What is Southern Gospel?
My father-in-law is writing a paper on the history of Southern Gospel Music. He asked me for my input on 1) the different styles of SG and 2) SG today. I sat down and, in basically an hour's time, came up with the following. Keep in mind that I didn't do any formal research for this, I simply sat and wrote based on my opinion and what I would tell someone if asked about these topics. Disagree if you'd like. More "scientific" works have been published, such as "Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel" written by Dr. Jerry Goff, "Music in the Air: The Golden Age of Gospel Radio" written by Mark Ward, Sr., and "Murray's Encyclopedia Of Southern Gospel Music" written by David Bruce Murray. There are also biographies of many beloved Gospel legends available, such as Vestal Goodman's and Bill Gaither's.
Here are my thoughts:
Styles within Southern Gospel
- Traditional is what many may associate with a quartet style or standard mixed-group sound that features unique four-part harmonies with high tenors, low basses and a 4/4 time pattern. Songs are usually straight-forward and simple: several verses with a familiar chorus that is referred back to several times throughout the song.
- Convention-style is what is referred to as a branch of the traditional style that focuses heavily on shape note singing. It's a very cut-and-dry way of singing. The songs may contain emotion and passion, but usually do not exhibit any "fancy" deviation from the written music. (One usually sticks to the notes on the page and sings as-is without adding or improvising).
- Progressive Southern Gospel incorporates or borrows from a contemporary sound and matches it with one of the more traditional styles. The most common "borrowed" sounds are pop, progressive country (often referred to as a Nashville sound), inspirational, and urban. The best way to describe how an otherwise traditional sound is made "progressive" is to think of a song being given a pop flair (or an urban beat, or use of new technology to produce more of an electronic sound). Usually, groups that fall under a progressive sound also fit well under a traditional sound when given the opportunity to "just sing" with a piano and bass. Some examples are The Gaither Vocal Band, Gold City Quartet, Karen Peck & New River, The Nelons, Signature Sound Quartet, The Crabb Family, and Janet Paschal.
- Bluegrass has been closely aligned with Southern Gospel, although there is a difference between the two. Usually the twangy mountain bluegrass sound is replaced with tighter harmonies and a more polished delivery, while the instrumentation and bluegrass-style of composition sticks. Groups that have used their bluegrass heritage to produce a popular new sound of Southern Gospel are The Isaacs, The Bishops, and The Crabb Family.
Mountain Gospel music is a bit different than bluegrass. If you take the traditional Southern Gospel sound (especially the conventional sound) and marry it with the less-polished delivery of bluegrass, you'll have an example of down home mountain Gospel singing. Two groups that immediately come to mind are The Inspirations and The McKameys. Their talent is no less than the other styles; you'll just notice their sound is uniquely "mountain."
- Black Southern Gospel is characterized by artists like Charles Johnson & The Revivers, The Reggie Saddler Family, Jessy Dixon, Lynda Randle, Andre Crouch, Babbie Mason, Larnelle Harris, and Alvin Slaughter. Listening to very traditional sounds of Black Gospel like the Blind Boys of Alabama or the Fairfield Four will give you an idea of the similarities between white and black gospel music. Jessy Dixon and Lynda Randle have brought unique sounds, blending their personal roots in black gospel with the songs closely aligned with white southern gospel to provide a "country/western meets soul and blues" sound that is appealing to lovers of both styles.
- Country Gospel music has probably one of the most straight-forward definitions: anything the sounds like what the secular country music genre is producing. Obviously it has a wide range as well. Some people associate "old country church hymns" as being Country Gospel, while others associate the sound of a steel guitar, southern drawls like Merle Haggard or Hank Williams, and story-songs that grab emotions to be what defines "Country." I think both associations are accurate: "On The Wings of A Snow White Dove" is just as much a Country Gospel song as is Randy Travisí recent hit "Three Wooden Crosses." Examples of Country Gospel artists are: Jeff & Sheri Easter, The McRaes, Randy Travis, The Oak Ridge Boys, and Mike Bowling.
Southern Gospel Today
The music today falls into two main categories: concerts and churches. Most groups use both to expand their reach.
Concert venues are generally seen as more entertainment, usually charge an admission for the show, have concessions that are for sale, give time for an intermission and feature multiple groups sharing the stage while an emcee or host moves the night along. There is usually a heavy push for the artist's product available for purchase in a foyer or lobby.
The Bill Gaither Homecoming series is an example of a highly-successful concert production. Gaither has outsold other secular music acts in tickets sales, artists like Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi.
Church venues are typically used more to aid in worship or to minister. These appearances are usually less showy and are more straight-laced than concerts. Admission is rare, but a love offering is common. Interestingly enough, product tables are almost always setup and promoted at church events as well. One common way for a church to land a big name in Southern Gospel is through connections and last-minute bookings where the group is traveling from point A to point B and has an open date in between the two. The group's booking agency will contact area churches and offer a low-cost booking option in exchange for the group to fill its schedule last-minute.
While there are some groups who only perform at concert venues, there aren't many who only sing to church groups. When given the chance to perform at a civic hall or on an arena stage, Southern Gospel artists usually take it. Since the music is Christian at its root, artists argue that regardless of "concert" or "church," ministry still exists and is the main goal. It is, as Bill Gaither's biographical title states it, "More Than The Music."