Watershed albums

Kyle Boreing and John Scheideman are kicking around an interesting question for gospel music history buffs and other discographic nerds: watershed albums in sg. Like all such “high impact” terms, this one could hang up a pedant like me for several thousand words just defining it, and John and Kyle have their own interpretations and lists.

But for the sake of brevity, I’m going to define watershed albums as records that mark a major stylistic or expressive development in the genre. So here are mine.

  • The three ten-inch double releases that Glenn Kieffer Vaughan produced in 1921 (here I’m relying on James Goff, Close Harmony, 75-76). But I’m happy to hear of an earlier documented project that would mark the inauguration of mass-marketed southern gospel music recordings.
  • The Sun’s Coming Up, Rex Nelon Singers (1977): This was the first album after Rex Nelon transformed the Lefevres into his own group. The title track was undeniably a huge hit, but I’m more interested in the album as a landmark in the development of mixed quartets. More than any other, this album represented the modernization of certain harmonic styles and hybrid sounds that traditional male quartets hadn’t much explored, and arguably still haven’t with some exceptions. The Rex Nelon Singers trademarked a southern gospel sound built around, among other things, closing the number of open parts between the bass the higher voices and experimenting with the idiosyncratic voicing of parts in the upper registers. The Nelons’ stylistic innovations in turn made possible (again arguably) the rise of the contemporary gospel trio, which has had to rely on something other than the traditional quartet’s high-low theatrics to sell. Of course, the Lefevres were already doing a lot of this experimentation with harmonic variety, but The Nelons really brought these sounds out from under the shadow of the traditional quartet, updating them musically and visually. That said, Feelings could also qualify just on the sheer number of knock-out songs on the album: “More Than Conquerors” and “Come Morning” just to name two. Then again … there’s Expressions of Love, with “Beulah Land” and “We Shall Wear a Robe and Crown,” both of which are undeniable standards. So …yeah, hard to say.

  • Wanted Live, Happy Goodmans (1971): it’s not just that it sold over 100,000 units in less than six months, which was huge at the time (heck, that’s huge now for a lot groups). More than that, though, the album pioneered the unpolished live gospel-folk album. Without Wanted Live, there’d arguably be no three chords and a cloud of dust and none of the groups that relied on that approach.

  • Something Special, The Cathedrals (1982): Mostly, it just feels like the Cathedrals ought to be on this list, and Symphony of Praise, which Kyle nominated, is a good contender. But just look at the songs on Something Special: “Step Into The Water,” “We Shall See Jesus,” “Then Came The Morning,” “Mexico,” “Going Home,” “Let Freedom Ring” and other great numbers. These songs really prefigure just about every song style that would dominate southern gospel for the next two decades. It was also the first Cathedrals album that Bill Gaither produced. The Cathedrals were already very successful by that time, but this album represents the first Gaither/Goss style project, with outsized arrangements and enormous orchestrations. As a friend of mine said to me the other day, “nothing like over-produced southern gospel … it carries pretension so well.” Exactly.

  • At Home in Indiana, Gaither Trio (1970-71): No, it wasn’t considered southern gospel at the time, but undoubtedly it has to be now. I was just listening to it the other day. The residue of Jesus-movement kumbayahism is a bit thick for me, but the album holds up remarkably well across time. And more important, it was doing stuff that southern gospel wouldn’t claim to have discovered for another 10 years or so. Tracing a line of influence forward, At Home in Indiana stands squarely behind an album like Something Special, which would never have worked if the Gaithers hadn’t already demonstrated a decade earlier the viability of gospel songs built around sophisticated storytelling devices, rich lyrical imagery, and musical pageantry. The album is all the more remarkable when you remember that there was really only one bonafide singer, Danny Gaither, in the group. At Home In Indiana should stand as a historical example of mid-century music making - Christian and secular alike - that emphasized the second half of the singer/songwriter dynamic, foregrounding the art of the song over the persona or talent of the vocalists.
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  1. Wayne wrote:

    Other Contenders:

    Kingsmen - Big and Live (Early 70’s) It still sets the standard by which all other live recordings are measured.

    Florida Boys - In Nashville (1965) The first Canaan Record (which I believe makes it the first Word Record) and one of the first gospel recordings to utilize RCA’s historic Studio B in Nashville’s Music Row.

    Wendy Bagwell’s Rattlesnake Album - I have heard this record was the first to receive RIAA gold status in our industry, but I have heard others lay claim to that as well. Nonetheless, this record has to be included on any watershed list.

    Cathedrals - Acapella (This was their first acapella record and was truly an ambitious concept at the time. It started the Acapella craze which remains to this day.)

    Here is an interesting question–has there been a watershed recording since the mid 80’s?

  2. J wrote:

    In the Garden…Weatherfords…They showed us that it didn’t have to be “three cords and a cloud of dust.” to be a crowd pleaser. Absolutely perfect album. Such class and exquisite harmony.

  3. thom wrote:

    Gold City - Pillars of Faith.

    Produced by Garry Jones with Lari Goss arranging vocals, (Norman Holland, EP for the Benson label), the tight harmonies delivered by 4 great singers, powerful songs, rich orchestration - to me still the best Gold City album and arguably one of the best SG albums ever.

  4. Wes Burke wrote:


    “We Shall See Jesus” was on Live in Atlanta, not Something Special.

    I still believe Gold City’s Pillars of Faith belongs as well.

  5. Kyle wrote:

    Hate to burst your bubble, but “We Shall See Jesus” was NOT on “Something Special.” It came from the “Live in Atlanta” album…..

  6. Brandon Coomer wrote:

    John’s post was actually sparked by a post from February on Burke’s Brainwork about southern gospel’s version of “Sgt. Pepper’s” or “Pet Sounds”.


  7. revike3 wrote:

    “Pillars of Faith” was a great power album, but it seems like “Double Take Live” was more of the watershed album for Gold City, as it really defined the unique Gold City sound during the Ivan/Brian era and established their success (along with the smash success of “Midnight Cry”) for the next decade.

  8. Cliff Cerce wrote:

    I think “Wanted Live” and “At Home in Indiana” are viable choices, as is “In the Garden”.

    I have all 3 in my record collection, and they are all cherished.

    An interesting note on “At Home in Indiana”. The first time I heard it, I was in the radio studio at the 700 Club Headquarters, then in Portsmouth, VA. The 700 Club TV studio was on the first floor of the building (we appeared on the broadcast several times that week) and their FM radio station was on the second floor.

    Don Roberts was the program manager and covered the DJ duties playing Gospel Music (before it was unfortunately re-named “Southern Gospel”), during the day hours, when they weren’t airing radio preachers’ radio programs. Henry Harrison (who was Pat Roberson’s TV second-bananna, until he later became Jim Bakker’s second-bananna on the PTL Club) along with his wife, Susan, played the records during the overnight shift for the insomniac crowd.

    Don Roberts played me some cuts from that Gaither “At Home in Indiana” album, as well as some cuts from the new reissue/remake/remix of Larry Norman’s latest album (I think it was “Upon This Rock”).

    I remember him saying that these were very significant albums that were going to define new trends in Christian music. He was right - but it was hardly rocket science. It was pretty obvious, when you heard them back in 1971.

    “At Home” was like a breath of fresh air. Danny Gaither sounded more like Jack Holcomb than Jack Holcomb himself on “Have You Had a Gethsemene?” and I still get goosebumps when I hear the original recording of “There’s Just Something About That Name”. This was a very significant album in my life.

    Which brings me to my point. As I read John Scheideman’s “Watershed” threads and now this one, it is clear to me that EACH individual has his own list of watershed albums - that greatly impacted THEM. Were they as universally seen as such by the whole Gospel Music world? No - because none of them had the distribution or the public-awareness of a Beatles’ album, like the “Pepper” album John mentioned in his blog.

    But - they were significant to the individual, if not to the Industry as a whole. “At Home” was such an album for me, as were the ones I mentioned on John Scheideman’s blog. The Cathedrals Strings and Brass albums also were very significant to me.

    I suspect that the music albums each of us were listening to when we fell in love with this wonderful music are among the best loved and “watershed” albums to us.

  9. Brett wrote:

    I would like to add to say that the Nelons really changed their sound in 1985, when “In One Accord” came out. It paved the way to make SG more progressive witht the songs “God’s Way Up”, “Alleluiah to the Lamb” & “Ain’t No Grave”

  10. Pedantic wrote:

    Thanks to Cliff for redefining “watershed” - that allows me to nominate Greater Vision’s “Far Beyond this Place” at least I think that was the first one they did with the Budapest Symphony - that was when Wayne Haun was really hitting his stride - I just remember it made me change the way I looked at Southern Gospel music, made me realize that the music could accentuate the message in a way I’d never heard in SG before.
    Doug, welcome to “pedant” world - I know you’ve been there for a while, but it’s good to hear you admit it - that’s the first step! I’ll let you know when I find out what step 2 is.

  11. Tony Watson wrote:

    I’d have to add the Cathedrals’ “Master Builder” to this list from 1986, the first-ever Southern Gospel CD!

  12. BUICK wrote:

    The Imperials: Blends and Rhythms (1965)
    The Imperials: Slightly Regal (1964) - both albums by the Imps simply because they raised the bar for everyone else
    Blackwood Brothers: Paradise Island (1959)-one of the earliest “concept” albums
    Statesmen: Out West (1961)-another early “concept” album

    And slightly off-topic, in 1961, a duet called “The Good Twins” (identical twins, Dwight and Dwayne Good), pioneered the practice of singing with orchestra tracks. Up to that time, it was a piano and little else. In 1961, the GT came up with this technique so that live concerts had the same lush sound as a studio recording. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they started it all.

  13. John wrote:

    Thank you and welcome, Doug, to the discussion of so-called “watershed” albums. Sic semper pedantis!:-)

    Thanks also to Brandon for trying to set the record straight, and give proper attribution to the inspiration for my post on my own blog.

    When readers here follow the link to my original post, they will see that I tried to define my criteria on what a “watershed” album is, and also justify my own selections on the basis of that criteria.

    I must say that Doug’s criteria are quite similar to mine…and his inclusion of the Vaughan recordings and the Cathedrals’ “Something Special” should have been on my list as well…for the precise reasons that Doug cited here. I cannot explain why they weren’t…way to go, Doug, for catching what I failed to, and thus raising the level of the discussion.

    I see a number of excellent albums listed on this thread…too bad that mere excellence alone is not sufficient criteria to be included on any list I would compile.

    If I were making a list of the all-time greatest gospel albums, “In The Garden” would surely be in the top 10…maybe even my top 5! But I don’t know that that great album was as influential on the genre as perhaps it should have been.

    One more thing I must clarify here for the benefit of Doug’s readers(who may or may not check my blog on occasion).
    My good friend Cliff Cerce points out with a great deal of merit that all of us have our own “watershed” albums, and quite possibly our respective lists owe their existence to the meaning they have for us as listeners.

    There is no doubt a great deal of truth to that…but as I tried to point out in the post on my own blog, I tried as best I could to divorce myself from my personal preferences as much as possible, and try to respond to Wes by pointing out in as objective an analysis as I could which gospel albums had the most “Sgt. Pepper”-like influence on the genre.

    As Cliff pointed out, it’s quite likely that NO gospel album was a “Sgt. Pepper” to the rest of the genre…for a variety of reasons. My modest aim was to simply point out which albums on a historical basis might have best filled that role.

    In the end, my list was not one of “MY” watershed albums, for that list would be longer…and only one of the albums on it would be on both lists. Yes, it’s “mine” in the sense that I made it, and argued for its’ adoption on critical grounds, but it’s more an exercise in my objective opinion as an observer rather than a subjective reading on what albums meant the most to me.

    And I only used the term “watershed” for lack of a more accurate, one-word term to describe what kind of albums I was intending to cite.

    Say what you will about Doug…he DOES have a very good understanding of this genre.

  14. quartet-man wrote:

    I’ll vote for Cathedrals Symphony of Praise, Gold City Pillars Of Faith, Singing Americans Live and Alive and Black And White, The Sound - The Sound That The World Needs To Hear (their first for that matter), the Oaks did several in the late sixties to early seventies, and then again when they went to Columbia although they didn’t do what they set out to do or should have done. The quality was there, it just never took. However, earlier they started doing the Andrae Crouch stuff and perhaps Light and Street Gospel are two albums that took them further I think.
    The Stamps did some HeartWarming lps that were really good quality products that I think put them in a different league. The Imperials too. In more recent years the GVB took a major leap with One X 1, but I am not sure it took off, but it did move them quite a bit stylistically although a New Point Of View was a buffer on the way there from Passin’ The Faith Along. Then, A Few Good Men was a pretty good leap into a more pop sound, but not sure if sales wise it did it or not, but it certainly put Michael English on the map as the new, exciting lead vocalist although he had sung on Wings and One X 1 previously.

  15. philip elwood wrote:

    Don’t forget the Sons of Song albums cut on the West coast,surely they were original enough to be considered’watershed’

  16. burt wrote:

    So Much To Thank Him For? Remember how that hit number one? What about that album?

  17. Janet wrote:

    Re #12: Ah, the Good Twins. Does that bring back memories. Saw them many times in my growing-up years. My mother had several of their albums. She died last year & I inherited her collection. Perhaps I should take the time to go through those crates to see if any of the albums mentioned throughout here are there? Too bad I have nothing to play them on…
    I do know that the post-Jake Hess Imperials album that made John’s list is in the collection - yeah for me!
    Ya’ll are a hoot to read! Blessings!

  18. Phil wrote:

    i for one have been a good twins fan most of my life. i saw ‘em in ocala fl. just last year & they still sound great. because they did the whole background tape thing it’s never bothered me when i started going to sg concerts a decade ago.
    #17 if you can’t play the albums, their music is out on cd. just contact ‘em.
    i still love their ” have gospel must travel ” music.

  19. RF wrote:

    Being a sound freak, I have a hard time relating to something done in 1921, no matter how good it was, but…

    Symphony of Prasie has always been my number one album. Just lavishly produced with great sound and great performances. I also would nominate “On Stage” by the Statesmen only because I keep going back to that 60’s album time and time again. It may not be as rousing as “Big and Live,” but it was my first gospel album and it portrayed the Sensational Statesmen as they were. Dynamic.

  20. ken wrote:

    To Janet #17
    Go to crosleyradio.com they will be glad to sell you a unit to play them on.

  21. Janet wrote:

    To Ken #20
    Thanks for the tip. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about these new gadgets that allow you to transfer lp’s to cd’s, would you? I’m imagining many happy hours completing that task! (Much more fun than simply buying the cd’s!) :)

  22. ken wrote:

    To Janet#17
    I have the CR248 have used it a few times. Works fine, not to hard to use, if you can post here you will have no trouble.Function buttons are somewhat hard to see, so will need good lighting in room or stronger glasses than i have.Check other dealers for better price.

  23. Leebob wrote:

    Question for everybody…what “watershed” album subtly began the movement from SG to CCM?

  24. Cliff Cerce wrote:

    Leebob asked, “Question for everybody…what “watershed” album subtly began the movement from SG to CCM?”

    I’m don’t remember the title, but I’m pretty sure it was recorded either by Slim Whitman or Burl Ives.

  25. Wayne wrote:


    The Downings did several that could be considered transitional when Donnie and Joy McGuire were with the group, didn’t they?

  26. jeanette barnett wrote:

    Remembering the Good Twins… who last time I heard them was fairly recent. They actually sound better than ever and their concerts are more than just music. They are quite entertaining. Don’t know if it’s still around, but I wrote the words for one of their songs “Lest I Forget” (Dwayne and I were kind of dating at the time, back in the 50’s!) Great guys, and good memories.

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