aggrivated. Especially if the group standing on stage (are they lipsincing or really singing???) has great vocal abilities.

    I say use them sparingly, as a special effect. For example, the song “Death Has Died”. Or maybe “Let Freedom Ring”
    Or when a trio, duet, or soloist needs a quartet sound on a certain song.
    But it seems criminal to cover up good live talent with pre-recorded vocals.
    Just stick the groups’ CD in and play it without them on stage.

  17. Ray B wrote:

    I vehemently oppose stacks. I am a bass singer in a touring group and have also been a recording engineer for several years. I dislike the stacks for the very same reason that I dislike protools, compression,the loudness wars and autotune. They take the human element(s) out of the performance and destroy the spirit of the thing. I don’t watch the Gaither stuff, haven’t for years(since it started to resemble a badly scripted variety show), but see a lot of the stacked voices thing on the road. Misuse of technology should be a crime.

  18. Auke wrote:

    I attended Gaither concert in Rotterdam last March, and i was very dissappointed…the sound was bad, and they used so much stacks..it was a disgrace! ! The GVB, the Hoppers were there sans Claude and Connie who apparently couldn’t make it on the european tour…so Dean and Kim sang with Janet Paschal (who’s nose job has gone bad) helping them out…why they even bothered to bring in Janet it’s beyond me…because it sounded exactly the same as if Claude and Connie were there.
    It was awful…the only thing that was good that night was when Bill led us in singing some classic songs.
    It was a tinfoil thing throughout…a shame because they can all sing very well.

    Auke

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