Denomination and style
A while back commenter Tom took me to task for misunderstanding the relationship of artists’ denominational affiliation to their work and its appeal. Specifically, he argued that I was “somehow conflating the holiness tradition and the pentecostal tradition in ways that make absolutely no sense to your argument.”
The comment goes on for some time in an attempt to correct my confusion, as Tom sees it, and I’ll let you read or reread it (or not) for yourself. There are some important bits of history and context there that are worth your time, and it’s pretty clear that I played too fast and loose with my terminology in that post. So thanks to Tom for taking the time to respond.
That said, his comment is a good example of a common mistake people make in discussing and analyzing southern gospel and its development: namely, assuming that artists aim for, and appeal to, roughly the same denominational background from which the artists themselves emerge. There are many reasons why this is not true – too many to get into here. It’s enough for now to note the problem and discuss it.
Because Bill Gaither was Tom’s main focus, let’s talk about Gaither (yeah, yeah, … I know. … it’s all Gaither all the time around here). A Nazarene church man himself, he has nevertheless moved progressively in his artistic career to the expressive left of the Nazarene holiness tradition (and even farther away from Pentecostalism, which is why I hypothesized in the original post Tom commented on that Jason Crabb may have been an attractive commodity to Gaither’s Spring Hill label, because Crabb has a big following among Pentecostals). Meanwhile, gospel music has tended rightward toward an increasingly charismatic and pentecostalized set of performance styles that might well describe as “pentecostal/holiness.”
One result of this movement is that at this late point in his career, Gaither finds himself stylistically somewhere between the more conservative spans of the CCM spectrum on his left (and progressive CCM on his FAR left), and mainstream southern gospel on his right (even though the latter looks and sounds more like the holiness tradition of which he himself is a product denominationally).
I don’t mean to suggest there aren’t any examples of artists who more or less adopt the practices of their denominational background. The McGruders, anyone?
But a folk historian casting about for a dissertation topic could do worse than to look at southern gospel music as the history of conservative Protestant musicians figuring out how to adapt and adopt themselves stylistically to the unmet needs or unexploited segments of the gospel music fanbase.
Call this the Denominational Paradox in southern gospel music history. And this leads directly to Harrison’s Corollary to the Denominational Paradox: namely, that southern gospel music is a primary way that certain parts of conservative evangelicalism maintain its theoretically absolutist ideology while informally and practically accommodating a plurality of worldviews and perspectives, since in order to optimally position themselves within the southern gospel music market, artists often have to decouple themselves from the narrow commitments and visions of their denominational backgrounds. But that will have to wait for another day, or dissertation.
To sum up, then: it’s dicey to assume that performers always already appeal to the denominational tradition with which they self-identify. Go forth and dissentify.
Update: First off, I’ve edited that final paragraph from the original so that it no longer reads as if it were written for aliens. Second, there seems to be some genuine confusion over Gaither’s denominational affiliation, and/but until I have time to go back and look at his autobiographies again, I’m going to leave it as is. With respect to the argument I’m making, the difference between Nazarene and Church of God is negligible. The point is that denomination seems to have played at best a secondary or indirect shaping role in Gaither’s musical style. Or, as Eddie Crook puts it, “denominations have little to do with SG careers and personal appearances.” Just so.Email this Post