Six theories about Shoutin’ Time
No, I don’t mean the song of that title that was rendered both exhausting and exhausted by the Hoppers. Rather, I’m wondering if southern gospel crowds still shout like they used to? In the car this morning, I heard the Singing Americans’ “I Bowed on My Knees” from Live and Alive and then the Perrys” “Praise Gawd It’s Settled I’m Saved” from Absolutely Positively Live and realized, when you hear those crowds roar, it feels like an artifact of an earlier time. Here’s the Perrys:
I don’t mean that crowds don’t get excited any more, nor do I mean to suggest that there aren’t certain churches where one could read the phone book and reduce to the crowd to convulsions of holy spirit anointing. Nevertheless, it seems like the collective screaming roar that breaks out on both the Perrys and the Singing Americans’ albums - the kind of thing the Kingsmen nearly trademarked - has been replaced by a more middle-brow politesse … lots of clapping, sure, and standing ovations, absolutely. But it’s less clear to me that crowds give up those great primal roar of enraptured pleasure in these latter days.
Perhaps my premise is flawed and I’ve misperceived the situation entirely. But let’s pretend for a moment I haven’t. So what might account for this state of affairs? Some possibile theories, which I offer by way of exploration and not as definitive accounts (as you’ll see, I’m not necessarily convinced of them myself in some places).
1. Live music is less spontaneous in the age of tracks and stacks, which makes it harder for groups to create the kind of unlooked for descent of glory-rolling joy that stands behind the scenes captured above. Consequently, crowds are conditioned to manage and lower their expectations for the endangered species of the unexpected. To wit: notice that while the Perrys are using a track in “Praise Gawd,” and the crowd is already amped up by the first encore, the real shoutin’ begins precisely when the track fails to come in at the right moment in the second encore, thereby creating this unexpected and pretty thrillingly precarious situation for Watts and the crowd … will she hold it? Will the track pick up? What if it doesn’t? What if she can’t? … and the collective precarity of the unprogrammed moment, and her ability to pull it off induces the screamin’ fits (I always wonder when I hear Watt’s let out that spirit filled “oh yes” right after the track arrives around - it’s around 3′55″ - if Watts isn’t essentially saying “gosh that was close”). What’s the most recent southern gospel live album you’ve heard that captures this kind of moment?
2. Fewer live albums are recorded. This could be a byproduct of No. 1 in a couple of different ways: first, even notionally live gigs are largely karaoke concerts that vary little from the sound of a studio album. And, second, the cost structures and profit margins for most groups are so heavily leveraged to the stack/track model of performance, few groups have the ability or willingness to invest in what it takes to put on fully live concerts.
3. Even when a group does put on a fully live concert, they may have become so accustomed to performing highly programmed sets that they (and their audiences) discover they’ve basically lost the mojo and moxie that’s required to pull off what English and Watts do in the examples above. I have absolutely no proof of this, but it certainly seems plausible to me that after 10 or 15 or (for many groups) 20 years of concerts that are almost entirely tracked and stacked, performers can lose that open-nerved sensibility that’s a part of all good live music. Sing with digital bands and backing vocals long enough, and those ecstatic instances of insight and instinct when a performer sees or feels or makes a way for an opening in the arc of the song that’s only possible in the interplay of genuinely live music - it seems possible that this sensibility could become dulled or numbed or sclerotic or oblated and all but disappear after enough disuse.
4. Southern gospel has become so generically hybridized and interbred stylistically that the kinds of songs, and especially the kinds of endings, that have historically induced shoutin’ spells in southern gospel crowds (think three chords and a cloud of dust) are no longer a staple of the southern gospel stage. This feels both self-indulgently nostalgic (as if musical genres don’t or shouldn’t change over time) and perhaps just another version of No. 3 above.
5. It’s all Gaither’s fault. Heheh. But think about it: Homecoming venerates southern gospel, but it’s a bourgeois and polite version of the music and its history. And Gaither audiences reflect this sensibility in their response to Homecoming music: Gaither audiences will clap and standingly ovate and gushingly buy product by the armload. But Gaither crowds just don’t, as matter of course, scream and shout (the Kingsmen had to behave themselves when they were allowed to sit on Homecoming concerts and, as a friend noted to me the other day, Anthony Burger’s style took on a certain muzaky politesse in his Gaither years that’s emblematic of the effect I’m trying, imperfectly, to capture here). This phenomenon is particularly curious given that Michael English made his name in the Gaither universe covering “I Bowed On My Knees” with just as much, maybe even more, vocal theatrically as he bestowed upon the song when Singing American fans were weeping and wailing at the wonder of it all (though it is true that English’s tone was noticeably more covered and darker in his Singing American days - he sounds older to me in the 1980s, frankly - before English’s joining the GVB and his turn toward CCM in the 1990s, when he brightened the overall color of his voice while also using a lot more throaty sound effects … all that growling and whining and melismatic carrying on). Maybe the difference is that, whereas the Kingsmen/Goodmans style of performance was purposefully designed to whip crowds up into a frothy frenzy, Gaither music is designed to stun audiences into a kind of dazzling Disneyfied awe (thus the big orchestral warhorses and movingly back lit power anthems etc). Hamill and Vestal wouldn’t go home till their crowds dissolved into puddles of tears and sweat and spiritual dissipation under the relentless pressure of their pounding sounds. Gaither wants you enchanted and leaving mesmerized by the larger-than-life magic of it all. Shorter version of this theory: what hasn’t Gaither influenced?
6. The brave new digital world of post-production enhancements makes it awfully easy to airbrush into your “live” recordings the amped up roar of what more typically sounds like a baseball stadium after a homerun than a great gettin-up fit of gospel shoutin’ (still looking at you, Hoppers, though in fairness, and while I’m trotting out theories here, I have a theory that the popularity of the sampling of the completely unbelievable stadium roar on live albums was really inaugurated by the distant roaring crowd sampled into the GVB’s “Count on Me,” which is a rich irony, since that was not, of course, a live album at all, and the sample was supposed to be heard as a sound effect, as artificial). The theory here isn’t that no one ever spliced in canned applause in the analog days, but there was (what seems now to look like) a certain naive commitment to verisimilitude in live albums from the pre-ProTools and serial-sampling era. In those bygone days, live albums tended to aspire to capture in live recordings that unique shoutin’ sound of a gospel audience in the throes of enthrallment to close harmony. Of the four theories, I’m most distrustful of this one because it relies on precisely the kind of good-ole-days nostalgifying that I regularly call out in others. But these, dear readers, are the lengths to which I’ll go for gospel.Email this Post