Southern Gospel Sees Jesus 30 years after the fact

Listening to that “I’ve Just Seen Jesus” clip I posted yesterday, I was reminded of one of my pet theories about the shifting centers of southern gospel taste  that surfaces from time to time.

(Not so) Succinctly stated, it’s this: that southern gospel’s alleged distaste/disdain for Contemporary Christian Music really only lasts as long as it takes for that music to not to seem new/different/strange/just enough like AND unlike whatever it is that’s going on in southern gospel at the time - a process that usually takes about 15-30 years - at which point southern gospel “(re)discovers” it (whether a specific song or a general style) as if all good gospel music was so much fine (but non-alcoholic!) wine that had to age into its finest form quaffed from one of the increasingly empty seats at a Homecoming Friends show. Mind you, this is a fairly untested theory that’s driven mostly by anecdote and somewhat selective evidence. So your mileage may vary. Whatever. My blog. My crackpot bootstrapped theories.

To wit: “I’ve Just Seen Jesus.” Here’s a tune that came out in what? 1983-84? At the time it was solidly a CCM/inspo hit (and Larnelle Harris and Sandy Patti were solidly CCM/inspo personalities). Because it’s a Gaither tune, and “Gaither” is synonymous  with southern gospel Homecomings these days, it’s easy to forget that at the time of its first appearing, “I’ve Just Seen Jesus” was stylistically quite remote from the mainstream of sg.  In fact, when you strip away the Gaither penchant for symphonic bombast and orchestral overkill in ballad arrangements, “I’ve Just Seen Jesus” is conceptually indebted more than just about anything else to the residual influence of the Jesus-people/Christian folk tradition, or, at least, its effects on Christian entertainment.

The effects were somewhat time delayed (showing up in Christian music about the time the Jesus People movement and Christian folk traditions were in decline), but very real all the same: Witness all those histrionically meditative first-persony quasi-folk ballads that dominated the Dove Awards in the late 1970s and into the ’80s (Don Francisco, call your office): for instance, “Rise Again” (Dove Awards Song of the Year 1978), “He’s Alive” (SOTY 1980), “El Shaddai” (SOTY 1983), “Via Dolorosa” (SOTY 1986). (And depending on how affected/afflicted you think Dottie Rambo was by all the Kumbaya-ism that had general run of the place in some parts of Christian music leading up to this time, you might want to throw “We Shall Behold Him” [SOTY 1982] into the evidentiary mix as well …. My instinct would be to include it, because I think southern gospel is too quick to assume that Rambo’s sg roots make all her work an example of “our” music, which seems to be fairly disputable, but that’s another discussion for another day).

In roughly that same time period, southern gospel was showing lots of love to songs such as “Standing on the Solid Rock” (SN Fan Awards SOTY 1978), “Sweet Beulah Land” (SOTY 1981), “Step into the Water” (SOTY 1983), and “When He was on the Cross” (SOTY 1985 AND 1986).

The stylistic and conceptual differences between the sg and CCM songs from this time period are real and legitimate, but then as now, in the southern gospel world, those differences aren’t just cast as matters of taste or culture, but as matters of theology and, frankly, degrees of saintliness. It’s not just that your garden variety southern gospel crowds don’t like CCM; it’s that this new-fangled crap is theologically unsound, possibly subversive, and probably spiritually corrosive.

Of course like any feud, this one is not entirely one-sided. As I note in the book:

There was a “mutual distrust and wariness emerging between white gospel traditionalists and the more progressive musicians coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s. This dynamic is borne out in conversations I have had with industry leaders. One record label executive I interviewed told me a story about attending the Dove Awards in the 1980s with several prominent industry leaders from white gospel, including figures who had helped found the GMA and its awards show. Upon entering the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, where the awards were being held, two of the most prominent CCM artists of the day conspicuously refused to interact with the gospel businessmen. For their part, the white gospel executives did not stay long, walking out halfway through the show, disgusted by performances of notionally Christian music that were to them indistinguishable from the most profane pop and rock acts of the day.

I don’t want to excuse the boorish behavior of the CCM artists (when they’re dead, I’ll tell you who they were), but the salient point here is that for CCM folks, they just don’t spend that much time thinking about southern gospel one way or another. Then or now. While the sg’ers response is still striking for unhesitatingly imputing - quite literally - bad faith to Christian music that was stylistically different. And this was precisely the era in which “I’ve Just Seen Jesus” was coming into popularity and a bunch of other songs pretty much like it were winning SOTY.

Fast forward three decades, and southern gospel audiences are throwing babies from the balcony for Phelps and Ranahan reviving a Sandy and Larnelle act that was part of a CCM universe assailed then and now by sg for its impiety and secularity. The main thing that’s changed is that the stylistic center of CCM has continued to follow trends in mainstream pop and rock, making CCM’s 1980s hits seem staid and conventional today - which it to say, just right for southern gospel.

A few years ago I ran the gist of this theory by a songwriter friend of mine who works in CCM and sg, and his basic response was: meh … perhaps. His counter-theory is that Gaither is the magic super-solvent in the conflict between CCM and sg. In this view, Gaither’s influence has been so vast in both worlds, and his intuition about how to stage and style songs from a range of Christian music genres for sg audiences so sharp, that, essentially, southern gospel crowds would wave glad hands and fall out in the aisles for just about anything from DC Talk to Barlow Girl as long as Gaither put some Lari Gossified string beds behind it and had David Phelps sing a double B-flat above middle C at the end.

And this may well be true, but I don’t think the two theories - my friend’s and mine - are mutually exclusive, not least of all because when I listen to a lot of the “new” music coming out of the average sg groups these days, it sounds like nothing so much as an uninspired imitation of the inspo-poppy side of CCM 15 and 20 years ago. Let Gaither be Gaither, but it sure seems like southern gospel has become a kind of shadow circus trundling into town behind CCM and catering to tastes of the villagers who are slower to accept or more reluctant to adjust to the newest fangdanglery in Christian entertainment.

If I’m right (and I spool out a more considered and well-supported version of this argument - with footnotes! - in the book), then this would be an ironic reversal within what used to be known as the “white gospel” world (that is, the continuum of music that we today classify as southern gospel, inspo, and PW): back in the day when the eminence grises of southern gospel were storming out of the Dove Awards and generally cutting ties with CCM, it was ultimately because CCM had taken the leading edge of southern gospel’s most contemporary sounds (think the Speers’ more conceptually innovative material with Harold Lane, or the early Singing Americans, or the Nelons’ edgier stuff) and extended it outward to its stylistically logical conclusions, gave it an aesthetic makeover that sold well with a younger generation of fans whose tastes were attuned to mainstream television celebrity (not the less aesthetically sophisticated convention singings, quartet conventions, or all night sings of southern gospel), and generally let themselves be led by their far less inhibited instincts. IOW, CCM was - commercially speaking at least - a more highly evolved southern gospel.

For a decade or so, CCM and sg evolved on more or less their own tracks (in fact, I think that list of sg SOTY winners from the 1980s holds up at least as well and probably better from a creative and stylistic perspective than the CCM SOTYs from the same time period). But by the early 1990s, the inevitability of demographics was hastening sg’s rapid decline into the ranks of a marginal religious music subculture. Yes, there was what appeared to be a rejuvenating surge in the 1990s: Greater Vision formed, Gold City had a second-wind revival, the Cathedrals ruled, the Ruppes went national, NQC moved to bigger digs in Louisville, and so on. But even these developments were riding waves that started in the 80s, and remind me more of that burst of energy the dying sometimes exhibit just before they take that final journey to join the choir invisible.

Gaither of course moved (back) in to sg around this time with Homecoming, and he did such a brilliant job of selling the golden age of southern gospel back to itself that everyone cruised along merrily into the new century with a (false) sense of security about the future. Only in southern gospel is a phenomenon built around the dead and the dying considered a lifeline.

But now even Homecoming is showing signs of nearing the end of its shelf life and the thing “everybody is talking about” (besides David Phelps’s hair!) is a cover of a 30-year-old hit from a part of the Christian music world that southern gospel at best tolerates, at worst, actively disdains. Whatever else may be the organizing force of southern gospel’s relationship with CCM, historically logical coherence is not a principle feature.

The most generous explanation I can come up with is that sg has had its back turned to mainstream Christian music so long that no one can realize or admit how heavily southern gospel has come to lean on CCM’s back catalog in order to stand upright.

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  1. Chris Henry wrote:

    It comes down to this. A good song is a good song. Now, I’m a dude that likes SG as well as some good’ol Rockin’ Christian music. For me, it’s the music and vocals that have to be great. Honestly, these days most CCM just sucks because it all sounds the same as the previous song played. Not to mention, great vocalists tend to avoid CCM seemingly. But there are good songs that they produce. I’m an old-school Petra and White Heart fan, but I dig the Newsboys, Joel Hanson, and some others of recent notariety. These groups have a good rock edge with a minimum of the really weak stuff you typically hear on KLOVE.

    But where I usually draw the line is bands who perform a bunch of vertical stuff. C’mon, man. P&W? I get more out of songs that are pointed directly at me. As long as SG keeps it that way, it’ll survive.

    When Steven Curtis Chapman comes through town, I’ll be at his show. Shoot, I’ve been known to show up at Journey and Brett Michaels concerts. If the music and/or vocals are strong, I’ll be there. If not, forget it. And by forget it, I mean I really hate that stuff!

  2. John Situmbeko wrote:

    Southern Gospel Sees Jesus 30 Years After The Fact.
    That song is clearly contemporary. It may be performed by artists involved in SG, but since its inception that has been the case. Larnelle and Sandi both worked for Gaither as SG singers. And though the two were contemporary artists, they sang that song to SG concert attendees. SG lovers have been throwing babies from the balcony over the song since I’ve Just Seen Jesus was just a baby. I don’t think it is correct to say the song has just made it big in SG now after 30 years. The thing is, a good song is a good song. If you would take the best SG group there is out there and have them sing a good SG song in front of a CCM audience, no doubt the crowd would go wild(if the song is about praising God, a theme most dear to the CCM fan).

    Leaning on CCM’s back catalog in order to stand upright??? No truth in that whatsoever. If that is true there is no problem with that, it is not bad anyway. Seeing that CCM to a large extent is leaning not on mainstream pop’s back catalog but on the present catalog, SG looks good though harshly criticised by harsh critics. CCM strives so hard to be indistinguishable with latest pop, hip hop, R&B and all the stuff out there such that it can be said of it that it genre without direction, with no stable foundation, with no roots of its own. In SG, hits of 30 or 50 years ago are still hits today, this testifies to the solid foundation and well strongly established roots of SG. In order to stand upright, SG has not in any way been leaning on the back catalog of CCM.

  3. j-mo wrote:

    Sogo, ccm, p&w, and other forms of Christian music all have songs with great lyrics and songs with terrible ones. The sogo fans site the terrible lyrics from CCM and P&W as reasons it is theologically shallow and lacking, the CCM/P&W fans do the same to sogo and the argument never neds. But, when it comes right down to it, on genre’s dislike toward the others almost always comes down to either a misconception of the people performing it or a dislike of the musical style. And, Doug is 100% right, in a decade or two when the 2012 CCM musical style no longer matches secular radio and is old news to sogo fans…sogo fans will be pulling a ton of great material from those CCM archives and probably talking about how much better that genre used to be.

    To commenter #1, I agree there is a lack of horizontal in P&W. But there is equally a lack of vertical in sogo and the old red hymnal. It seems very few churches are striking a balance. David, the ultimate music worshipper, instructed us to sing “unto” the Lord and shout aloud “unto” the Rock of our salvation…so we can’t really discount the usefulness of good vertically directed worship songs.

  4. Charles Brady wrote:

    Off your meds again I see……

  5. Kyle wrote:

    For a long time, SG and country crossed paths quite a bit. SG artists would cross over into country, and vice versa. But now, EVERY genre is trying to be pop. Country is imitating pop. CCM is imitating pop. R&B isn’t successful unless it’s got a pop flavor to it. As a result, those SG artists who attempt to imitate country wind up being a copy of a copy.

    As for being behind in the times….it appears that several SG groups are jumping on the music video bandwagon. Some groups tried this in the 80’s (which, if you ask me, was more Bill Traylor’s pushing than anything), but thanks to the immediate, easy, and free exposure on YouTube, not to mention the relative ease of producing any video footage nowadays, why can’t SG be like everyone else and make their own music videos??

    Heck, I’ve made my own music video in the course of two days with my brother, and it looked close enough to the big leagues, which I think is what many SG artists are thinking….if it’s close enough, who’s gonna know the difference?!

  6. CVH wrote:

    There is much to agree with in your analysis. I think there were some true progressives in SG in the ’70s and ’80s but they were cautious to try and bring their fan base along with them. You mention The Speers; probably the best example as far as recording a wider range of material while not forgetting their roots - “I Never Shall Forget The Day”, “Turn Your Radio On”, etc. With Harold Lane’s influence along with orchestrators like Rick Powell and Lari (genuflect) Goss, they created a sound that was at once southern gospel and inspo/contemporary.

    The big ballad trend was most closely associated with the inspo style moreso than CCM. I’m sure a lot of SG people thought it was all crap but through much of that decade there were three major style categories - inspo, southern gospel and CCM. (There was also traditional and black gospel but they’ve always been niche categories.)

    Inspo had the broadest appeal and market share because it was musical common ground. Writers like Gaither, Lanny Wolfe, Dottie Rambo, Gordon Jensen and others made major contributions to the genre while at the same time SG was struggling to find a new direction. The Dixie Melody Boys and The Thrashers moved in that direction for awhile but it didn’t last. In contrast, the GVB from their first record in 1981, presented a mix of SG, inspo and light CCM.

    At the same time the world was much different than it is today; Reagan was calling the Soviet Union ‘the evil empire’, the Cold War was in full force, we were struggling through a recession. That played out in politics and the culture, polarizing the south and adding to the distrust of “these damn hippies with their rock ‘n roll guitars and miniskirts.” I don’t think people like Randy Matthews, 2nd Chapter of Acts, Larry Norman or Nancy Honeytree were being judged based on their theology or sincerity; they were being judged for being themselves.

    But, everything changes. The hardcore SG faction (seems the us against them mentality started most often from the SG side and was directed at the CCM/inspo crowd) began to embrace some of the very things they’d objected to for so long. I’m not sure they would acknowledge the changes or that their previous positions were judgmental and based in personal biases, but the influence of other styles of Christian music on SG was undeniable. Why? I think a lot of it was survivability; “as long as we do it subtly we can get our piece of the action too.” And you know Aunt Blabby is a sucker for a big ballad.

    Fast-forward another decade and we see the beginning of the end for inspo. Its target audience was aging, radio airplay and concert revenue dropped while at the same time CCM was expanding at a much faster pace. One can make a convincing argument that much of it lacks originality but that’s not a new accusation nor is it limited to any one genre. For a few years now it’s been virtually impossible to distinguish between the AC (CCM) charts and the inspo charts.

    I’m not sure even Bill, with his finely-honed superpowers could Gaitherize DC talk or Barlow Girl. I think he has a clause in his world domination contract with God to exhibit some self-restraint but no doubt he was the single most effective force in the changes we’ve seen in the last thirty or forty years.

    SG has some great writers, singers and players. But there are so many limitations on it - declining audiences, lower revenues, increased costs and creative limitations imposed by the shallowness of the surrounding SG culture, that falling back on an old song now and then may be the least of its worries.

  7. irishlad wrote:

    6 nice overview of the recent history of gospel music

  8. Tad Kirkland wrote:

    Your songwriter friend is right. Gaither’s audience is larger than the SG world and therefore melds (not sure if that’s a word, but it should be) the SG world and his audience who has followed him and were likely Inspo fans in the 80’s. Since the Inspo market doesn’t really exist anymore, Gaither’s side is closer to those now older Inspo fans than Christian pop (CCM).
    You’re right in that the SG fans who have jumped on the Gaither bandwagon possibly hadn’t heard the Sandy Patti hits lumping such artists into the whole CCM realm of artists such as Petra and Whiteheart even though O For A Thousand Tongues and We Shall Behold Him aren’t that different stylistically. The NQC and Singing News leaders were so narrow minded that this was part of their agenda to be exclusive. This is probably why the Nelons and the DMB Band (Dixie Melody Boys) didn’t do a more modern SG/Inspo sound very long. Gaither and the Martins got by with it later.
    Bottom line is there are just a bunch of Jesus and music lovers who don’t care what style it’s called.

  9. Michael McIlwain wrote:

    Back in the early 70s the Oaks had 4 Andrae Crouch songs on their album, Light. The Blackwood Brothers had 2 Andrae a crouch sings on L-O-V-E. The same album also had a Gary S. Paxton song on it. The Statesmen as welsh as J.D. sumner and the Stamps covered Larry Norman’s Sweet Song of Salvation. I miss those days (even thou I was a very young child back then.).

    There are many good songs, but great songs should cross genres and be embraced by all good singers.

  10. irishlad wrote:

    9 L.O.V.E was the first album i believe ft Ken Turner on bass (replacing London Parris) i still have that of my favourites.

  11. Ode wrote:

    yes, a great chapter, I again strongly recommend the book!

    “”"I don’t want to excuse the boorish behavior of the CCM artists”"”"

    You don’t have to. Why shouldn’t they be expected to walk out on those who openly call CCM disgusting, godless and “indistinguishable from the most profane acts of the day”?

    CCM weren’t angels toward SG boys either, but it appears each side erroneously thought the other was chomping on their piece of the pie, fully ignoring the fact that they cater to different audiences. Fish and bird pet shops pushing all dog breeders out of the market won’t magically make a dog lover buy a bettafish and a parrot.

    Surely there are proven ways, like radio payola, to manipulate public taste by force-feeding it into eventually liking or accepting pure crap, but blaming another genre for stealing your fans is just sour graping*. Radio/labels/charts being dominated by other artists bad music didn’t prevent Adele from selling to millions.

    *I hope thats what it was … the other option being just public display of childish resentment of each other, reasonably expected from 3 y olds in a sandbox, not adults in SG/CCM

  12. Ode wrote:

    Thanks for the article, Doug, and to CVH for another curious historical installment and to J- mo -I saw your post on David Murray‘s site on thread about Triumphant Q-t singers Loudly Bitching About America Not Catering To Triumphant Quartet’s Expectations song . I think I quite misunderstood u, you are cool and pretty hilarious guy.

  13. mike wrote:

    Irishlad, you’re right. CVH (#6) should write a book on southern gospel history since the 70’s. That was as good a summary as I’ve read in some time.

  14. Scott wrote:

    In response to Chris Henry’s comment above: “But where I usually draw the line is bands who perform a bunch of vertical stuff. C’mon, man. P&W? I get more out of songs that are pointed directly at me. As long as SG keeps it that way, it’ll survive.”

    My heart sunk as I read that sentence. Doesn’t anyone else see this as being the problem with Southern Gospel Music? I grew up on a bus. My dad was a quartet man, I myself spent 13 years on the road in SG quartets, full-time. I still have a little love and appreciation for the music. I never thought I’d sing anything but SGM. Then I got saved. I realized that the problem with most of the music was that it was TOO ME-centered. Much of the theology in the songs isn’t even biblical. That’s why there are so many unsaved people singing it. They are singing things that have no power other than to play on someone’s emotions and give them a false sense of security for the afterlife. It’s all flesh. The same criticism I see SGM fans accusing CCM people of is what they are most guilty of. The gospel is about GOD. Saving us for HIS glory. 1 Peter 3:18 says Jesus died once for all to bring us to GOD! Jesus didn’t die to give us streets of gold, walls of jasper, mansions on hilltops, or any of the other cliche’ lyrics we find in SGM songs. He died to glorify the father by pouring out his love on wretched, vile, ME-centered mankind. Are there snippets of truth in SG songs? Sure. Is everyone singing SGM lost? Absolutely not. But there is a reason why the industry stays small and irrelevant. While the music is part of it, there will always be people that will enjoy hearing four part harmony in southern format. But the biggest reason is because it has become BASTARD music. It has no Father. Which sadly, from Chris Henry’s post above is just fine, because he wants music that is pointed directly at him.

  15. Brent Ward wrote:

    First of all, just found your blog and I have really enjoyed reading all the articles and your insight into what used to be my favorite genre of music.

    “Let Gaither be Gaither, but it sure seems like southern gospel has become a kind of shadow circus trundling into town behind CCM and catering to tastes of the villagers who are slower to accept or more reluctant to adjust to the newest fangdanglery in Christian entertainment.” WOW. I think this statement sums up your entire post.

    I became part of the fanbase, riding the waves of that early 90s resurgence with Gold City (who jumped the shark after the Riley, Trammell, Wilburn, Parrack lineup). I had friends really into CCM (Steven Curtis Chapman, Newsboys, Audio Adrenaline, my cousins in the 80s were all about Sandy Patti, Stryper, Petra, Michael W Smith. But I couldn’t get past the crappy production quality of the music. SG at the time had full lush sounds, vocally and instrument wise.

    During this time I really got into the vintage 4-part male quartet, which has always been the backbone of the whole genre to me. Blackwood Brothers, Statesmen, then into the 70s with the Cathedrals gaining ground and one of my other favorites of all time The Kingsmen.

    In my mind - SG just has lost its viability as a leading medium in the realm of “Christian” music. I still listen to the classic albums I have, because in many cases, the songs, the presentation, the lineups were breakthrough at the time, and classic now. Part of the reason I stopped listening was because my wife can’t stand to listen to it when we’re in the car. The other part has to do with that the last time I turned on the radio to our local station, I felt like I was listening to the same song on repeat. The same intro arrangements, turnarounds, ok now let’s change keys and let the tenor (if he is a good one) take the melody, but keep the bass almost completely unheard in the mix. (Sorry that wasn’t a complete sentence)
    I do recall a year or so ago hearing some group who had styled their name after Philllips, Craig and Dean, except that wasn’t their name, but it was trying to roll of the tongue that same way. Then I heard someone covering the PCD song “Crucified with Christ” which sounded almost like the original, except it had that SG ‘touch’.

    I think the day that I hear the Newsboys’ “I Am Free” SG-style, we’ll know the end is near.

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