Reverse Crossover

Kyle Boreing asks an interesting question: if songs like “Jesus Take the Wheel” can come out in secular country and then be adopted by gospel audiences – a so-called reverse crossover – why can’t it work the other way? Why can’t some songs originally released in sg be (re)released to country and adopted by those audiences given the obvious appeal there is among that crowd for gospel flavored songs?

There are probably several nuts and bolts reasons that have to do with the way different genres do (and do not) interact economically, and Kyle gets into some of those (as well as suggesting some interesting ideas for ways gospel might strategically cross over to country). But I’ll let those of you who know more about this stuff than I do weigh in on that on your own.

What I’m more curious about is Kyle’s assumption that the absence of gospel music on country radio has to do with a failure of innovative marketing or collaboration. Kyle seems to be saying that since songs with gospel themes are so popular to country audiences (and they are), then plenty of sg ought to work on country radio. But I’m not so sure.

Particularly, I wonder if the popularity of gospel flavored songs like “Jesus Take the Wheel” isn’t so much the gospel component per se but the fact that they’re being sung by artists with full-blown high-powered name-in-lights mega-star country music careers. That is, when Alan Jackson twangs on about Jesus, the appeal of this sort of song is that it shows us Country Music Star Alan Jackson has a Jesusy side.

This in turn creates a kind of curiosity piece out of the person who sings these songs: it cuts against the image of the profane beer-swiller associated with most of country music’s leading men, and a few of its leading women (hello, Gretchen Wilson); while for the Carrie Underwoods and Martina McBrides who go down the Jesus path in their music, it beatifies the stock ideas out there about the resilient, faithful female country music star who gets her strength from a higher power - an image that really hasn’t changed that much since Tammy Wynette, all things considered. There’s just less hairspray and sequins and rather than being implied (as it once was) the religious angle is more explicitly addressed these days. In both the male and female varieties, country singers showing a gospel side is just one dimension of a larger tendency in country music for stars to insist that, as Faith Hill puts it, “a Mississippi girl don’t change her ways, just ’cause everybody knows her name.” (I had lunch a while back with someone who used to work for Hill and not so politely begged to differ with this assertion, but that’s another story)

As for the penchant of country music types to find religion now and then in their songs, this image of the pious country music singer is appealing, I think, because it popularizes a more or less sincere but fairly generic brand of Christian piety, mostly involving hymnbook platitudes and church lady talk without all the blood and moralism that comes with so much of traditional gospel music. Inasmuch as entertainers become an idealized image of what their fans want to be at some level, Carrie Underwood and Alan Jackson singing about Jesus the way they do makes it ok for country music audiences to sing a little, drink a little, cuss a little, and not necessarily think they’re going to hell for it. Not so, with most southern gospel songs.

But even if this weren’t a problem (and as Kyle notes, there are songs like Gaither’s “Give It Away” that could easily appeal, lyrically speaking at least, to wider audience outside Christian music), there’s an image problem for most gospel music performers. You can easily imagine Jackson or Underwood walking into the Elks Lodge in Popular Bluff, Missouri, and singing a song or two and having a drink, and then just as likely fitting it at the Victory Baptist church the next morning - because, as I note, most people who listen to their music see a bit of themselves (good and bad, church and Elks Lodge) in those singers. I don’t think very many people who listen to country music radio are going to want be Guy Penrod (that hair!) or Bill Gaither (that hair!) or EHSSQ (that hair!). Someone walking into the Elks Lodge looking like any of these guys are more likely to get beat up than asked to sing (plus, I doubt the Elks Lodge has upgraded to digitrax players yet).

The bottom line: As long as country music remains a product of popular culture and its mass-market values and gospel music remains a product of a religious subculture built around the idea of separating itself from the world (and performing that separateness in their music), I just don’t think there’s going to be a lot of appeal to southern gospel among country music audiences, no matter how creatively you package it.


Update: a friend writes:

A second, and possibly related, reason why [reverse crossover] doesn’t work: Clear Channel control. Clear Channel owned country stations are “centrally” programmed. You have to first get on the central database that their stations download from. This is nigh impossible unless you are a big enough revenue source to Clear Channel. Here’s a list of Clear Channel owned country stations. You could compare it with the Billboard/BDS reporting station list and see how it matches. I think that this is also why Singing News seems to cull gospel songs by country artists from its chart … you might call it reverse retribution.


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Trackbacks & Pings

  1. Musicscribe Blog » Southern Gospel Artists On Country Radio on 07 Dec 2007 at 4:31 pm

    […] Boreing started this topic and Doug Harrison added to the conversation today. Here are my thoughts on the […]

  2. Reverse Crossover and Southern Gospel Music | Sporter's Studio on 07 Jan 2008 at 3:38 am

    […] Boreing started this topic and Doug Harrison added to the conversation today. Here are my thoughts on the […]


  1. Part-timer wrote:

    Great thoughts, Avery. For the most part, I think you’re right on the money.

    The biggest drawback to this phenomenon to me comes at award time. If the Grammy nominations for Gospel album of the year include Alan Jackson, GVB, EH&SS and the Crabb Family, 9 times out of 10, Alan Jackson wins. Not because his album is better (it’s usually not) but because he’s the only one the RIAA voters have ever heard of.

    It’s compounded by the fact that such country-star-goes-gospel albums rarely contain any original material or even creative arranging. They’re usually straightforward country versions of hymns or standards.

    I’m sure it must be frustrating for a gospel artist to spend countless hours writing, rewriting, arranging, rearranging, harmonizing, tweaking, etc., etc. to put out a great project only to be beaten out for an award by some guy with a 5-piece country band laying down 10 hymn tracks in one afternoon — just because he or she is a star.

    Sad to say, but you even see this happen at the Dove Awards. It’s not as prevalent, but still you sometimes get the idea that the GMA voters are so enamored by someone’s star power that they don’t actually judge the album on the merits.

  2. Cabell wrote:

    I have thought for a long time that the Isacc’s music would do really well on secular radio. Songl like “Heroes” and “Friend ‘Till The End”. Simply because, as avery has stated, they are not necessarily an evangelical tool meant to turn someone from sin toward the Savior. They have a great message that would resonate well with the “Jesus Take The Wheel” folks.

  3. j-mo wrote:

    I’m not a Gaither hater, in fact, I’m quite the Vocal Band fan. However, the song ‘Give It Away’ sounds a lot more like a song Alan Jackson or Carrie Underwood already rejected than a song they should be clamoring to record. I’d say the quality of Christian music’s cross-over type songs has more to do with why they aren’t picked up by country artists than anything else. When we create quality enough marketable songs, then people might take interest in crossing them over. Think ‘Mary Did You Know’ or ‘Christmas Shoes’.

  4. Jim2 wrote:

    An exception that comes readily to mind was “I Can Only Imagine” that not only crossed from CCM to Country (done by Jeff Carson) but also into SG (most notably by Ivan Parker) but I think that had more to do with the “song” than any other factor.
    Very interesting post - I’m looking forward to hearing what others have to say

  5. Joe wrote:


    What about old SG standards as “I Saw The Light”, “I’ll Fly Away”, “Jesus Take My Hand”, and a number of others like this? I seem to have seen and heard these songs and many like them having been recorded and used by country artists over the years…

  6. cdguy wrote:

    “I Saw The Light” was written by country legend Hank Williams, Sr. Which throws back to the comment about singing & drinking at the Elks on Saturday night, then singing at church on Sunday morning.

    Several years ago, Ray Stevens recorded “Turn Your Radio On”, and had a pretty decent hit with it. But I think a lot of that had to do with novelty, more than message or great tunesmithing. Nothing wrong with the song, mind you, but not a strong evangelistic tool, either. “Get in touch with God”, simply by turning your radio to gospel music? Hmmmmm

  7. Angie M wrote:

    I think the fact that so many SG songs talk about the gates of pearl and the streets of gold makes them irrelevant to many listeners of country. As #4 pointed out, “I Can Only Imagine” did manage to cross over, but it’s a song about heaven that doesn’t mention mansions. I guess that’s a specific example of Doug’s point: Country is designed to appeal to the masses, while SG is written primarily for those who see themselves as separate from the rest of the world.

  8. Grigs wrote:

    I think you need to get with the times, Mr. Fineline. There have been plenty of male country singers with hair like Guy Penrod’s. ;)

  9. Norm Graham wrote:

    Alanna Nash did a good article on songs of faith on the country charts in Country Weekly in June 2006. She noted in the previous 18 months that country radio had aired a record setting 11 spiritually themed hits. She believes a trend towards songs of faith is a natural outgrowth of songs of war and patriotism. A study of the charts over 30 years found a few faith songs but nothing like more recent times. Looking back, there were lots of periods with no spiritually based songs in the Top 40.

    So can SGM cross over to country? One comment in the article indicate there are a lot of differences in the approach to writing songs of faith.

    Writer Craig Wiseman (”Believe” by Brooks and Dunn) says: “I went through religious school and I’m always dealing with the polar opposites of spiritualism and tattoes and whiskey. I think this song gets its message across without preaching. . . . It’s just like there is something out there to hang onto when everything else has gone to hell.”

    Believing in a higher power when faced with tragedy seems to the theme of a lot of these songs.

    Besides the approach to writing, the star power of the artist is of course a big factor. Alan Jackson’s hymn album was made for his mother and not intended to be released commercially. When it was put out, it became the only gospel recording to debut at #1 on Billboard’s country charts. It was also #1 on the Christian music charts. Of course, old hymns by stars have sold in the past such as the many hymn albums done by Tennessee Ernie Ford who had a network TV show around the same time.

    My personal view is the the quality of the writing is also a factor. A writer like Kris Kristofferson may have written only a few gospel songs but they are classics — Why Me, Lord? and One Day at a Time (co-written with Marijohn Wilkins).

  10. CVH wrote:

    Not a SG group by any stretch, but the title track of Point of Grace’s new project, “How You Live”, is to me a great example of a crossover song. Their new project has so much of a ‘Faith Hill sound’ to it anyway. I’m surprised that the song wasn’t cut by a country artist already and it wouldn’t surprise me if it does at some point. I think j-mo is on the right track; it’s more a quality issue than an acceptability issue.

  11. Bryan K. Fowler wrote:

    This could be done relatively easy on Country Radio IF it were programmed properly. The key is how the station is imaged. If its a “family” type Country Station, for instance, WFMS in Indianapolis could very easily get by with much of the high end Southern Gospel. On the other hand, if it were “The Cat”…bringing you 50 minutes of today’s new country brought to you by Bud Light… then it would pose a programming stump and would really make me uncomfortable and would make a mess out of it. May Country Stations air vinettes or short form teaching features like Dobson, Rainey and some of those guys…sound great during drive time and no one ever complains.

    A good programmer can do just about anything and get by with it and its pleasant to the ears. Something to keep in mind, a bad programmer cannot even get by with playing Bluegrass Gospel on a SG station…there has to be a consistent flow and there has to be a reason for what you are doing.

    It would take an out of the box programmer to do this, but if you had 2 or 3 major market stations do it… the others would follow and this would work wonderfully for the genre. It would not hurt fulltime SG stations as it would only compliment what they are doing and drive more listeners. Keep in mind, 7 out of 10 people still think of Southern Gospel to be hoaky, poor quality and undesirable to listen to. We all know that not to be the case. Good music, good programming, GOOD REPUTATIONS and good common sense is what this genre needs reflected in the mainstream. This would be a great tool for doing so.

  12. Part-timer wrote:

    One more thought about this — the real reason is money. The days of a good song rising to the top on radio are largely over. It’s all about promotion. To promote a song to country radio takes a minimum of $100K. The ENTIRE (recording, marketing, etc.) budget for a major SG release may be $40K. Also, a programmer at a major country station gets HUNDREDS of calls a week. Chances of him taking a call from a group he’s never heard of are slim. SG programmers are much more likely to take a call from someone promoting a country star than vice versa.

  13. Doug Sword wrote:

    I think one of the biggest obstacles to the reverse crossover effect is that much of the best of SG doesn’t really have much of a country vibe. I don’t see many country music programmers hearing the GVB do “Give It Away” and thinking “country blockbuster”. Most SG artists would have to cut new material aimed specifically at the crossover market. Additionally, most SG artists would have to improve their production values to find a home on country radio.

  14. Rod wrote:

    I disagree with most of you…Especially Doug Sword (respectfully). I’m not a song writer by any stretch but I still believe that one special song will make it every time…The point is “I can only imagine” is not a poetic masterpiece but it is catchy and it’s simple. And…The first release of this song was a garage recording Mercy Me did until it was re-released after being re-recorded by their record label. Butterfly kisses same thing…Released then re-released by record label…Christmas shoes…You get the picture. These songs all tug at our very being. They were noticed and played before the Label got it. It’s still the song that makes it. Also recording is not the art form it use to be…I can do an incredible recording in my project studio that would definitely rival any SG record I have heard however I sell records because of the SONG…Perfect example is that I went to three different studios, one being in Nashville…Hired the big boys and make an expensive High quality recording and my latest and the release prior still out sells it. SONG selection is King…find another “Christmas Shoes” or “butterfly kisses” and I’ll bet it gets noticed.

  15. TLW wrote:

    What I find amazing is that everyone clamors when a Country Star does do a Gospel Song or Album. Most of them learned to sing in church. There is a big deal made of the fact that some will throw a little Gospel in when they do concerts. Isn’t it nice that they still “love the Lord”. I say Whatever! I hope they do! But, let some really anointed groups sing and release some songs that are light on message content to try to draw more of the unsaved to come hear them so that they can be exposed to the message of Christ and the Christian community bashes them for all they are worth. Yet we give all this praise to the Country Artists for doing a gospel song now and then. Double standards in my book! If all any one is concerned about is a grammy, well then that is your reward anyway now isn’t it? What happened to ministry and seeing souls won to the Lord? The singing of the Word is just as important as the preaching of the word. It is a shame that those who travel and devote their lives to that, are not given the honor that they deserve. Of course I do understand that there are those who only do for fame, glory, and money. As I said before, in that they have their reward. After all the reason to do anything is to bring Glory and Honor to the God we serve.
    God Bless.
    Merry Christmas!

  16. william sanders wrote:

    the reason most r&b and country western singers throw in a gospel recording on their lp is because they want to capture all audience attention plus it makes them feel good down in their souls and you know every body has one regodless of which songs they love to sing most its their way of saying thank you from the heart

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