More on GVB Reunion

In his response to my critique of the “Satisfied” clip from the Gaither Vocal Band Reunion, David Bruce Murray says:

Besides, the appeal of this upcoming GVB reunion video isn’t about whether or not the singers can still cut it. The appeal is seeing them together again. I enjoyed Danny Funderburk on the Cathedral Reunion Tour a decade ago, even though he could no longer cut it. The excitement was still there, and yes, they SHOULD sing the same songs they popularized in their heyday. Why would we want them to sing some song we’d forgotten?

I wanted to hear Danny sing “Somebody Touched Me” as well as he was able while Glenn and George cheered him on at the Cathedrals reunion back then, and I want to hear Mark and Michael singing “Satisfied” now…warts and all.

This isn’t exactly a new point – that reunions are less about music and more about the satisfying memories evoked by watching and listening to certain recombinations of singers perform music from the past. And as several of you have noted, even at or near their worst (and think this clip probably qualifies as such), the Vocal Band – even past its prime – still surpasses a lot of the gospel music being made today.

But put together like this, these two points made me think about two related points. The first one is somewhat obvious: part of what makes it so painful to watch that clip is not how it compares to gospel music in general, but rather its merit compared to the Vocal Band’s own longstanding and justified reputation for innovative, difficult, impeccably sung arrangements that consistently found that sweet spot between the familiar and the fresh. Put this another way: for most gospel groups, having your live reunion performance dubbed  “not bad” is probably a complement, but the GVB is not most groups, so not bad is … well, not good, no matter how much nostalgia you slather over it.

The second point has to do with the concept of a reunion for a group whose main function over the past 15 years or so has been to maintain a stable core of musical excellence for what is probably the biggest and longest running reunion in Christian entertainment.

Sure, there was always a sentimental component to what the Vocal Band has done as part of the Homecoming phenomenon, and the opposite it true: there has been a lot of great music created by so many friends “coming home” to the Gaither tour. But the appeal of Homecoming has always primarily been sentimental and nostalgic. I think a lot of us want to believe that it succeeded because it emphasized musical excellence, however schmaltzy it may have been at times. And it is probably true that Homecoming wouldn’t have succeeded to the extent that it has beyond the gospel music world if the quality of the music on the tour hadn’t been reliably high. Still, I don’t think anyone could persuasively argue that musical excellence is a precondition for success among gospel audiences.

One way the Homecoming tour kept from sliding into abject sentimentality and maudlin nostalgia was to anchor the shows and videos with vocally astonishing performances by increasingly astonishing iterations of the Vocal Band. My own sense is that the Lowry-English-Franklin (or maybe the Lowry-English-Murray) Vocal Band was the most musically talented version of the group, and the Phelps-Penrod-Lowry/Hall version(s) the most accomplished group of entertainers.

But everybody has their own favorite. What stands out in this process of recalling one’s favorite lineups from the group’s history is that there hasn’t really been a bad iteration in the bunch (and this is true going back from the beginning, long before Homecoming came along). No instance where a new member faced a conspicuously steep learning curve. No case of someone failing outright in the job, even if in a few cases the choice was less inspired than most others. Instead the distinguishing feature of the Vocal Band has been that personnel changes seemed to be managed not on the basis of their nostalgic or sentimental value, as is naturally the case for the at-large roster of Homecoming friends, but on the basis of talent and ability.

Thus, to see this particular group, which kept the Homecoming reunions from falling into reunionizing excess, undertake their own reunion is a pretty clear signal that an era is maybe not over, but is headed toward some sort of end. And no matter how inevitable this may be, and no matter how well the GVB reunion will sell (oh how it will sell), it can still be hard to watch, sad to see, and sometimes difficult to listen to.

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  1. Smokin' Hot Fan wrote:

    Wow! I have never seen a man soft pedal so fast in the face of confrontation by a well spoken woman. Perhaps it is time to make the background of your site yellow.

    It is queer (and I don’t mean the definition of the stolen word) that the “criticism and commentary on southern gospel music and culture” here spends so much time lambasting it’s one true quality source.

    Curious fer sure.

    Oh well Doug. I am sure you will scab over pretty soon - and your poison pen will let ole Bill have it again when he puts out something else for you to hate! You have hated every vocally astonishing performance by increasingly astonishing iterations of the Vocal Band, and other Gaitherized products. We have come to expect such from you. We have also come to expect overwhelming responses (like the ones from TTaff’s post) to offset your bias, and unnatural dislike of SG’s brightest stars, and best selling products.

    I don’t buy that it will be hard for you to watch, sad for you to see, and sometimes difficult for you to listen to, with your meanspirited commentary chomping at the bit to rip it apart!

  2. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    “for most gospel groups, having your live reunion performance dubbed “not bad” is probably a complement”

    Some might even call it a “compliment.”

    “but the GVB is not most groups, so not bad is … well, not good, no matter how much nostalgia you slather over it.”

    “Not bad” is much closer in meaning to “not spectacular” than “not good.” The vocal lines weren’t sung over and over until it was absolutely perfect. This clip is good, given what it is and what it’s intended to be: three guys singing a song they used to sing to thrilled audiences in 1994, with a fourth guy singing along who used to sit in those audiences and be thrilled.

    “The second point has to do with the concept of a reunion for a group whose main function over the past 15 years or so has been to maintain a stable core of musical excellence for what is probably the biggest and longest running reunion in Christian entertainment.”

    That role hasn’t been exclusive to the GVB, though. The Martins, Talley Trio, Isaacs, Hoppers, EH&SS, and many others have also been prominently featured at various points in Homecoming Series history to provide a balance to the nostalgia element with fresh music.

    Yes, the GVB has slipped or at least shifted their appeal in the last couple of years. The compelling evidence for that point, though, is them stepping back so EH&SS can step to the forefront AND some of the lackluster studio cuts they’ve offered on recent CDs…not this clip where one singer who used to be amazing sounds more ordinary now, and a comedian whose approach used to be thought of as fresh is now considered to be relatively tame.

  3. Burt wrote:

    An even better version…

  4. Alan wrote:

    While recognizing that Doug is often - maybe even usually - fairly critical of all things Gaither, I thought that there were some cogent points made here. But the mystery of it all, to me, anyway, is why all this verbiage over the first clip seen from an unreleased project? It’s almost as if because one clip shows a reunion of the guys who were in the GVB singing in a sub par manner relative to how they sounded 15 years ago, the rest of this reunion will be similarly less than stellar. Am I missing something here?

    My belief, as Doug basically stated, is that every iteration of the GVB raised the bar so much higher than any other group of their day managed to, that anything less is, well, less. And, if this is the premise behind this essay, then I have to disagree.

    When the whole Homecoming phenomenon took hold, its primary beauty was in bringing back the vets, surrounding them with great new talent, honoring those who paved the way, and to allow a new generation to see and hear those who labored in sgm when it meant tremendous sacrifice. Would any of us state that when we heard those aging singers, they were at their career best? I’d doubt it. But, the magic was still there, and we smiled and loved hearing them again despite the ravages of age.

    This reunion will be no different; some of the former GVB personnel will not be at the top of their craft, likely, but they thrilled us once and just seeing them again will yield the same results. Will the razor-sharp harmonies, blending, and the intricacies of arrangements that have set the bar for male quartet singing be the same? I’d doubt it, but to me, that isn’t the point. When I get my copy, I’ll sit as an unabashed fan and enjoy it for what it is. And, I have no doubt but that there will be many moments of sheer magic in the whole of it. And personally, I can’t wait!

  5. quartet-man wrote:

    #3, you may have posted that link simply to show your favorite version and to share with others. As far as the reunion DVD is concerned, whether others can or cannot do better than the ones doing it, the point is to have the original singers do it or at the very least possibly the ones who made the songs popular.

  6. RobinAshley wrote:

    This is semi-off topic…but I really liked Danny on the Reunion DVD. I thought he sounded great!! It’s actually my favorite performance of his of STM.

    I do, however, realize that that performance was an exception by that point and not the rule.

    I also realize that I may be missing the point of this discussion a bit. :]

  7. Momma Lloyd wrote:

    Well, I thought the GVB had more perfect harmony and blend when the singers were: David, Guy, Russ and Bill.
    There were three strong and experienced voices that held their own beside one another….and the sound was great.

    That was my preference but, after that, I have thoroughly enjoyed every combination of voices in the GVB. Bill Gaither is an excellent teacher and has worked out beautiful harmony throughout the years up to and including the present combination of Wes, Marshal, Guy and Bill. And, as a present substitute, Jason Crabb is fantastic filling in for Guy.

    We have been so blessed by Bill Gaither. Not only have we enjoyed the GVB, but all of the Homecoming artists who sing their hearts out for the Lord and for our listening pleasure. The talent is overwhelming…with such sweet spirits. Hearts have been touched and lives have been changed forever by the Homecoming concerts, videos, dvd’s and cd’s. If only you could read the and/or hear the thousands of testimonies.

  8. Howland Sharpe wrote:

    I didn’t think that video clip of the GVB was that bad at all. But if you listen close there’s a reason why: about 40% of what you are hearing is a stack vocal from the original Southern Classics recording. I would say that percentage goes up to 70% or more through parts of the song. Obviously, all of the leads, the “step out” parts, are live, but you can clearly hear the chorusing effect of a stack vocal throughout, particularly on the tenor part just before the last chorus. In my opinion, Wes did a great job. He stands on his own.

    Frankly, the imperfection is what makes it. I hear a little bit of tuning on the vocals (meaning that it has been somewhat pitch-corrected) but very little. As opposed to the usual hard-tuning that’s currently done on every Southern Gospel record, this is refreshing to listen to.

  9. Discriminating Ear wrote:


    There are many things I can say about Russ. Charismatic, energetic, passionate, soulful etc. I love some of his work with the Imperials, his solo work, and even some with the Gaither Vocal Band. But what I cannot say about him is that he blended better than any other baritone. He might have been the worse at that. His unique voice stood out and wasn’t a good fit for the Vocal Band for the most part unless he had lead and it was a song that fit him. I think we must have different definitions of blend. Blend is not necessarily having the best solo voice or most powerful voice although those with both CAN perhaps blend.

    When it comes to a blending baritone, Lowry was probably the best they ever had. McSpadden or Gaither would probably be next. Marshall would probably be after these three, and Taff last. Did I forget any baritones they had?

  10. Michael wrote:

    I find most of these comments very entertaining. I was looking at the post about Mark Lowry being the best blending baritone that the Vocal Band ever had. The reason for that is that on the recordings Mark never sang the part. The part was almost always sung by either English or Pernrod. The very first time I ever met Guy Penrod he was in the studio at Gaither Studios in IN. He was laying down vocal tracks for his first project with the Vocal Band. He had only appeared on stage live with them a couple of times. The song was “Count On Me”. Each member had recorded a version of the first verse and they were tryimng to figure out which version they would use for the final cut. While being very thankful for the opportunity to sit in on the process, Guy informed us that he (& Michael E. before him) usually sang most of the parts, English even sang tenor on some tracks. Part of the reason for this is that Mark had a hard time hearing the baritone part. It’s kind of hard to not get a good blend when one guy is singing most of the parts. Don’t get me wrong, I love Mark Lowry. On to the Reunion vid. I believe the ripping of this video. It really is a shame. I work as an on air personality for a Southern Gospel radio station. The majority of the music that is sent to us is un-airable. You really would not believe what some folks are trying to get on the radio. This video demonstrates even after all of these years that these guys are still some of the best ever. If you take the time to watch some of the practice clips that Wes put up on his site you’ll find that most of the guys were re-learning these songs. Even with no rehearsal just about any encarnation of the GVB is and has always been the best group of our lifetime. I can’t wait for this video! The GVB changed the way I looked at gospel music starting way back when I was just a teenager, I’m 39 now. Holy Cow! Take it for what it is, still some of the most talented guys you will ever hear getting together and having fun. Heaven forbid that any Christian should have any fun.

  11. dmp wrote:

    For as good as he was, I never felt Phelps blended very well, if you define blend as four voices making a singular sound. He was always very noticeable, which was not always a bad thing… On the acapella album, his voice sticks out on every song. By contrast, it is many times very difficult to pick out Guy’s part because he blends so well.
    All neo-Phelps fans need not attack me for such blasphemy, it’s just my opinion.

  12. cdguy wrote:

    Michael — Guy (especailly), Bill, and English have always teased Mark in public about his inability to read music. Mike & Guy would, according to the stories, sing Mark’s part, so he could learn it. They’d send him a tape of just his part, so he’d hear just that part as though it were a solo.

    Mike & Guy probably put all the parts down as “guide vocals”, then replaced them later with the appropriate singers. I would surmise each member was in the stack, not just Mike or Guy.

    Ok, maybe with the exception of Bill. He may not have been in the stack much. :0

  13. Michael wrote:

    I don’t want to get into an argument but, Mark was NOT singing most of the baritone parts. As for the stacks, all stack tracks were recorded on separate vocal tracks and tuned not sung around one mic like most budget projects. It’s a sad but true reality that if you listen closely to the Johnathon Peirce era GVB it is actually the Guy Penrod quartet. Appropriate singers were not used to mix in the final cuts. You might like to think that’s what happened but I was there and spoke with Guy and Michael Sykes. We also recorded a project just down the road from Gaither studios. The studio was owned and operated by an engineer that worked for Gaither. He told us that Bill would get up in the middle of the night and go to this studio to record his bass parts. The reason being that Bill didn’t want folks to know that he only had a “bass range” in the middle of the night. They also raised the tracks, he sang them and then they lowered them back to the original key. I say all this not to just spout off unfounded info, but just to let people in on some “inside baseball”. I appreciate your input cdguy, but you’re mistaken. Like I said, we were there. :)

  14. quartet-man wrote:

    Mark was very forthcoming about not hearing the baritone part and English or Penrod making him a CD of the baritone part. He even said Guy made one called Gaither Vocal Band for Dummies. :-)

    There may be some recordings that managed to slip through with Penrod singing the baritone part, there have been accompaniment track(s) where that was noticeable. However, Mark’s voice was very noticeable on many others too.

    Sure, David stood out on some places. That is not to say that he couldn’t or didn’t blend. I liked the power harmony like that. As far as true blend, I suppose Franklin, English, Lowry and Bill were the best. Steve Green might come in second, but I never liked that sound as much as with Phelps, Harris or Murray. There certainly were times when these singers could blend well when it counted (unison parts), but then their unique voices added to the distinct sound of the group. I like that kind of group. Four unique voices being lumped together for a unique sound of all of their differences in a melting pot. With some of the combinations the sound was too vanilla or bland even though the blend was better. However, on the other end of the spectrum, it drives me nuts on unison parts when they SHOULD sound like one voice, and one person’s voice sticks out like a sore thumb.

    Count On Me is one of my favorite Guy leads. Others include I Believe In A Hill Called Mount Calvary, The Old Rugged Cross Made The Difference and I’ll Worship Only At The Feet Of Jesus.

  15. quartet-man wrote:

    I mentioned Franklin and English, man could those two blend. Sometimes you could almost have trouble telling which was which.

  16. Michael wrote:

    You’re exactly right quartet-man, Franklin and English blended wonderfully! You mentioned “Count On Me”, that happens to be the song that I was in the studio when Guy was recording his part. It was then that he told us that he sang most of the parts for the GVB recordings. He was going over the three different versions of “the yell/scream” he had tracked for the song. It was very interesting watching him pace back and forth listening so intently.

  17. Howland Sharpe wrote:


    I know that no tuning was used during the Michael English/Terry Franklin era, because it wasn’t around yet. (technically, it was… but not the Antares black box that began being used a couple of years later)

    Some mentioned other GVB singers doing the parts. Here’s a story that may interest you. I recall picking up some 2 inch tapes at either Quad or Sound Stage studio when Southern Classics was being recorded. I peeked my head in the door and heard Terry Franklin doing the baritone AND lead on one of the choruses. He had already put his tenor down on tape. Don’t know if he did this on other songs, but during that era he must have been used a lot in this way because of the history of the GVB doing this, English did many of the parts during the Murray era.

    Another time, I was second engineering a country session in one of the rooms at Quad and dropped in where the GVB was doing vocals for their Piece Of The Rock record. Franklin was there with some female producer and an engineer and was doing extensive vocals on choruses and BGVs.

  18. quartet-man wrote:

    I really enjoy hearing all of this.
    it would be interesting to get some specifics from the guys themselves. Maybe they each had certain songs they sang all buy themselves. ;-)

  19. Dmp wrote:

    Maybe somebody knows… Why does English always hold the mic with two hands now? Do his hands shake?

  20. quartet-man wrote:

    #19, I have no idea.

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