the gospel singer/songwriter

Over at southerngospelblog recently, Daniel Mount ran a couple posts about singer/songwriters in gospel music. And though we’ve been down this road before, Mount’s posts got me thinking about the singer/songwriter bias in gospel music, namely: what’s behind the preference for songs written and performed by the same person?

Mount argues it has to with the proximity of the lyric to the singer’s life:

Nobody really disputes that a singer/songwriter can bring a passion to their song that’s hard to match, since they’ve lived the lyrics.

If I understand this right, it’s basically an argument about “authenticity.” The singer/songwriter can sing her own song more authentically than someone else because she’s closest to the complex of experience and feelings from which the song emerged. Doyle Doc Horsley makes a similar argument in his ebook, Gospel Quartet Music Then and Now:

Many top quality acts have member-songwriters … Others may draft lyrics, but these blessed folks are both writer and performer and are supported with sufficient grace to release songs which are distinct, different, inspired, and not duplicates of other themes, ideas, or lyrics.

Horsley overstates the case considerably, it seems to me. Writing songs that your group cuts and performs does not necessarily mean you have “the capacity, inspiration and dedication to create enough quality lyrics and original music to fill a 8-10 song project,” as Horsley goes on to claim. Usually, there are 6-7 duds for every decent cut. But no matter, Horsley’s is a common view, I’d wager.

For his part, Mount ends up arguing that it’s possible to sing a song you haven’t written with as much feeling as the original songwriter would, which is both right, it seems to me, and an interesting conclusion for Mount, since it implicitly cuts against the notion of the authenticity suggested by his original claim.

Libbi Perry Stuffle, to borrow one of Mount’s examples, sells “I Will Find You Again” (written not by her) because she’s a first-rate performer and a trenchant interpreter of gospel ballads. That’s what performers do. Sell other people’s material as their own. And in a less imperfect world, it would be enough for someone to be a performer who’s that good at just that.

But of course in southern gospel, that’s not always true. Or at least those artists who try to be double or triple threats are generally rewarded more than those who don’t, whether they deserve the accolades from a musical and artistic standpoint  or not. Still that doesn’t get at the underlying question of why singer/songwriters receive disproportionate amounts of fame and fan love.

My own theory is that fans are drawn not so much to the authentic experience provided by the singer/songwriter as to the idea of authenticity.

That is, fans don’t keep voting Rodney Griffin favorite songwriter because he is necessarily able to sing his own material better than anyone else. (My guess is, a vote for Rodney Griffin as songwriter is more often than not actually a vote for Gerald Wolfe as an impressario/vocalist extraordinaire, capable of making Griffin seem and sound much better singing his own music than he would have, say, singing that same stuff with the Dixie Melody Boys. But in any case, the most we can say here is that songwriters sing their songs differently than anyone else, but very few sing them better than the best performers could or can, given the opportunity.)

Instead, southern gospel fans like the idea that this song is a direct expression of some personal feeling, experience, or other dimension of the performer’s life, writ large in music (I’ll leave aside for the moment the question of how much southern gospel’s emphasis on confessional testimonies in and around song amounts to a kind of spiritual voyeurism).

I say “idea” because, whether we do it consciously or not, experiencing performance-based entertainment requires us to suspend our disbelief that the performance is a construct to some extent.

This is commonplace in most parts of the world, but in southern gospel, performers are in a pretty tight spot: fans want to be entertained and moved and shown a good time, just like fans in other setting would which requires all the typical artifices of entertainment. But in sg, especially over the past two decades or so, performers must also take into account the added expectations of intense piety, which demands - in the name of spiritual sincerity -  performances that efface almost every trace of being a performance, of appearing to be artificial (at least as these things are judged by the aesthetic standards of southern gospel).

What to do? Inasmuch as this trend has been afoot all over Christian entertainment to varying degrees, CCM has responded by (re)turning toward praise and worship music or derivatives thereof, which rely on simplistic, recursive lyrics and big open musical phrases that create the impression of artless, unself-conscious statements of religious and spiritual commitment.

In sg, one answer has been sentimentality and nostalgia, which translate on stage into all things lachrymose - tearful testimonies, cry-talking, chin-quiveriness, the conspicuous attempt to dab at one’s eyes inconspicuously, and so on. Of course not every instance of these things is performative, but the fact that there is a standard repertoire of emotional moves we all recognize testifies to their use as a shorthand vocabulary of affective authenticity.

One could argue that the rise of the singer/songwriter, which really seems to be a post-Hinsons phenomenon in sg, has been a response on some level to the increased pressure performers are under to be “real” in an age of digital pitch correction, band tracks, vocal stacks, and plastic surgery.

But whether that’s the case or not, it seems inarguable to me that on stage the singer/songwriter obviates the need for fans to suspend their disbelief about how “authentic” the song is in relation to the singer. That doesn’t mean the singer/songwriter won’t need to dab his eyes and do a little cry-talking now and again, but chances are he won’t have to do as much as his colleagues who sing other people’s material, since most fans will be doing a lot more emotional work for the singer/songwriter than they do for other artists.

Update: A couple of commenters have noted that part of the rise of the singer/songwriter in sg has been financial: singer/songwriters make more money by writing their own material and (potentially) they work more cheaply for groups/labels. This is true enough in accounting for one reason why the industry may have drifted in this direction, but it doesn’t really account for why fans seem to like the singer/songwriter so much. Following these commenters’ lead, one cynical answer is that having hit upon a lucrative arrangement, it’s in the artists’ and labels’ best interest to pitch these people and their material as more authentic and spiritual than other music. And there’s probably some of that at work. And I guess you could further argue that sg fans are gullible sops who will buy anything pitched as speerchul. But the point of the post was to try to push beyond the purely cynical readings, true (in part) though they may be.

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  1. MusicLover wrote:

    Isn’t it more lucrative for a singer to cut their own songs? Isn’t that why they’re often not only the writer, but also the publisher? The love of money is the root of a lot more than evil…might it also instill a desire to creatively express oneself by crafting lyrics and melody?

  2. RF wrote:

    Interesting. One thing is certain. Singer-songwriters seem to burn themselves out sooner for some reason. Rodney Griffin is a good example. His writing has gone way down hill over the last few years. Did he run out of inspiration or did he run out of ideas? I also think writers limit themselves when they only do their material, but that’s just my opinion.

  3. quartet-man wrote:

    Sure, there are writers who have lived their lyrics and can write them. Other times I think writers write from another point of view and haven’t specifically lived the lyrics. Did Rodney Griffin REALLY have the dream spoken about in “Faces?” This is not a slam, it just means that he may well have had the inspiration without literally living the words.

    There are singers who can take a song and sing it and who HAVE lived the lyrics even if they didn’t write them. Face it, we humans have a lot of common experiences in life. If a song deals with an experience that is rare, I suspect the song won’t reach many people. Tell me that when Michael English sang Lord, Feed Your Children on the video nearly a decade ago, he hadn’t lived the words “barren and dry.” Tell me that when he sings about “trading his shackles for a glorious song I’m free praise the Lord free at last” that he didn’t identify and hadn’t lived those lyrics.

    Duane Allen, lead singer of the Oak Ridge Boys says he has to feel a song to sing it. Sometimes he has said the lyrics don’t reflect his life, but he has to find common ground with it to sing it. In the song Jonah, Job and Moses, he never literally “shook his fist at Jesus”, but he could find common ground with the song.

    On the other side, some writers simply write. They get or are given an idea, and write that theme. It doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t believe the lyrics, but a writer writes. They get inspiration or an idea and they write.

    As far as winners for songwriting awards, no offense to people, but often it is just who the voters know. Unfortunately many know the artists and not the writers’ names. Now, if the song itself is mentioned it is more likely an accurate reflection, but even then a songwriter’s award should be based on more than a current song. So, someone could write an excellent song and that be it whereas the Bill and Gloria Gaither, Dottie Rambo , Dianne Wilkinson, Sue Smith, Joel Lindsey’s etc. have several. I know I am forgetting many and will regret it, but I wanted to mention a few. :)

  4. quartet-man wrote:

    I got back and finished my post only too see the two above now. It was (and still is ) my opinion when Larry Gatlin retired that the Gatlins could have had a longer and more successful career had they not just sang Larry Gatlin tunes. Now, he has written some great songs, but I am sure they passed over some great songs to record others of his that simply didn’t hold up. To mention Duane again, even though the Oaks have songwriters in the group, they always picked the best songs no matter who wrote them.

  5. Not sure about that wrote:

    I’m not sure I agree with you about Rodney’s writing going downhill. Rodney is Rodney, and he has a certain way of writing.

    Recently, Rodney has sent one of his best songs to another artist — “I’ll Do the Miracle” that Ivan Parker recorded.

    (Counterpoint: I do admit that “Don’t Let the Sandals Fool Ya, He’s heaven’s hallelujah” is one of the most irritating rhyme choices ever made, but that’s the effort to be clever gone awry. He dumped that one on the Triumphant Quartet, and I cringe every time it’s on the radio.)

    Still, I would have to say that “It Pays to Pray” and “You Were Faithful Yesterday” off their latest CD are very good songs.

  6. Kyle Boreing wrote:

    I’m of the thought that, while there are some talented singer/songwriters in the industry, in the end, a lot of artists will go the cheaper route. If someone in the group is capable of writing a decent song or two, why not use those and save some money?

    I’m sure that’s part of the reason so many Daywind artists use songs from Daywind’s publishing companies….

  7. Jim2 wrote:

    That may well be true, but what is the point of having a huge stable of writers, ala Daywind, and then not pitching them to your label’s artists? Top notch singers want top notch songs - I think it’s cool when you can get a writer who writes a song specifically for a group that they are NOT in.
    Be on the lookout for Oaktree Live DVD coming out in the fall featuring SISTERS with a song specifically written for the project by one of the Booth Brothers, and sung as a collaboration between the 2 groups.

  8. Dianne Wilkinson wrote:

    For obvious reasons, I read this thread with interest! It’s absolutely true that a songwriter doesn’t always experience what her song says. When I wrote the lyrics to “What Salvation’s Done for Me”, it was not my testimony, but I wrote from the perspective of people who would identify with it. In what could only be called a God thing, when my co-writer, Rusty Golden, got hold of those lyrics and wrote the melody, it was HIS testimony to a “t”…and I was barely acquainted with him at the time. I know some speculate as to whether God always gives the song…but I know for sure He moves in some mighty and wonderful ways to make the song special to the writer and to get it “out there” to the artists and to the fans to do what He intended for it to do. We who write are abundantly blessed…and have great responsibility. May the Lord always find us faithful to the gift!

  9. Tom wrote:

    A few thoughts and opinions:

    (1) I’d be curious to know how many average southern gospel fans actually know when a song is being sung by the actual writer. I’m guessing most of the time only sg wonks know who actually wrote a particular song–with only a few exceptions, such as the small handful of well-known songwriters that have been mentioned. And, for the purposes of this question, does it count when the Crabb kids sing songs written by Papa Crabb? Does it count when Gerald Wolfe sings Rodney’s songs? Did it count when it was Kenny Hinson singing Ronny’s songs?

    (2) I’m not convinced that the term “singer-songwriter” is really as applicable to southern gospel in any sense comparable to what it generally means in other genres–where it’s usually a soloist doing (or “interpreting”) her/his own songs, and often accompanying herself/himself with live instruments.

    (3) The great hymn tradition of the Church provides a wide variety of songs that give testimony to various sorts of religious experiences, but it doesn’t seem that it hinders either us corporately or soloist/ensemble performers from given full emotional expression to the contents while singing them–even though clearly we aren’t Charles Wesley or Isaac Watts or Fanny Crosby or Bill Gaither.

  10. Kyle wrote:

    I can concur with Dianne about the writing from others’ perspective. I have written some songs that I have approached from a 1st-person story teller. I didn’t experience it personally, but I’m writing it as if I had, more to create the story and imagery.

  11. cdguy wrote:

    I’m not sure I agree with Doug that this is a “post-Hinson phenomenom.” Bill & Gloria Gaither, Dottie Rambo, Joel Hemphill, and many others probably pre-date Ronny Hinson, and I’d say they are/were prime examples of the sgm singer-songwriter. And while those examples have told us they are not among the best vocalists to interpret their songs, fans flocked to hear them sing their newest song.

    Even as prolific as B&G are/were, they’ve almost always included songs from other writers on their recordings. They seemed to understand that they weren’t the only ones who could craft a good song, and say what they wanted to say.

    Libbi Stuffle is a prime example of non-writers who know how to “sell” a song. Ben Speer and many others have have been successful at that for a long time. While God doesn’t give all songwriters great voices, he also doesn’t give all great singers the songwriting abilities.

    And while I agree that, in most cases, no one can FEEL the song the way the writer can, there are a lot of singers who’ve LIVED those words other people have crafted, and therefore may be able to feel (and therefor “sell”) the song at least as well, if not better.

  12. quartet-man wrote:

    I never mentioned Kyla Rowland, Belinda Smith, Wayne Haun, Marty Funderburk (and I am sure others) either.

  13. cdguy wrote:

    I would also say the moderator’s comment that CCM and P&W “rely on simplistic, recursive lyrics and big open musical phrases that create the impression of artless, unself-conscious statements of religious and spiritual commitment” is stereotyping.

    There’s probably just as much sgm that could be placed in the same category, if we just look for it.

    We have a lot of hymns in our hymnals (remember those antiques?) that are just as repetitious, or have irregular meter and/or phrasing, too. So, it’s nothing new, and not exclusive to CCM/P&W.

    Frankly, I grow weary of this debate over which is better, SGM or CCM. Either can be done well or not-so-well. And I think we’ve discussed that fact on the SGM side here.

  14. quartet-man wrote:

    If anybody wants to do the work:

  15. Extra Ink wrote:

    If you’ll remember the timing on “I Will Find You Again”, this song came out shortly after Libby’s father passed away. It meant a lot to her, naturally, and that feeling was transferred over to her audiences as well. It really is a great song.

    Regarding, “Don’t Let The Sandals Fool Ya”…I think it’s a very cool song and I turn up the volume every time it comes on.

    Dianne, that was a great collaboration on “What Salvation’s Done For me”. Wonderful song. Frankly, no one in SG is cranking out more solid material than you are right now. I hope you win the songwriter award at NQC this year. You deserve it.

    Regarding Avery’s post, I can tell you that a lot of groups like the fact that using their own material means not having to pay out royalties. They like it that they have fresh songs no one has heartd AND that they aren’t having to pay 9.1 cents per unit to a publisher/songwriter.

    And then there are those (many) groups who won’t pay any royalties at all….don’t get me started….It’s theft.

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