How would the Kingsmen be received today?
It’s an interesting question that reader Oldtimer poses here. OT’s point seems to be that the “three chords and a cloud of dust” approach that the Kingsmen epitomized would be a welcome relief in these latter days of uber-slick, hyper-choreographed, fully tracked, and stratospherically stacked gospel music performance. I’m not really sure the answer matters so much for several reasons, not least of all is that 1)you can’t re-create something that’s already been enshrined in memory and perfected by years of nostalgia and backstage folklore; 2)even if you could re-create it, no one has the money or interest in doing so these days because except for a few us online blatherers, the rest of southern gospel music seems not the least bit bothered by the (d)evolution into pre-programmed artificiality.
What does interest me about OT’s question is what it implies about broader trends in taste and the role gospel music plays in modeling a kind of collective Christian identity for its fans. That is, I’m interested in the historical conditions that make a group like the Kingsmen and their unpolished style popular at a particular moment and, alternatively, what it is that appeals to people in our time about the super glossy made-for-tv muzak that has come to dominate the stage and the product table.
I’m not really a music or cultural historian but I play one online sometimes, which leads me to theorize that the Kingsmen of the 70s were the sedimentation of a trend that started most famously with the Goodmans but could probably be traced back at least to the Chuck Wagon Gang or the Speers – a style of gospel that emphasized an improvisational stage presence and energetic harmonics over polish and musical poise. Initially, I doubt there was much conscious strategizing about this cultivating of an “authentic” (as opposed to authentic) sound, but by the time of the Goodmans rise in the early 60s, it’s clear that carefully crafted carelessness was all the rage.
Partly this may have been a reaction to the increasingly professionalized sounds and appearance of groups like the Blackwoods and Statesman and Oak Ridge and other male quartets who descended from the mainstream tradition started by the big publishing houses that first put quartets on the road earlier in the century. A rougher, less coiffed sound was a way to distinguish oneself from the dominant tradition while remaining within it. At the same time, a group like the Goodmans – and later the Kingsmen – appealed to a growing segment of the charismatic, Pentecostal, holiness, and otherwise exuberant Christian consumers who didn’t immediately identify with the buttoned down, three-piece, pressed and polished manner of the James Blackwood-Big Chief quartet tradition. Put another way: The Gospel Boogie may have shocked Baptists but it’s pretty thin soup for anyone who’s spent a Sunday evening down at the local AG when everybody starts singing and shoutin and calling the glory down etc.
By the time the Kingsmen rose to fame in the 70s, the Pentecostal influence in gospel music had become absorbed into the mainstream of sg. Though I’m not sure anyone has made this case conclusively, there’s a widespread sense among gospel music insiders who care that the Pentecostal trend in gospel was not unrelated to the simultaneous rise of Contemporary Christian Music. I’d be hardpressed to prove this with vast tracts of empirical evidence at the moment, but I think the case of Gaither and his circle and what they were doing in the 70s and 80s is just one example that suggests that the insp0/anthem/early PW wing of CCM was populated by a large number of gospel-music ex-patriots. Or as a friend of mine who had a front-row seat for all this put it to me in an email a while back:
If you took a hard look at when contemporary music gained a foot hold, you would find that it was roughly 4 years after the Goodman’s, and the Rambo’s became household names in gospel music circles. I have heard certain members of the Imperials say that their transition to the contemporary side was mainly due to a feeling that they needed to distance themselves from the “gospel music” popular of the day, namely Country Gospel. And the Imperials were largely responsible for ushering in that new era we now call contemporary.
I remember well the first concert our group did with a group with a full country band. I can never remember feeling more out of place, and totally lost. That was about 1972.
So the Kingsmen style – and this should take within its sweep all the groups that preceded and were part of it – represented the solidification of class and denominational differences in the musical sound of gospel. Southern gospel identified with the KM and made them successful because it was a way of disambiguating the old familiar faithful “us” from the scary new apostate “them” of CCM.
Thirty years on, things are both more and less complicated, I think. The rise of non-demonational megachurches, the suburbanization of large parts of the south, and the vast growth of Christian entertainment (not unrelated to the first two trends) has helped dissolve many of the old boundaries that used to make for clearer segments with Protestantism. Now there is more or less “evangelicalism,” a collective and individual identity forged as much by the culture wars of the 80s and 90s as anything else. One effect of this rise of evangelicalism has been a heightening of image-consciousness, of aesthetics. Long the butt of jokes from snooty citified types who assume “evangelical” = uncultivated bumpkins, much of conservative Christianity has given itself a makeover.
In gospel music, that has meant an increased attention to lighting, presentation, intros and outros, transitions, and pretty much every other aspect of performance and recording to a degree that was unheard of, unthinkable even maybe, to the gospel music mainstream in the 70s. And of course, it’s meant the ascendancy of tracks and stacks and digitized music. A group like Signature Sound is the epitome of this style. And I mean that largely as a compliment, even though I find it hard to like a lot of what they do. Say what you will about Ernie Haase’s love of cheese in all its forms and flavors, he’s creative and smart and unafraid to see how far fans will follow him into territory that isn’t exactly uncharted, but is pretty unknown for musicians singing the kinds of music that’s the mainstay of Signature Sound’s repertoire.
Their popularity, like Gaither’s and the Homecoming music generally, arises from its ability to sound, feel, and look (the aesthetics are sooo important here) as good, as slick, as professional, and well-lit as anything that an equivalent secular artist could do, and yet also be deeply familiar as gospel music at the same time (as opposed to being slavishly imitative, as is the wont of so many of these “classic quartet” types out there now). A group like EHSSQ lets fans remain affiliated with the old time way while also satisfying the aesthetic standards that modern audiences have come to expect in our highly visual, digitized, and over-produced culture.
Which gets us back to OT’s question. All this leads to me believe that while there might be some nostalgic fondness for a return to the KM or Happy Goodman style music (assuming anyone besides the Perrys still exist who could pull it off authentically and not just quasi-parodically), there really wouldn’t be a mass audience to support this music the way there is, say, Gaither Vocal Band and EHSSQ or Mark Lowry or Greater Vision or whomever else you’d place along these lines. These groups and their style of singing, staging, and producing music in all its forms are a fulfillment of the mainstream evangelical imagination today, an idealization of what average fans want to believe their best selves to be and become.Email this Post