Published May 21, 2013

Paul's Epistle...
"What Is Southern Gospel music?"

What is this thing we call Southern Gospel music? How would you describe it?

For more than a decade, I've had an unfinished page on our website intended to be "about" Southern Gospel music. It's been unfinished because I never found a good way to describe it adequately. (Maybe this article will go on there now.)

There are a lot of good resources available online and in print form about Southern Gospel music's history. Some of these are scholarly and some are more anecdotal, but all are interesting. And, yes, there is a lot of very rich history there – going back more than a century.

But Southern Gospel music way back then wasn't the same as Southern Gospel music now, although the lineage is preserved and the heritage is evident in much of today's music. In fact, the term "Southern Gospel" is, itself, a relatively modern term — going back perhaps just about four decades.*  Before then, this music was known simply as "Gospel music." Perhaps you — as am I — are old enough to remember that.

So, is Southern Gospel music defined by its history? By what we call it? By its musical style? By its content? By the way it's sung? By the instruments that are used?  By the specific artists who are involved?

Well, yes. Yes it is. All of those things. Some more than others. And now perhaps you can see how difficult it is to define.

Years ago, Pastor Don Riley of the Northfield Christian Outreach Center in Houston, Texas, formed a quartet known as "The Sound" which traveled nationally and had some popular radio songs. I asked him how he would define Southern Gospel music. He looked at me and said, "If I like it, it's Southern Gospel." If you're a dyed-in-the-wool Southern Gospel music fan, that's probably one of the best definitions you'll find.

Wayne Haun is one of today's most gifted producers, arrangers and songwriters working in the Christian music field. Although one of the distinctives of Southern Gospel music has always been its overtly Bible-based doctrinal steadfastness, Wayne told me that, if anything, it's become even more "meaty" in recent years. Fans still love some of the older quartet songs that are just fun to listen to and that, yes, do include the Gospel. But then, Wayne says, in recent decades the lyrics "became a little bit deeper."

In fact, aside from traditional classic hymns, today's Southern Gospel music arguably has some of the strongest Gospel lyrics available. There are songs of encouragement for the Christian, songs about heaven, about the blood, about the cross, about salvation, about redemption, about faith and grace, songs that set Scripture to music, songs that overtly call for repentance and the acceptance of salvation that Christ offers. If there's an overarching theme, it could perhaps be described as "encouragement for the Christian in the here-and-now," built on the solid promise of the "blessed hope" of Christ's return (Titus 2:13) and eternity with Him.

In correspondence, one young lady recently described Southern Gospel music concisely: "It reaches right into my heart!"

But then there's the problem of describing the style musically. The early years were characterized by harmony singing – family groups, quartets — an outgrowth of church singing. And that's still considered the classic Southern Gospel style. "Harmony" remains one of the genre's distinctives, even though other styles utilize vocal harmony (although not as extensively) and even though there are a good number of soloists in Southern Gospel.

Over the years, if I've encountered someone who didn't know anything about Southern Gospel music but did know country music, I'd suggest imagining the Oak Ridge Boys or the Statler Brothers singing Gospel songs. Of course, since both groups did sing some Gospel music that wasn't much of a stretch. But it did seem to help form an idea of the musical style.

Just the other day we had dinner with a family group who had just sung at a large church in Florida. The marquee out front gave their group's name and then said "Gaither Homecoming Friends." Of course, Gaither had nothing to do with this concert. And, although the family group was embarrassed that it might sound as if Gaither would be there (which he wasn't), it did accomplish what the church sign apparently was intended to do – describe the music to be presented in a context the public would understand. In fact, one could say that the Gaither Homecoming events, recordings and TV presentations have done more to spread the style to modern audiences than anything else.

But the problem remains that, stylistically, what's lumped into the Southern Gospel category is extremely broad. Wayne Haun says, "I love that about Southern Gospel. But musically it's always been broad – very, very diverse." Indeed. It could include bluegrass on one end and light contemporary on the other – and a whole lot of other stuff in between. It's included 50s "doo-wop" and even Cajun stylings. You could have soaring orchestral arrangements or just a piano or guitar — and, of course, a capella. Listen to my Singing News Top 20 countdown on any given month and you'll hear a stylistic variety – but all somehow considered Southern Gospel.

So how do we describe or define Southern Gospel music today?

It's been my contention for many years that Southern Gospel music might best be described simply as music (which, of course, includes strong Gospel lyrics) produced by a particular set of artists who describe themselves as Southern Gospel singers.

Now, think about that. Back in the 1980s when Gold City recorded "Midnight Cry," no one would dispute that it was most definitely Southern Gospel. But that same song – often using the very same accompaniment track or arrangement – was recorded by contemporary artists as well, and their versions were considered "contemporary." What was different? The artists. The music was the same.

Likewise, you'll notice that radio stations today calling themselves "Southern Gospel" will play songs by Southern Gospel artists that might have been recorded previously by contemporary artists. Often, only the singers are different.

Back in the 1980s, "Christian Country music" came along and some artists who had been doing very well in Southern Gospel music decided to jump on the new bandwagon and sing Christian Country instead. I hope they're doing well, because they've long ago disappeared from the Southern Gospel circuit. Their music may not have changed much – just the way they perceived and marketed themselves.

So, what is Southern Gospel music? It might not be intellectually satisfying, but perhaps Pastor Riley's definition works best: "If I like it, it's Southern Gospel."

- Paul

Recommended resource for historical perspective: "Close Harmony," by Dr. James Goff, Jr., a 394-page soft-cover book tracing the development of Southern Gospel music from its beginnings. Scholarly in scope, it's also an easy and fascinating read for any Southern Gospel music fan. Available from Springside.

*The late Brock Speer once told me the term "Southern Gospel" music was adopted by the Gospel Music Association simply to distinguish what had been called simply "Gospel" music from more modern styles which were also coming on the scene, such as CCM. The GMA was originally formed entirely by what we would today call Southern Gospel music people.

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