GMA WEEK: Country cousins

Is southern gospel becoming the place where aging Baby Boomer performers from country music go to maintain an adoring fan base? The Oaks certainly seem to have found a second wind with sg fans. And Barbara Mandrell was honored just this week by the Southern Gospel Music Guild for … something.

The official reason: “Barbara Mandrell is one of the most awarded artists of all time and it was appropriate for the gospel music community to have a chance to acknowledge her tremendous exposure to our music during her stellar career.” It’s not entirely clear what Mandrell’s exposure to southern gospel has done for sg (maybe the sentence meant to convey the idea that she has exposed millions of others to sg?) that amounts to any more or less than your average country music singer of her generation who periodically either sang songs from the gospel tradition or in the gospel style, or talked about the influence of Jesus and the church on their country careers.

Nevertheless, the general drift of country music old guard toward gospel music sort of makes sense. The (comparatively) homey, folksy Country Music industry that the Oaks and Mandrell and their cohort of performers came up under has been supplanted by the so-called “new traditionalist” movement - polite way of saying that country music has transmogrified over the past two decades into a multinational music-industrial complex focused on manufacturing off-the-rack entertainers whose main function is to fulfill mainstream cultural assumptions about what “country” is and means (country sangers wear cowboy hats and waddle around bowlegged in cattle-rustlin’ boots and jeans that are too tight … yeehaw!).

Of course, there has always been some strategic minstrelsy in the personae that country music performers created (the outlaw Waylon Jennings for instance), but it was an exaggeration of these performers’ lived experience (Jennings actually did carry a gun on a not irregular basis, after all) rather than hologram characters created by the refraction of Nashville as seen from LA (i.e. Kenny “the country kewpie doll” Chesney).

In other words, sg today looks and feels a lot more like the country music world of yore than contemporary country music does. Correlatively, the fans who loved “Sleepin’ Single in a Double Bed” and “Elivra” back in the day are much more likely to be at a Homecoming concert or NQC or reading the SN now than listening to country music radio or watching the ACM Awards  - which is a good thing for aging country stars, cause about the only way country Boomers can get mainstream country exposure these days is to cut a track with a younger performer (quick, somebody call Brad Paisley), to record a tribute album with Bill Gaither, or to be Willie Nelson.

Still, the sg industry’s embrace of these aging stars must really irk rank and file sg performers who really have devoted their careers to the genre and not just used it as a useful prop, don’t you think? I mean, it’s not that difficult to name of a half-dozen people of Mandrell’s age from within the industry (and several from beyond) who have done more than Mandrell to deserve being honored by SGMG. (And yes, Kyle, I hear you in the background yelling, THE OAKS! THE OAKS!)

Of course, trying to divine the logic of entertainment awards and honors is a dubious business, and in this instance probably misses the point to boot. The point is more likely bound up in a half-conscious sense of inadequacy that’s widely dispersed throughout the collective psyche of southern gospel, which desperately wants, as we noted yesterday, for gospel music to be validated by the outside world (in this case, a country music legend) even as everybody insists that “the things of earth,” in the words of the old song, are insignificant to the gospel singer and song.

From what I’ve read and heard here in Nashville over the past day, it sounds like Judy Nelon really did make substantive, bankable improvements to the SGMG showcase and Harmony Honors, and anyone who knows Nelon won’t be surprised. That said, you have to wonder, especially in the context of Gospel Holy GMA week, who exactly is likely to take sg more seriously for honoring someone whose contribution to southern gospel -  whatever her personal affection for the music - has never been more than gestural.

Later: DBM agrees with this commenter that my Mandrell example is poorly chosen (though DBM ultimately concedes my initial point: that  gospel is a natural place for outmoded country types to drift as they age). But I stand by the choice and the original conclusion. Sure, Mandrell regularly featured sg on her variety show, and kudos for her. Really. But by this standard, she’d have to wait in line behind Hee Haw, Dolly Parton, and the late-career Elvis concerts if we’re measuring impact (Why not honor these other people? Well, for one, they or their representatives might very likely not consider it an honor worth showing up to receive, so there’s that). No one’s arguing she has done nothing for sg. Neither is the argument that what she has done fails to rise to honorary status. The question is about the strategic value of honoring her as part of GMA week, and the answer gets at one subsidiary and but still significant reason why sg holds down a perennial downmarket position within the Christian music generally.

Though Mandrell’s affinity with gospel music is no doubt real and abiding, she herself doesn’t seem to see it as a connection important enough to include in her official website. Her bio makes no mention that I could see of her relationship to gospel music, though there is one brief reference low down on the “music” page about how “I always did a Christian or Gospel song or medley in all of my shows.” I don’t think the short shrift means she doesn’t care, but that the rest of the world doesn’t. And if it only matters to people inside sg, then the honor makes more sense as part of a sg-centric event, rather than as part of GMA week, which is about positioning subgenres within the broader contexts of religious entertainment.

This is why GMA put up with the Whitney and Bobby Disaster during the Preacher’s Wife era. It’s why Radio Delila was a Doves presenter a few years ago, and why Sinbad (and a non-Alec Ballwin  brother and Miss California) was indeed part of the live telecast of the Dove Awards last night. These people have one thing in common: they were/are (or are perceived to be) popular in the outside world with some demographic GMA covets.

But she’s such a sweet woman with a sweet sweet spirit, you say. But as Van Morrison said, “music is spiritual. The music business is not.”  Strategize accordingly.

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  1. Musicscribe Blog » Worshipping Pop And Country Stars on 24 Apr 2009 at 12:24 am

    […] Harrison has posted his thoughts on Country artists courting attention from the Southern Gospel industry. His example isn’t […]


  1. Ben Harris wrote:

    As for Barbara Mandrell’s contributions to Southern Gospel, may I add my thoughts on this. When she had her television show, she always had a time slot for Gospel Music, and most of that consisted of what we would term SG. She also recorded two seperate SG projects, one of which I did the engineering and some of the background vocal work. I cannot say that she has contributed as much as say Gaither, but she did present SG in a very good light for a number of years, and on national tv. I do have a problem with country artists with careers burnt out, then becoming SG artists. I do not believe Barbara is guilty of that. I know her and her family fairly well and I can tell you this she was always a lady when I was around her. In fact she is my favorite artist of all time to work for.

  2. cdguy wrote:

    There is a long history of country artists recording gospel projects, dating back to at least the 50’s. Artists like Porter, Loretta, Dolly, et al

  3. marie hardy wrote:

    I agree with Ben. There are several country artists who since their careers have peaked and they may be out of record deals or off the charts, have suddenly “got religion”. I’m ok with that. Better late than never, but it seems a little convenient to switch when the other door closes and the gospel door is open because we have always gotten the crumbs from the country music table. I even wonder about Alan Jackson doing a gospel cd. Is his career on the downslide? I could be wrong on that. He may really have felt impressed to do that project. I hope so.

  4. Jewels Carlson wrote:

    I think you are forgetting something. Barbara Mandrell retired in 1997. She is not some older country star seeking a place for her music now.

    Barbara did fight her network to have a weekly gospel music segment in her TV show. This has to be considered a major accomplishment. So, in this sense, she most definitely advanced gospel music and, in particular, southern gospel music. And, faith has always been a part of her daily life. It is not some fleeting thing with her.

    Why the SGMG chose to honor Barbara now is another situation entirely. Seems to me they would have honored her long ago if they were going to. So, their timing tells me that they probably did it now in the hopes of helping their own cause. But, this is in no way a reflection on Barbara. Short of refusing the honor, there was really nothing Barbara could do about it.

    I wonder why SGMG holds their event during a GMA week. It seems to me that the Dove Awards would/should be enough for this week. Now that Dolly Parton is in the GMA Hall Of Fame, I am hoping that Barbara Mandrell will receive this honor. However, with Barbara now in the Country Music Hall of Fame, I really do not care as this is the pinnacle of achievement for an artist in country music.

  5. Wade wrote:

    That was me yellin’ OAK too!!! & they have to raise vestal & howard from the dead to present it!!

  6. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    More people will watch the Dove Awards if they can advertise in advance that Ronnie Milsap will be on the program singing in a duet. In the end, it’s all about getting the most people to watch, and I can’t blame them for that.

    It’s just a bit sad and telling that for all the various styles and personalities that make up Christian music as a whole, we still don’t have enough legitimate stars to draw the type of audience GMA would like to reach.

    I’m curious. Does this happen regularly on the various Country awards shows too? I don’t remember hearing anything about Prince or Michael Jackson appearing at one of those events…seems like Kid Rock was on one at some point in the past.

  7. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Jewels wrote:
    “I wonder why SGMG holds their event during a GMA week. It seems to me that the Dove Awards would/should be enough for this week.”

    They do it for the same reason the Front Porch Bluegrass Gospel awards and the Diamond Awards hand out their honors during NQC. Everyone is already in town.

  8. Casual Observer wrote:

    I was at the Harmony Honors and I think we’re missing the most obvious reason Barbara Mandrell was there - I believe it was clearly a trade-off. I think she agreed to do the show if the SGMG would agree to feature her daughter-in-law in the performance line-up. I’ve met Christy Sutherland (her daughter-in-law) and she is a delightful and talented young lady. From all I can tell, her motives seem refreshingly pure. I hope she her career gets off the ground. But apart from having a Country music icon for a mother-in-law, I don’t know how an unsigned, unknown soloist could land a prime performance spot on an event like this. Do the math. Oh, and the whole time Judy Spencer was introducing Barbara, all I could hear (in my head) was Barbara’s hit song about an illicit relationship with a married man - “If Loving You Is Wrong”(I Don’t Wanna Be Right)

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