NQC 08: Friday Songwriters Showcase

Some thoughts on Friday afternoon’s Celebration of Phil Cross’s Ego Phil Cross’s Songs of  a Lifetime songwriters showcase, in no particular order.

The sound sucked. Mikes weren’t on for most of the singers and speakers for the first few minutes, including Cross’s. Songs had to be restarted including the first one, the Booth’s unremarkable “Welcome to the Family” , and there was generally lots of dead, awkward silence … Cross was visibly pissed early on, and barked out “just turn all the mike’s on on the platform please … God please.” Later he regrets this outburst and lavishes praise on sound techs. The crowd, however, was not so forgiving. Folks in the mezzanine stage-right started heckling performers whose voices couldn’t be heard. Turns out, as we learned at intermission, there was a necessary dead zone in the house sound to accommodate the monitors for the FBC Atlanta choir seated stage-right in the general admission seats (the choir was really big), but no one bothered to tell the audience that until intermission and folks were clearly not in a mood to be understanding about the sound (evidently random ticket holders were walking up to the sound table and letting fly).

The event is thoroughly Gaitherized whether any of the organizers know it or not … the songwriters are the friends, there’s a choir, a band and a poor man’s Bill Gaither.

“Grace that is Greater Than all our Sin” may be the most medleyed song ever.

The FBC Atlanta choir and orchestra are huge and impressive. Why didn’t ALL sg artists use them for their songs? Well, we know why … most folks don’t want to pay or take the time to score their tracks for orchestra and rehearse them just for a three-minute set on a Friday showcase, but a few of the groups DID use the orchestra and choir (the Hoppers, GV for one song, a guy whose name was never announced) and it made the groups using tracks seem small and cheap and amateurish. The songs that used the live music weren’t perfect but they were palpably present in a way the canned music simply wasn’t and couldn’t be.

The avfl Twitter crowd already saw this but Ronnie Hinson said that he wrote “The Lighthouse” “in the bathroom in seven minutes on a piece of toilet paper.” Which is so real, so human, so funny and endearing and free of the contrivance of Cross’s “it takes a lifetime to write a song” unctuousness that it was hard not to love Hinson. It wasn’t just his bathroom line. His set-up for “Lighthouse” was deeply moving, about how as a kid he saw a neighbor drown in the ocean in California and so had a phobia of the ocean that meant he never saw a lighthouse until long after he had written the song - a testament to the power of a great song to take on a life of its own beyond the limited range of the writer’s experience. Even though his rendition of it was horrendously bad (why not have the Crabbs or Perrys sing it?), the song is (and here, Cross got it exactly right) “a national treasure.”

Mark Bishop needs to get a pianist who can, you know, play and stuff.

The crowd roared for “My Name is Lazarus.” Absolutely roared. Which was good because that way they couldn’t hear how subpar the singing was. Me to MNP: who all was off on that ending? MNP to me: Take your pick.

Cross consistently failed to introduce the songwriters before they spoke and/or sang, which is just ridiculous for a guy who claims to be the songwriter’s biggest champion. The single biggest reason songwriting isn’t acknowledged or supported the way it should be is a lack of face and name recognition for writers of hit songs so that fans began see and talk about writers as important parts of the creative process and musical experience. Leaving most of them nameless (if you didn’t already know who they were by sight, and I doubt most people did in all but a few high profile cases) was bad form and even poorer strategy. On top of that, many of the songs simply weren’t introduced by anyone – not a songwriter, not Cross, not the group. So it was difficult to discern why “His Life For Mine” received an introduction by its writer, Rebecca Peck, but L5 singing “I Have Been Changed” didn’t. It’s a decent song and was well received, but there was no clear explanation for its presence in Songs of A Lifetime. Here and throughout, there was next to no overarching narrative thread or connective tissue running through the concert – unless you count Cross’s penchant for self-indulgent monologues and repetition of stupid lines like “the nanner puddin’s coming at the end .. I’m saving the nanner pudding for the last ya’ll.” Aargh.

Almost as bad as forgetting to introduce them was Cross’s habit of treating the assembled songwriters on stage like a supporting cast for his monologues. This is nothing new if you’ve ever been to a Phil Cross songwriter’s showcase; he tries, as I wrote last year, very hard to make everything a special speertchul moment. Yesterday was particularly bad, though. At one point he commanded all the songwriters to stand while he stumbled through a tribute to Dottie Rambo. It’s not that she didn’t deserve it but that he seemed to be winging it, which gave his speech a certain sloppiness and meant the tribute sort was sort of rambling and disjointed. And in the end it all wound up really being about him, how HE called this lovely woman back in April and told her about HIS showcase and she said I’ll be there, I’ll be there, I wouldn’t miss it. Ok, so maybe he doesn’t do eulogies well. Fine. But then who did he choose to perform a tribute to gospel music’s most prolific and influential songwriter? JOHN PFIEFFER, with this untuneful horn, bleating and honking his way through “He Looked Beyond my Fault.” 

As the day wore on it was increasingly clear that the only common thread woven through all this was Phil Cross himself. At the beginning he let us know that this was HIS idea and HE went to Charles Stanley and talked him into sending his choir and orchestra, and at intermission Cross hectored the crowd for not being grateful enough to the sound guys (!) and even had the audacity to shill for advance sales of a dvd of the event as a way to offset the expenses he himself incurred in producing the show. Pitch your product, but he wouldn’t have to make buying it an ethical obligation if the product itself were of higher quality. 

On the stage, Cross’s ego and self-satisfaction seem to know no bounds, made all the more intolerable for the fact that he clearly thinks he’s comes across as “just folks” and this salt-of-the-earth guy who just happens to be a brilliant songwriter – at least in his own mind. Of course the average fan in the seats would probably be hardpressed to name anything he’s written besides “Champion of Love,” and even that was a co-write with his ex-wife. He also clearly fancies himself a keen judge of up-and-coming singer/songwriter talent, and several groups at yesterday’s showcase were obscure, unknown, or new regional acts. Not surprisingly, when he introduced them, it seemed more about him than them, bringing on several of these regional groups with some version of what amounted to “I found these yokels in the backwoods, cleaned ‘em up and gave them a ticket to Louisville … now gimme a handclap of praise for it!” Cross deserves props for supporting people lower down the food chain, but as evidence of Cross’s judge of talent, they were not convincing specimens. They were exactly what you’d expect out of regional singers and songwriters, which is not a knock on them – they’re just doing what regional groups do – just a glaring relflection on Cross’s bad judgment.

This songwriters showcase was expanded to 3.5 hours this year, and I don’t have a hard time believing people asked for more the way Cross said (over and over). But I wonder if this uneven raft of talent and higgedly piggedly group of writers is exactly what people had in mind (putting Scott Inman and Wayne Haun on the same songwriters showcase, for instance, is rather like sitting me next to Andrew Sullivan at a bloggers roundtable). Maybe what people really were asking for when they said more was better. This really could and should have been a solid 90-minute showcase of top-tier talent singing mostly first-rate songs from the top of the sg charts, for or with the song’s writers. As it turned out, there was far too much padding from regional groups and and too much unilluminating and self-aggrandizing chatter from our host. Less Phil Cross, please.

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  1. FirstNighter wrote:

    Ditto to everything you said Doug (which I’d posted earlier this morning before I left Louisville). Phil Cross NEEDS a producer for an event like this…or hire a good emcee who would work with a producer to make it an event worthy of the talent on the stage.

    Nothing was explained to the audience about taping, etc. before it began. It’s hard enough to get the NQC crowd moving and participating, but not filling them in on how a video taping SHOULD work is careless at best.

    I was extremely disappointed in the way the event was handled.

    Btw, is there any chance NQC fans will ever learn that they shouldn’t sit in the auditorium if they don’t want to listen to the music. Don’t sing along and for all of us, PLEASE stop yelling at the person next to you. We all pay for a ticket and we all want to hear what’s going on. It may not be the person YOU came to hear, but it might be mine, so a little consideration would do the fans of NQC well.

  2. Chris wrote:

    I love that story Ronnie tells about the Lighthouse. And as far as I can tell, it’s the truth. My dad’d group in the 60s used to tour with the Hinsons before they moved east - and so he got to see the history of the Hinsons as it unfolded. A few years ago, my family went to sing at the Assembly of God in Salinas, CA. When we got there, dad took me downstairs to the bathroom and said “This is where Ronnie wrote the greatest gospel song of all time.” It was quite an unusual feeling to be there. I tried not to picture the scene.

    There were several jokes that night about “going downstairs to get inspired.”

  3. Realistic wrote:

    Great post. I’d like to hear even more details about the songs and songwriters honored.

    But — dare I say it? — maybe the NQC needs to handle their songwriter showcase similarly to how it’s done on Sunday night during Gospel Music Association Week in Nashville. It makes sense since some of the BEST Southern Gospel writers are successful in more than one genre (a great writer is a great writer), and have performed on that GMA stage as well.

    If the songwriting performance rights organizations (BMI, ASCAP, SESAC) along with the SG publishers and SG record labels would have representatives work together to structure an event that highlights the most successful SG songs of the year, it could eliminate the host making it a personal ego-fest. It might also keep the A-list songwriters and groups involved at an appropriate level.

    No offense to the B-list regional writers and groups, but keep working and hopefully you’ll rise to the A-list. Otherwise, sit in the audience, listen and learn until then. It’s only fair, it’s a mark of spiritual maturity, and will — if you have the right attitude — help you strive for a higher level of excellence to enhance your communication of the Gospel.

  4. Baritone wrote:

    Flaws, yes there were a few. However this has always been and still is the best showcase NQC has each year. The fans must have overloooked how terrible Doug claims it was as people waited in line an hour after the event to pre purchase a copy of the DVD. I also took notice that his booth was very busy the remainder of the week.

  5. Sissey wrote:

    Yes there was problems with the sound but over all it was GREAT. I stood in line to order the DVD. Not everyone feels like Doug about Phil Cross. He is a great man.

  6. FirstNighter wrote:

    I think all those people were standing in line to order the dvd so they could hopefully find out which face belonged to which songwriter’s name they might have seen on that cd they bought last year!!! :)

  7. Angel wrote:

    You guys are just too funny but God love ya. Call NQC and they will verify that the Song Of A Lifetime Showcase was the most profitable showcase in history for NQC. And for the thousands of fans that were there, the handful (less than 5 who spoke out) is hardly worth mentioning. As for the sound, it was the same crew handling the sound production the entire week. The crew at the showcase was the same crew making the mistakes were the same group of techs making the mistakes the very same night.

  8. Mark wrote:

    What a joke this blog has become at times. To lift up and promote your “buddies” and tear down those who you dislike. I attend the Songwriters showcase each year and agree with post #4, it is by far the best showcase of the week. Personally I liked the lack of a “planned script” on Friday morning as this truly let the evidence of the Holy Spirit working be captured. If I were Mr. Cross I would consider it a blessing that one would compare the showcase to that of a “Gaither” style and setting. I remember attending the Atlanta video Gaither recorded a few years back at the Georgia dome. There were a total of 13 “do overs” during the taping that day. I applaud Avery for being able to pick apart the details of the production and bring every less than perfect moment to the forefront for all the SG world to critique. You do this so well for those who you look down upon. However, in doing this you have totally missed the point of what the Songwriters showcase is all about. The tears, hands waving, and eyes uplifted were due to the Holy Spirit moving. What a great day and total success!

  9. George Alben wrote:

    I’ll comment on one just one thing as the previous poster covered many aspects of Avery’s comments pretty well. Maybe the selection of the Songwriters and Artists was based on the stories that were behind the songs and not based on how popular a group is or how high the song went on the charts. After all this is the Songwriters Showcase-Stories Behind The Songs. I really don’t get the ego bit you keep insisting on. I have however seen a thirty minute sad story begging for more $$$ from a couple of the groups you have so highly praised in the past. Keep the coments consistent - Don’t use you blog to promote one and tear down the other.

  10. Illinois wrote:

    This showcase, I agree, was awful. The sound was bad and Phil was not a good emcee. Where was the “nananer pudding”?

    He ended it with “we lost the last song-we went long”. If I had a 200 voice choir and an orchestra that travelled from Atl, I would have used them ALOT more.

    I miss Mike Speck.

  11. GM Fan wrote:

    Mike Speck was offered a showcase but refused because he was not offered the number one showcase. The sound was not all that bad, no worse than it had been all week. Phil did a fine job and if the people thought it was as bad as you make out I wonder why they pre bought so many DVD’s? For the most part the posters here are positive, the other few must be a wee bit jealous. If NQC is smart they will continue this showcase for years to come.

  12. Stac wrote:

    There were two things that bothered me in this showcase. As stated before some of the songs had no story, I would love to hear the story behind Mark Bishop’s song and several others. And the sound was bad at times. Other than that is was very uplifting.

  13. TNGAL wrote:

    I think there should be some explaining conerning the Mike Speck showcase for the #11 post. The programming had already been set when he was contacted about his showcase being moved to Saturday afternoon. Since this would mean he could not have a choir (due to travel) and most of the minister’s of music could not get back to their home churches by Sunday morning services, he declined. Please read the following as it was published with NQC approval concerning the matter:

    We have been honored for the past 9 years to present the Choral Extravaganza at the National Quartet Convention on Friday afternoon. Our goal was to have an anointed church service while also exposing ministry staff to new Mike Speck music for choir and congregation. Friday afternoon suited us best because it gave opportunity for ministers and a guest choir to come from all over the country.

    When asked this year to move our showcase to Saturday, we considered the way it would affect those church staff and choir members on whom we focus our efforts. Mike Speck Ministries firmly believes we all need to be in our home church for our regular Sunday services. Because of this, we feel the Saturday afternoon time slot would be a hindrance to those traveling for the extravaganza.

    It is with disappointment we have declined the opportunity to move the showcase to Saturday afternoon. There are many other showcases already scheduled at NQC that I am sure you will find interest in.

    Please contact the National Quartet Convention office for tickets and additional information you may need.

    Thank you,

    Mike Speck Ministries

  14. Jack Lamont wrote:

    We asked the lady at the Mike Speck booth at NQC why they didn’t have the choir shocase and she said “Mr. Speck has much more important issues to address than anything at NQC. If it were up to me I would not even be here now”. Some of these big name artists, music ministers, and mega church ministers alike think they are too good for us Southern Gospel fans. They just use the genre to make a buck. There are plenty of churches with wonderful choirs that would love to be a part of NQC and wouldn’t use a time slot as an excuse. Friday at NQC is the number one time slot for a showcase in Freedom Hall, this year it was the day Gaither was in town and Mr. Speck figured if he couldn’t have it his way then he wouldn’t play at all.

  15. Sissey wrote:

    The Gaither’s was on Thursday. Phil’s Songwirters Showcase is what took the place of Mike Speck’s Showcase in Freedom Hall. Phil’s Showcase was the biggest showcase ever at NQC. I look forward getting my DVD. I do hope they will be able to correct some of the sound issues for next year.

  16. Harry Peters wrote:

    While old Harry Peters likes Phil Cross well enough, if Avery’s observations were accurate, I wouldn’t like what happened at that showcase much either. Phil seems to be going more in the direction of choirs and orchestras and he wrote the Christmas Contata that we are doing this year, “Hope Has Hands.” I would say it is well above average for a Christmas contata, but bear in mind, Old Harry Peters hates contatats. No body has really done anything unique or artistic with one since they made their way into poplular church music circles.

    Harry Peters does not like self aggrandizers, which is really the biggest beef he has with Ernie Haase or Bill Gaither. Has anyone besides Harry Peters noticed, that as more more Gaither Homecoming Tours and videos came out over time, that the genuine, heartfelt emotional, spiritual aspects of the group seemed to fade?

  17. Harry Peters wrote:

    Incidentally, Harry Peters has met Mike Speck on several occasions going back to the days of the trio. Mr. Speck is one of the most humble, kind men that you will ever have the priviledge to know. There has never been anything he has done when I’ve seen, heard and talked to him that wasn’t a fine Christian example.
    Although God has blessed him with more success than almost anyone who does what he does, Brother Mike has never once given the impression that he wants the spotlight.

    Old Harry Peters bets you will have a hard time finding many to agree with you that Brother Mike Speck is the least bit egotistical.

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