When the World Looks at Southern Gospel Music…

When the World Looks at Southern Gospel Music… June 11, 2011

…what do they see?
Once, out of curiosity, I decided to have a bit of fun with my classical pianist/composer/music snob and musician extraordinaire uncle. Because I know he can’t stand southern gospel, I tried to put myself in his shoes and come up with a way of describing the genre that he would consider accurate. So I said, “It seems like from your perspective, there are three basic categories in southern gospel: the trite, upbeat ditties, the schmaltzy treacle-fests, and the overblown big ballads. Am I right?” He wrote back and said, “Well…okay, you’ve got me.”

It was a humorous moment, but I’ve been thinking about to what extent that’s an over-exaggeration and to what extent there may be a grain of truth to it. On one hand, there are definitely good southern gospel songs that couldn’t fairly be categorized in any of those categories. (In fact, it might be fun some time to see how many we could come up with that wouldn’t even begin to fit.) But on the other hand, I think a lot of it comes down to how much a listener is willing to put up with, and in what area. Are you the type of person who can’t bear to hear any song that’s just light and upbeat, or can you relax enough to enjoy that sort of thing? Do you have zero tolerance for schmaltz, or can you allow yourself to get into the schmaltz spirit to a point? Do you have the patience to listen while a big ballad takes its time to unfold, or do you find yourself wishing they would just pitch the ball?
There are levels to this, of course. Every person is different. You can even observe differences within the community of southern gospel artists themselves. I remember an interview with Brian Free where he was talking about the song “If it Takes a Valley” and said, “Every now and then you’ll come across a fast song that says something. This song says something.” Michael Booth has stated that he plans to eliminate as much fluff as possible from the Booth Brothers’ future repertoire. But not every artist places as much weight on that sort of thing.
Within my family, Dad is less extreme than my uncle (his brother), but as you may recall, he has some of the same reactions. I’ve heard him say, “Southern gospel just doesn’t do ballads very well. Yeah, it’s catchy, it has a beat, but ballads? Not so much.” But then when he hears slower fare, even some pretty hefty slower fare, he’ll say it takes too long to get going. So lyrical content is obviously only part of the story. His taste has always leaned more towards a CCM style. But naturally there are tradeoffs. For example, I have found that even very good CCM doesn’t always stick in your head from a musical perspective. Still, my dad would go for a rather repetitious melody coupled with deep lyrics before he’d go for light lyrics with a great melody. And the sooner it gets down to business, the better.
By contrast, my mom demands that a melody be easy to remember and is willing to put up with some sentimentality if the music sticks in her head. It’s not that she doesn’t appreciate substance, she’s just more easy-going where Dad gets impatient. She also doesn’t mind a slow-burning ballad as long there’s a strong melody holding it all together. Needless to say, she’s taken to southern gospel like a duck to water. But because my dad’s threshold for that type of thing is lower, I have to pick and choose a bit to find southern gospel he can believe in. (Of course, I’m more Pandora than Pandora when it comes to picking music for people, so I haven’t had a whole lot of trouble there either. ;-))
The truth is that one man’s trite ditty is another man’s rousing barn-burner, and one man’s overblown big ballad is another man’s powerful anthem. Unless we’re dealing with a level of cheese that couldn’t be denied by anybody with a well-developed ear for lyrics or music, this sort of thing is largely subjective. There may even be times when both sides have a point. I can look at a song like “He Touched Me” and say, “Schmaltzy? Yeah.” Then I turn around and say, “But by golly, when you get a really great male quartet or two in there to sing the socks off of it, I’m shouting glory along with everybody else.”
Such is the nature of southern gospel. There’s precious little room for a middle ground between “love” and “hate.”

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  • quartet-man

    Have you tried songs from the Cat’s Symphony of Praise for your uncle? I know you don’t like “Champion of Love” for its lyrics, but the performance is grand. Also songs like “For What Earthy Reason” and “Scars and Stripes Forever” are great. He might also go for “God Himself the Lamb”.

  • I think perhaps not, though obviously he couldn’t argue with the lyrics in those cases. He just doesn’t like the gospel style/sound. Interestingly, the Goss flare isn’t really his thing either. He thought _Declaration_ was kind of overblown. (Then again, I admitted that criticism was true to an extent in my review for SGB, even though I liked the CD.)
    I have long ceased to figure out exactly what my uncle likes. Definitely his own man. He confounds even Pandora. 🙂

  • quartet-man

    How about GVB things with Phelps like “You are My All in all”?

  • Real music snobs aren’t that impressed by Phelps, and honestly…I’m inclined to agree with them. 😉 But seriously, they sense, which I think is accurate, that he’s trying to be classical when he’s really pop, which yields the phenomenon known as “popera.” This is the same category where singers like Josh Groban fall (though I think he does it better than Phelps). Real music snobs can’t stand Josh Groban either.

  • quartet-man

    Maybe so, but they bot come across it honestly unlike some of the people like Bolton who have cut classical CDs.

  • Really? That’s hilarious!

  • quartet-man

    Well, I had only seen it and not heard any of it. It just didn’t seem to be something he could do (it reminded me of the clash of styles with John Denver and Placido Domingo on “Perhaps Love”.) However, I listened to one clip (Nessun Dorma) so far and he actually does much better than I thought he would. He supposedly likes the music and although I cannot imagine his ever wanting to have had a career there, he might just be able to appreciate many different styles, so I will give him the benefit of the doubt. .http://www.amazon.com/My-Secret-Passion-Michael-Bolton/dp/B0000029XA/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1307821940&sr=8-1

  • It sounds like he’s at least trying to get it right. I see the CD has received numerous rave reviews on Amazon…not.
    Myself, I wonder why Bolton has gotten slammed so hard by everybody when there are definitely worse singers out there. I mean, yeah, he’s not the greatest, but he’s just a regular pop singer. Nothing especially remarkable or horrible.

  • Gaithermusicaddict

    Phelps tries to sound classical when he’s really pop? How pop is he? And how does he try to sound classical? And does him being pop and trying to sound classical in any way affect the music snob’s view of Southern Gospel?

  • Gaithermusicaddict

    I’ll check for your response in the morning. Right now its 22:23 here in Africa and I can barely keep my eyes open.
    As for Bolton, I clearly understand why his attempt on classical has not impressed many, its not his thing. Imagine him trying out SG, would he get rave reviews? I believe not.

  • Phelps sings with a lot of extra breaths, sliding, and other things pop singers commonly do. This comes out especially on his solo albums, where he does lots of contemporary and even rock-styled material. However, he will sometimes do a classical piece like “Nessun Dorma” and sing it with some classical affectations. The problem is that he can’t decide whether he wants to sing it all classical or all pop, so he does some of both. The music snob hates it when styles are “mixed up” like that.
    Why would this affect the music snob’s view of southern gospel? Well, at the moment most people view David as potentially the greatest southern gospel tenor ever. So the music snob listens and says, “Is that the best you can do?”
    Now of course, I LOVE southern gospel. However, I love it for other reasons besides David Phelps, though I respect his talent, as an arranger as well as a singer.

  • Oh, I agree that classical isn’t Bolton’s thing, but he’s hated with a passion across the board no matter what he does, and that’s what I’m kind of scratching my head over.

  • quartet-man

    I really liked Bolton’s Soul Provider CD (at least it had several good songs on it) as well as some songs before and after it. My first exposure was “When I’m Back on My Feet Again” shortly after it came out. I think he did respectable jobs on some of his covers “SIttin’ On the Dock of the Bay”, “Georgia” and likely my favorite “To Love Somebody”.
    I think part of the deal is people don’t think he is legitimate because of his covers and various styles. They still might not like him, but had he stuck with his original songs demonstrated on “Soul Provider” and “Time Love and Tenderness” he might have been better off. But even so, he seems to rub people the wrong way.

  • I’m not familiar with most of Bolton’s catalogue, but I absolutely love the song “Go the Distance,” from the _Hercules_ soundtrack. I’m no Disney fan and haven’t seen the movie, but that song is really beautiful. I actually put together my first music video for that song. I gave it a military theme and used various clips of soldiers fighting, marching, and ultimately coming home. The end result was quite moving, IMO.