Does Southern Gospel Need Youthful Appeal?

Does Southern Gospel Need Youthful Appeal? April 30, 2013

Recently I was browsing the Musicscribe mega-blog (which y’all should check out in its full glory here), and I read a contribution from Kyle Boreing about the country/gospel sister act Red Roots. Kyle praised the sisters’ smart, creative marketing choices, holding them up as a tasteful but effective example for the rest of the industry in this area. Specifically, he highlighted their use of radio contests and music videos. And it’s paying off, as they’ve gotten significant airplay and a handful of new artist nominations.

I also like Red Roots and agreed with most of Kyle’s points. However, I gently pushed him a bit on one line in his post. When he listed the sisters’ accomplishments, he added “… and they’re doing it with a youthful appeal that is otherwise SORELY lacking in gospel music.” That wording caught my eye: SORELY lacking. I left a comment asking whether it was so bad that southern gospel is mostly made up of older groups. Red Roots’ publicist, Rick Schweinsberg, actually responded to my comment, and this is what he said: “Who said it was? But most veteran DJs will tell you that their listening audience is ready to go with something fresh.”
Okay, that’s well and good in its own way. I think it’s great to see a youthful group join the genre. But I don’t think that was Kyle’s point, exactly. He seemed to be indicating that southern gospel needs younger groups. And Rick’s wording indicates a certain staleness or stagnation within southern gospel as it is.
I don’t listen to southern gospel radio, but I’m told it doesn’t always circulate the best that’s out there. So perhaps Rick has a point when it comes to SG radio. But Kyle’s original comment seemed to be in reference to the genre as a whole. Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but I’m not sure I agree with him. Does southern gospel need “youthful appeal” in order to be a good genre? Is there something intrinsically good about youth, per se? Red Roots is a talented group with some cute songs, don’t get me wrong. But to be honest, I still prefer some of the older groups.
I also believe that some types of music should retain a certain core identity (we’re leaving out the ones that need to crawl away and die altogether, like dance pop and hip-hop). Southern Gospel, in its purest form, has that distinctive identity. Think what a shame it would be if all the older groups still doing it the old-fashioned way were to be completely replaced by groups like Red Roots. In my opinion, it wouldn’t be southern gospel anymore. It might be perfectly good in its own way, but it wouldn’t be southern gospel. And old-fashioned southern gospel, done right, is worth preserving.
Those are my two cents. Now I will turn it over to you, the readers: Do you think Southern Gospel needs youthful appeal? Or does it perhaps depend on what the goals are?

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  • Lydia

    Maybe the youth need the good taste to appreciate old-fashioned Southern Gospel. I think here of various family groups such as the group that has the little boy who sang with Legacy Five. _He_ thinks Legacy Five has youthful appeal. By definition, since they appeal to him, and he is young.
    A given music genre is not going to survive qua genre by reinventing itself, because if it reinvents itself too much it just won’t be that genre anymore. This makes Southern Gospel, like many other things, vulnerable to social forces beyond its control, such as the tendency or otherwise of families to expose their children to it and to promote it as a good thing. In the _very_ long run, if SG is liked “only by the elderly,” it won’t continue to have enough money to survive, unless a new generation of older people magically comes to like it when they hit, say, sixty, even though they didn’t like it before. (That seems unlikely.) But we’ve got years to go before we need to worry about that. For one thing, we have years to go because there are also middle-aged people who like SG. Moreover, the $$ may be concentrated in the hands of a few. Patrons can do a lot for a genre even if there aren’t a lot of patrons.
    In the final analysis, whether genres like SG continue to appeal to new generations is going to be a function of culture and of the families who make up culture. As a confirmed pessimist, I haven’t got much long-term hope for our culture. But I would say to SG artists that the best thing they can do for the future of our culture is just to go on being themselves, because that is their calling and their distinctive contribution. Don’t change who you are because of a merely possible worry in the far future. And leave the rest to God.

  • When I say “youth appeal,” I mean something for the kids to latch onto and enjoy, in hopes that they will remain SG fans for years to come. The last few times I was at a SG concert, I could count on one hand the number of audience members who were below the age of 30. How can any genre survive if younger listeners don’t take an interest?
    As for wanting things the way they are (or the “old fashioned way”)….gospel music is NOT a religion, and I think that’s the biggest misconception out there today – we CAN’T change anything, because God doesn’t want it changed!!! God doesn’t want our faith to change, but how we show and express our faith to others HAS to adapt to the changing times, otherwise it becomes ineffective. Gospel music has gone from an outreach tool designed to reach the lost to a nostalgic trip down church memory lane. It has become ineffective evangelically; it is now simply entertainment for the churched, or “preaching to the choir,” so to speak.

  • Well, I agree to a certain extent. As Lydia was saying, we want kids to appreciate southern gospel so that it can survive into the VERY long term.
    But I have to wonder, to what extent is the middle-aged-to-elderly audience a function of southern gospel’s artistic paucity or a lack of appreciation for a slightly older tradition of music in the youth culture? And if it’s the latter, shouldn’t we be educating our kids to appreciate the value of tradition, instead of rushing to adapt and massage a genre to suit their preferred tastes?
    I think we’re just looking at this from different perspectives. You refer to “a nostalgic trip down church memory lane” as a negative thing, because you’re ONLY thinking “missionally.” You seem to have difficulty recognizing that there’s beauty and value in something that’s well-worn, something with a history behind it. There’s a reason why we feel sadness when an old building full of history is leveled by a wrecking ball. There’s a reason why we feel like something’s been lost when a priceless used book is tossed away at a garage sale for two pennies.
    And no, I’m not saying that all things old are necessarily good, in case you were going to go there. But I think we’d agree that the southern gospel tradition is a good thing, worth preserving. I do enjoy the variety of groups that make up southern gospel today, and I’m not saying that it can’t or shouldn’t incorporate elements of bluegrass, country, pop, etc. I enjoy all of those kinds of music in their own way. But I think that we need to be encouraging a healthy appreciation for GOOD and older artistic traditions among our young people. It’s not that I think southern gospel music is a religion. It’s just that I believe things should be what they are.
    I see this with churches too, always rushing to change things every six months. What if our churches stopped being so obsessed with change and started trying to find their true identity? And if we insist on still seeing everything through the missional lens, what makes us so sure that young people wouldn’t be drawn to that just as much, if not more?

  • (Also, yes, I know it’s ironic that here you are older than me and arguing for leaving tradition behind! We’re obviously separated by denominational differences. Literally—I’m Anglican. 🙂 )

  • Yes, that’s our friends the Garms Family you’re thinking of, and I think they’re a perfect example of what we should be inculcating in our kids today.

  • Lydia

    Kyle, you say this: ” God doesn’t want our faith to change, but how we show and express our faith to others HAS to adapt to the changing times, otherwise it becomes ineffective.”
    Here’s just a blunt and short way to say that: If what that means is that SG, qua musical genre, has to change in some fairly major way, or all has to change across the board, then you are saying that SG as a genre has to cease to exist for the “good of the cause.” Sort of like self-immolation. That something could continue to exist that is _called_ “Southern gospel” but is very strongly different from what SG used to be.
    Now, if you think of it that way, you realize that it’s a pretty strong requirement.
    And if you think of it that way, I hope it will become clear that there really is no such strong requirement. Let’s get concrete: Does Greater Vision have a duty to spike their hair, wear yellow ties and tighter pants, and dance around the stage like Signature Sound? Do they have a duty to God to do that, because if they just keep on wearing their suits, standing in a row, and singing the kinds of songs they sing, they won’t win as many souls to Christ?
    Does every group out there have a duty to do that? Should all of SG turn into clones of Signature Sound and maybe this new group being discussed in the main post, because otherwise God doesn’t think they’re trying hard enough to win souls?
    Don’t get me wrong, this is _not_ an insult to Signature Sound. They have their place in the genre. But the “new” or “youth-attracting” elements in what they do are not the core of the genre and are not the history of the genre. If everybody went that route and there were no more Legacy Fives and Greater Visions (if I can pluralize those names), that would be sad.
    And it should be obviously silly to suggest that Legacy Five and Greater Vision have a “missional” duty to God to commit artistic hari kari in order to bring more souls to Christ. It should also be obviously silly to suggest that other groups should not aim to be _like_ Greater Vision and Legacy Five. For one thing it isn’t at all clear that doing that _would_ bring more souls to Christ.
    In my opinion, when we start talking about “adapting to changing times” because “otherwise we will be ineffective,” it’s good to get down to brass tacks and ask what we are really suggesting, even if it seems brutal to do so.

  • John Situmbeko

    What did Kyle mean when he said youthful appeal is “…..SORELY lacking in gospel music.”? Did he mean there is a lack young artists or there is a lack of youth enticing performers?
    I think that if southern gospel in its current state is not appealing to many youths, flooding the genre with young talented performers can by no means make it more appealing to the youth. What exactly attracts people of a particular age group towards a genre? Is it because most performers in that genre are in the same age range as they, or because they simply enjoy that kind of music? I think it is because of their preferences in music. Take for example Bieber, most of his fans are those in his age group. If he started his career at 27, he wouldn’t have as many teens as he now has, pressing towards him in hopes of touching the hem of his garment. But is it because he is young that youths flock to his concerts like Muslims on a pilgrimage to Mecca? Partly, but most likely because pop or (whatever genre he sings) is popular with the youth. If bieber was a talented southern gospel artist, his youthfulness would obviously stir some interest in young people, but if they previously had no interest in the genre or if their musical taste buds were not receptive to SG, they probably wouldn’t care a lot. SG has a number of young artists, yet gray hair dominates, even at Collingsworths concerts. It wouldn’t be the same if you had that family doing pop.
    For a reason unknown to me, pop is very popular with the youths, do pop in church and youths will flock there. I however see no reason of pop-ifying or changing SG to something more appealing to a larger youth audience, if they don’t like it the way it is, let them be. I’ve not seen an artist of another genre (say CCM) try to Southern Gospelize their music to be more enticing to SG fans. Why then should SG risk losing all the elements that makes it SG by adapting to popular taste? That move would aid the extinction of the genre.

  • Great thoughts John. I completely agree. In fact, I was thinking about the Collingsworth family as well. Do they have “youthful appeal,” or are they too homey and Mennonite-y to qualify even though they’re one of the younger groups in the genre? Is this really about age or musical style? As you pointed out, Bieber would be an unknown if he were a Christian southern gospel performer. He performs music that’s popular right now, so everyone knows who he is.

  • Lydia

    “Why then should SG risk losing all the elements that makes it SG by adapting to popular taste? That move would aid the extinction of the genre.”
    I think that’s excellently put, John.

  • First of all….when I say youth appeal is sorely lacking, I mean just that – appealing to the youth. That doesn’t mean we have to change the genre, nor do we need to have an “out with the old, in with the new” mentality; we just need to figure out a way to make the genre appeal to the younger generation. It’s common sense….a genre that doesn’t attract a newer generation will eventually die out as the audience does.
    The example I gave with Red Roots is a great one for two reasons:
    1. They do not compromise the genre – if anything, I’d say that the Gaither Vocal Band or even the Booth Brothers can be more progressive than RR is. Yes, they use modern production techniques, and they have a modern sound, but if you’re going to compete with mainstream music for the attention of a young audience, then you HAVE to have something that is comparable. Red Roots delivers, but they are not “contemporary” or “pop.”
    2. They give the younger audiences someone to identify with. John mentioned the Collingsworth Family, but they are still a FAMILY group with parents involved. Before them, we had the Freemans and the Talleys, both of whom had young members, but still included their parents. I honestly cannot think of the last time a group was made up entirely of young adults that could appeal directly to a youthful audience (the only other one I can think of off the top of my head was Steve Sanders, and even he was usually backed by the Florida Boys rather than doing his own thing).
    I find it humorous how often SG fans become so defensive whenever someone brings up the idea that we need to attract younger audiences. Everyone reverts to a cranky old person on their front porch screaming at the kids to get off their lawn.
    I’m not saying we need to change the music; I’m just saying that we need to think of ways to get young people to pay attention. If we aren’t actively pursuing new listeners, we are not only allowing the genre to die out, but we also wind up preaching (or singing) to the choir.

  • “Everyone reverts to a cranky old person on their front porch screaming at the kids to get off their lawn.”
    Because everyone knows that’s me all over. 😛 😆
    BTW, I think you forgot the Taylors.

  • Indeed, another rare (but good) example, although their marketing hasn’t been as big as Red Roots.

  • What do you think about a young men’s quartet who sings very traditional gospel quartet music, in the style of someone like the Dixie Echoes? Are they fitting the bill of what you’re looking for, or would you still want them to modernize the style? Because if the older groups singing old style music die out without being replaced, that style dies with them. What about young groups preserving old tradition?
    I know there aren’t many young adult groups out there, but in terms of musical variety, I think southern gospel already has that to a great extent. Just look at the average Gaither Homecoming—huge variety. But it seems like you’re still not satisfied with the variety we have.
    When I look at Red Roots, I’m basically seeing a country trio. They remind me of Little Big Town, Lady Antebellum, etc. Which isn’t bad—I like those groups. I’m all for Red Roots bringing their carrot cake to the SG buffet (as it were). But I think you also need fresh old-fashioned apple pie to replace the old-fashioned apple pie on the table right now once it gets eaten up. If all the apple pie is gone and there’s nothing BUT carrot cake left…
    Okay, the analogy’s sort of gotten out of hand here, but you see what I’m trying to say.

  • John Situmbeko

    What worries me in this day and age is that most churches are going contemporary in order to attract young people. The hymnal is now an endangered species, choirs are being replaced by praise and worship teams – the choir director is now a worship leader. Not that I resent the thought of attracting the youth to church by making church music more bearable to their contemporalized ears, or that of using contemporary music in the church, I’m just sad to see the lyrics and notation of Fanny Crosby’s songs replaced with those by Michael W. Smith. If you would ask me (or Smith himself), Crosby was a better songwriter than Smith. Why is it that the majority of today’s youth cannot enjoy singing “To God Be The Glory” straight from the hymnal unless it is made to sound like a song done by their favourite secular band? If they can’t go to church and bounce up and down to the rhythm of the banging drums and the screeching electric guitar while bright colourful lights thrill their senses, they’d rather stay at home. The hymnal affords them no such thrills, thus its banishment from the church. But if such a move will cause even one of these to enter the pearly gates, it is worth it.
    Again, I’m not saying contemporary music is bad, it is good and can be very beneficial to the listeners. I just feel it should not displace the good old fashioned congregational hymn singing. To borrow the words of Kyle, in the effort to attract young people, there must not be an “out with the old, in with the new” mentality, other ways to make church more appealing to the youth must be figured out.
    As for making SG appealing to the youth, I can’t think of any other way than introducing them to SG, preferably when they are very young. I think that is how SG has managed to survive, parents take their children to SG concerts and the children get hooked. I have heard a couple of SG artists tell of how they used to attend concerts. e.g. Karen Peck was inspired to be a gospel singer as a little girl after hearing Vestal Goodman sing “God Walks The Dark Hills” at one of the all-night singings in Atlanta. Paul Harkey in an interveiw with Daniel J. Mount revealed how after attending the Texas Homecoming, fell in love with gospel music and wanted to sing bass like George Younce. Most SG fans can testify of how they came to love SG while in their childhood. So, as long as people keep on playing SG in their homes and tagging their children along to SG concerts, and sharing the music they love so well to their friends, SG will not die out. It will appeal to some youth.

  • “As for making SG appealing to the youth, I can’t think of any other way than introducing them to SG, preferably when they are very young.”
    Ding-ding-ding! Exactly.

  • I started Promise for a few reasons. First, it was something that had been eating at me for a long time. I grew up in church, attended a Christian school, and my parents listened to Southern Gospel music… mainly the Cathedrals. I grew up listening to it, and eventually fell in love with it. Without getting too deep into thought, I think proper parenting has a lot to do with everything, concerning youth. But back to my point, I always wanted to sing in a group like the Cathedral Quartet.
    I eventually started traveling, and sang with this group, then that group… but as time moved on, the type of groups I was interested in singing with were hard to find anymore. And the ones that were still traveling, had a reputation for not changing members often. The thought came to mind that maybe I should just start a group, and sing the type/style of music I think is best.
    There were definitely other factors involved in my final decision to step out, on my own, and start a group. However, it’s always been my goal to produce the style of music that the Cathedral Quartet produced, and that’s what we’re going to do. They still had a little diversity in their sound, and we’ll incorporate that. However, I’m not necessarily interested in trying to appeal to anyone who thinks the style of music I sing is not appealing. I’m going to put out music that I think is good/right/Christ honoring. I mean, if we’re being honest, thinking “missionally,” my goal should be to produce music that first honors Christ. Because, if it’s not doing that, appealing to the youth is meaningless anyway.
    Gerald Wolfe once told me, that since his first days of being involved in this music, the majority of the crowd has always been “grey headed.” Obviously, these people didn’t stop aging between 60 and 70. Those seats were eventually filled with new “grey heads.”
    The more we try to change our music to appeal to the youth, the less we’ll appeal to the people who have been supporting and sustaining this genre for so many years. Let’s say that we do that, and in another 10 years, our crowds are primarily young people. The thing about youth is that their attention span is very short. Trends/fads take them from one thing to another. They will lose interest, and the “Southern Gospel” singers trying to keep up, won’t be able to. Taste changes with age. The young people, who have grown up and still love Southern Gospel music, are the ones who found it appealing regardless of whether it was aimed at their age group or not. I believe there will always be an audience for Greater Vision, as long as they stay faithful to what they’ve been doing since they started. Do some methods change, due to the advancement of technology? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean you change what is good.
    Does anyone honestly believe that in 40 years, many of our elderly will still be listening to gangster rap or hip-hop? Just sayin’.

  • Thanks so much David. You’ve summed up perfectly what I’ve been trying to get at. Now I can just point to your comment when people say I have a “dumb” argument, or I just don’t get it (which they’ve been doing on Kyle’s OP). I’ll tell them to argue with you instead. 😀

  • You make many valid points, David. Perhaps the “youth” that we’re looking for in SG, comparatively speaking, are the 40-somethings who will soon be the grey-haired people. I’m not so dense as to know that SG music is primarily aimed at older folks; that’s been the case for as long as I can remember.
    And no, I have no problem with young guys doing old-style quartet singing ala Dixie Echoes, modern country-type singing like Red Roots, or a what have you. What I want to see are young, talented artists that appeal give younger audiences someone to identify with.
    I just see no reason why we can’t expand that audience somehow. Why would it be so bad for us to have a larger audience of all ages?

  • It would be great! But I also think parents should take their kids to all kinds of concerts. If they say, “Hmmmm, well Dad and I are going to go see that trio of old guys, you wouldn’t be interested in them. But the so-and-sos are coming next month, maybe you’ll like them!” that shapes the kids’ tastes in the wrong way. Show them around the whole buffet, the younger the better, and see what happens!

  • Dan Calkins

    The strength of Southern Gospel music is the grassroots local level. That is why the radio stations sound the way they do; showcasing local, less-refined talent instead of what comes out of Nashville. This type of music may never be popular, but it doesn’t need the popularity in order to thrive in its context. There’s no reason Soutern Gospel as a whole needs to play by the same rules that CCM seems to be stuck in. Many SG fans are strong family units , and bringing young people into this fold is largely done this way. I find it difficult to believe a young person will like this type of genre when their parents or other influential adults in his/her life do not like it.

  • That’s what I lean towards, as long as the music is good of course. Completely agree on the family element. I believe in supporting and showcasing lesser-known artists, and I certainly don’t think they need the “Nashville polish” to be good. I would just say that there should still be some standard of quality there.

  • Hi Yankee Girl, This is Rick Schweinsberg, I am not a publist for Red Roots. I actually work for Daywind Music Group as a Producer and A & R director. Before coming to Daywind I managed 2 southern gospel radio stations for 23 years. I appreciate your fervor for the good ole days and groups of SG. It was people like you that kept my station on the air with their faithful support. Unfortunately SG stations are in decline.Each year more stations switch their format to something else because of lack of support. The same is indicative of the Singing News Magazine. It once thrived with a healthy circulation. It is now much less than it’s glory days. Once there was a Super Group. The Cathedral Quartet. They could demand the highest of flats and could pack out any venue. Now we have 3 spin-off groups who would be lucky to fill 30 percent of those former venues. So why would I encourage any new artist to go down that road. There was one Elvis and one Beatles. Imitating what was,does not bring growth. Let’s give someone else a turn.

  • Hi Rick. Merry Christmas and thanks for the clarifying comment!
    Like I said in the original post, I am actually not a listener of southern gospel radio, so your knowledge far outstrips mine in that area. I trust your judgement that from a purely marketing perspective, things aren’t looking up. However, I do notice that arguably the most popular trio (Booth Brothers) and quartet (Triumphant Quartet) in the business are both pretty traditional. In fact, some people say Triumphant is the most popular group in the business, period, even more so than a more progressive group like Signature Sound. Now that’s just one example, but don’t you think it indicates that the people forking over large amounts of cash to see and hear SG groups in concert are still mainly interested in hearing something more traditional?
    As for “letting other folks have a turn,” if you check out my “Best of 2013” post you’ll see that I named another young group, High Road, as having the best song of the year and have been grumping that they should be given mainstage slots at NQC for months. Somebody must have been listening because they’re on this next year. So, I have nothing against encouraging young groups to carve out their own niche in the business. Really the only thing I was questioning was the implication that a group with a traditional SG sound is a) not commercially viable and b) boring/out-dated/stale. I think there are some strong new groups out there now who are carrying on the older tradition.
    BTW, if you aren’t a regular reader, you might be surprised to know that I’m a young listener who appreciates a huge array of styles. Most of the time I throw on something other than southern gospel in the car. It’s just my soul that’s old. 🙂

  • That’s cool. There will be some groups that will survive and share the passing of time with their demographic.

  • “Youthful appeal” is what it is: an appeal. Over time, the youthful appeal will attract it’s own followers. However, it will never replace the older group sound. The youthful sound will have to stand the test of time, as any other group has. Moreover, one can never assume that any one group is strong enough to permanently replace the other. Sound is a matter of preference,
    not a matter of validity. Each group brings with it it’s own approach and effect, and will maintain it’s own respective place in time.

  • I am a Christian Country artist so please forgive me if my perspective misses the boat. Especially, if I am misunderstanding the southern gospel perspective. I think we can accomplish more together and help SG go to a new level.
    SG audiences are fading as the market customer age. Maybe SG doesn’t need so young artist to try and appeal to youth groups, as most youth group ages lean toward contemporary worship music and/or hip hop styled Christian message music.
    I would betcha that what is growing demand for is in the younger but not to older customers (35-65)folks in the middleare gravitating to their gospel music salted with twang and more current country sound and they lean to better quality production Christian Country. They enjoy listening to quality produced Christian country music with vocals that carry a legitimate country vocal, not a formal styled vocalist with perfect diction accompanied by country styled music behind them. Audiences are smart to what they like.
    My hope would be to see SG circles embrace and partner more with Christian Country Artist. It might freshen things up a bit and fire up some revival if they worked together. Concerts might have a livelier variety and energy. The churched really do respond so well to pure SG and it’s awesome for the traditional veteran Christians, but the unchurched and new Christians really get more out of a country style Christian song in a life story fashion they can relate too. Christian Country (CC) may not use terminology as churchy as SG, but both SG and CC audiences are in the same room. The SG audience is often the eldest or more long time church folk and CC audiences maybe in that 35-65 age group and new Christians not as familiar with all the church lingo. The CC fan is usually the parents and young grandparents of those young youth groups. This middle age demographic probably has the money to buy more product, especially if you get to talking downloaded music.
    Is it possible the infusion or injection of quality CC into the SG scene could enhance SG and regrow / regenerize the customer base?
    Everyone should still be true to who they are and appreciate what each has to offer. It’s all for His Kingdom not ours.
    I am grateful for all the pioneers in Christian music, I look up to you all. You are the folks that prayed me thru to the Lord. I was a former full time Country singer, songwriter and musician, but you all were there when this broken shell of a man came to God. He gave me a new life and new song and He gave me overcoming power. Unfortunately, I came later in life and didn’t know the church lingo, so as
    I found inspiration would come for me to write a song but it came out in the only way I know.
    Let’s work together, lets accomplish something new but not have to change who we are, except we should always change to be better Christians as we grow closer to Jesus. We can sing and play the same concerts, have a blast, and see the Lord do great things in people’s lives.
    Lord bless all
    All intended respectfully
    Just call me Bro Omar (odd name I realize) but I think you’ll enjoy our music
    Laugh, have fun and serve with gladness