GMA Week: Harmony Honors
If Tuesday night’s Southern Gospel Music Guild’s revamped Harmony Honors were, as we were repeatedly told, a showcase and celebration of sg’s best, then it’d be difficult not to wake up this morning thinking southern gospel music is a creatively impoverished genre populated at most levels by overgrow amateurs.
I don’t believe this is true (at least not entirely), but that brings us to another problem: if the raft of performances that, with a few exceptions, ranged from ok to subpar to unspeakably bad does not represent the best of the genre, what are these acts doing on stage at an event that’s supposed to make the case to the wider world of Christian music for the genre’s value and relevance?
To be fair, the concept of last night’s event was not bad. Honoring important contributions to the industry and showcasing top-notch talent in a hybrid awards-show/concert format. It has a lot of potential. But the execution this year? Not so much.
First the good news. The Isaacs played their set like Charlie Daniels wished he could when he sold his soul the devil. It didn’t hurt that theirs was the only performance that didn’t rely on tracks of any kind. But even surrounded mostly by canned mediocrity, the Isaacs still looked and sounded like a million bucks (though really, Lily Isaacs can stop making “Jew from NY” jokes).
And Mike and Kelly Bowling (which refers both to two real people and to a trio comprising said Bowlings and an unnamed third voice) sang with the kind of self-possession and command that almost every other performance lacked. The song – “Your Cries Have Awoken the Master” if I recall rightly – was just right for the room and the event (even though a fierce debate broke out in the group of people I went out with after the concert over whether “awoken” is a word … it is … and whether or not Jesus needs to be awoken or awakened or roused from sleep or whatever by human cries if he was God incarnate … about which I have no clue), and their harmony was tight, controlled, and smartly arranged to play to their strengths and complement their voices together and alone. I want to hear that modulation again.
After that though … well. … here are some of the Disharmony Honors I left the evening wishing I could have doled out.
The “Some Performers Just Have a Bad Night” Honor: Brian Free and Assurance. They performed about 45 minutes into the show and were received quite enthusiastically. But they were a mess musically. I think the response is more of a comment on the rank amateurism of the show up to that point than much else. BFA sang as bad as I’ve ever heard them, but they looked great – like real headliners (even if Brian Free looked creepily like Joel Osteen) – and the audience may have just wanted something to relieve the pall of unprofessionalism that already hung over the room. I know I did.
“The Most Manifestly Absurd Claim” Honor: that the honorees were chosen on the basis of “objective and observed measures” of excellence, including sales, charts, and airplay. This according to the guild president. Some choices were no-brainers: Bill Gaither, EHSSQ, Mark Lowry (none of them bothered to show, and after seeing how unprofessional it all was, I can’t really blame them). But what commonly applied “objective and observed measures” could end up honoring both Lily Knauls and Lari Goss? It’s not that someone like Goss doesn’t deserve to be honored (though there are sg producers out there who, confined strictly to this year, since this is an annual awards show, would appear to have achieved a lot more). And it’s not that the guild can’t honor Knauls if it wants to. But next time, either expose your criteria and use the introductions to specifically explain the factors contributing to each honoree’s selection, or just dispense with the pretense of this being anything more than a laundry list of names chosen for a variety of less than objective reasons.
The “We Can’t Miss You If You Won’t Go Away” Honor: The Crabb Family, sans Jason (hat tip, J). The CF had their 15 minutes, but at this point they’re just mocking their own long goodbye, performing stuff like they did last night that’s beyond the pale of anything remotely like gospel and much closer to … what? I see in my notes I scrawled “bad Santana.”
The “Spread Too Thin” Honor: The Easters. Though they were double-booked across the street at the Ryman at 8 p.m., the first 45 minutes of the Harmony Show (which started at 7) could easily have been The Jeff & Sheri Show: cohosts, presenters, performers, players, singers, accepting by proxy for other groups. They were everywhere. Perhaps being spread too thin accounted for their problems during “Life Is Great.” Young Morgan Easter, who has – I don’t know how else to say this – taken Charlotte Ritchie’s place (at least she’s singing that part) deserves some time to get used to the bright lights and the big show. But I hope she hit more of her notes at the Ryman than she did at the Hilton. And in general, I hope Jeff & Sheri use this transition in the life-cycle of their group to self-assess a bit. Despite the fact that their (arguably) two biggest hits, “Praise His Name” and “Roses Will Bloom,” were serious songs, they keep gravitating to novelty diddies like “Life is Great” as if they’re worried people will forget the group’s aw-shucks appeal. They won’t, at least not as long as Jeff Easter is emceeing. So more “Over and Over,” please.
Best Costume Honor: Joyce Martin, for what looked like a neo-Roller Derby outfit.
The “How to Dishonor your Honorees” Honor: each honored artist was introduced with sky-high praise, received a statuette, and gave an acceptance speech. And the songwriters? Their names were flashed up briefly on the screen while the announcer stumbled through a recitation of writers and publishers. The artists themselves were hustled on the stage to receive, with their backs to us, what looked like (as a friend of mine put it) a VBS certificate for most bible verses memorized. Unlike most artists, who were seated front and center within easy access of the dais, the songwriters were buried in the middle of rows in the middle of the room, so that they had to fumble and lurch their way to the aisle, only to be herded like cattle across the stage. The impulse to honor songwriters is right and extremely decent in an industry that has historically crapped on its lyricists and composers. But if it’s worth doing …
The Most Cringe Inducing Performance: Three Bridges. I gather they were trying to be high energy with their performance of the increasingly distant hit, “Feel a Little Song Comin’ On.” But mostly they just came across as three guys having a midlife crisis on stage. Wearing silly bling, shouting their lines, running around the ballroom gladhanding the audience during the song, … at one point, the short little older fella on the left did what looked like a cross between the splits and a herky (it made the McCray Dove NQC high-jump incident of 2004 look tame and restrained). Oh my. I felt a little something comin’ on alright. Ugh.
Unintentionally Funniest Comment: Lily Knauls, exclaiming her surprise at being honored … even though the honorees were announced some time ago.
Chutzpah Honor: whoever had the audacity to describe the Tribute Quartet as a group staffed by singers who have been recognized as among the “best” “in their position.” More like, “their booking agent was a platinum sponsor of the event.” In any event, theirs wasn’t the worst performance of the night (see Bridges, Three), but it wasn’t for lack of bad singing and even worse stage presence. The tenor singer, Jacob Kitson, seems to think that prowling about the stage in a half-crouch, wagging his finger at us for emphasis, and generally behaving like a cross between an overheated televangelist and Cat woman makes for good sangin’. It doesn’t. Perhaps Josh Singletary senses this. At any rate, he seemed to be trying to smile himself senseless through the whole ordeal. And why where they all shouting? Have these guys ever watched one of their own performances?
The Self-Sabotaging Honor: the guild for its (dis)organization of the show. Long, dead silences while groups waited for their tracks to cue; a teleprompter that was positioned so that presenters and hosts had to physically turn and look away from and above the audience in order to read their lines; a nearly unreadable and often incomprehensible script drowning in manifestly absurd superlatives (if everyone is the best, no one is); cold mics, missing spotlights, predictably crummy sound; and, evidently, the cameraman from Blair Witch (never mind that in a room that small, a gi-normous projection screen was at best redundant and often distracting).
By itself, any one of these things wouldn’t necessarily be a big deal, especially in southern gospel which sometimes seems almost eager to sabotage its own high-stakes events in order to reinforce the self-styled image of homespun authenticity, as though professionalism runs the risk of being mistaken for impious contrivance. But taken together and added to the performances, the combined effect of these infelicities was a concert that felt like a grab bag of awards show clichés, accompanied by singing that often felt not much better than your average NQC talent show, even if that probably wasn’t objectively the case. It was almost as if the guild got together and said, “hey let’s put on a super slick awards show concert,” and then nobody started really thinking about how to pull it off until last week.
Update: David Bruce Murray helpfully juxtaposes my take on the show with Allison Lynn’s.Email this Post