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.Email this Post