Sunday, January 21, 2007

Southern Gospel Music & Why I Like It

Following up on the problem of prejudice, I want to take a pot-shot at my generation of Christians. If there is one thing young Christians are prejudiced against, its gotta be Southern Gospel Music.

For many of the contemporary Praise & Worship crowd, Southern Gospel is just too old to be relevant. Its the music of your parents and grandparents. Its the music that you play at Billy Graham crusades, not for people who talk theology at Starbucks.

For many conservative Reformed thinkers, Southern Gospel is too akin to the revivalistic Pentecostalism and the Arminian worldview from which it sprang. It is too performance-driven and performer-centered to be spiritually edifying. Or perhaps, it's just too southern to be taken seriously.

There is, perhaps, some merit to each of these suggestions. One has to consider whether a song about the birth of Christ is best celebrated by mass foot stomping and clapping. Furthermore, Southern Gospel can easily fall into a similar trap as most modern praise & worship music as being primarily taste-driven with watershed theological depth.

However, in spite of the potential for abuses of the genre, I have to believe that much of the modern distaste for Southern Gospel comes from an a priori, fundamental prejudice against music that is associated with the traditional South. Both the Contemporary Praise & Worship movement and the Reformed tradition typically have more success in the climate of intellectualism than for the backwoods of Tennessee.

Southern Gospel Music is recorded in Nashville (a city which still suffers from the hick-town stigma despite its current metropolitan status) and appreciated by people in small towns. That doesn't mean that every church will have special music with untalented people trying to sound like Gospel singers (though it happens). Neither does it mean everybody who likes Southern Gospel has big hair, excessive jewelry, and bad suits.

Some Southern Gospel songs bring a tear to my eye for the piercing nature of the truth it teaches, other songs make me cringe on account of the shallowness of the doctrine (or lack-thereof). But there are at least two good examples that I want to showcase that should resonate on some level with most believers in Christ.

The first is a fairly recent song by Steve & Annie Chapman entitled, "Don't Unpack Your Bags." It is, essentially, a story about a young preacher coming to a new church and dutifully trying to introduce himself to every town-member he could before beginning his pastorate. One woman, having been a former member of his church, warned him against the power-hungry, back-stabbing nature of that very congregation notorious for demolishing the spirit of their pastors. Her recommendation for the pastor is laced with a bittered, sarcastic truth:
"Touch a feather to their ear
Tell them what they want to hear
Give ’em milk, don’t give ’em meat
Make it short, make it sweet
If you wanna stay around
That’s what you’ll have to do
But don’t unpack your bags, young man
If you plan to preach the truth

The second song, "Excuses" is by the Kingsmen Quartet (I absolutely love men's quartets!). It lampoons the motives of everyone who thinks of ways to criticize their church and spend their Sundays at home:
"Well, the preacher he's too young. And, maybe he's too old.
The sermons they're not hard enough. And, maybe they're too bold.
His voice is much too quiet-like. Sometimes he gets too loud.
He needs to have more dignity. Or, else he's way too proud.

Well, the sermons they're too long. And, maybe they're too short.
He ought to preach the word with dignity instead of 'stomp and snort.'
Well, that preacher we've got must be 'the world's most stuck up man.'
Well, one of the lady's told me the other day, 'Well, he didn't even shake my hand!'"

My point is: many Southern Gospel songs have excellent content presented in a harmoniously balanced musical style. Yes, it is Southern. Yes, it is primarily listened to by people in their 50s and up. Yes, it is not respected by mainstream intellectuals. But is it worth listening to? I answer that question with a hearty, "Amen!"


  1. Anonymous9:28 AM

    Here, here!

    ...and great writing!

  2. Interesting post, Adam. You're right--Southern Gospel does have strong stereotypes associated with it. But while sometimes stereotypes do communicate a bit of truth, that doesn't mean that all Southern Gospel is necessarily bad. Thanks for addressing the fact that there really is good content to some of these songs; I figure, as long as the text is reasonable, whether or not someone finds the music aesthetically pleasing is a matter of personal taste (not a moral issue, in other words). May you continue to find good substantive Southern Gospel to enjoy. :)

  3. I'll tell you one thing... i love me some BLUEGRASS. Yessir.

  4. Heather, thanks for the reflections. I want to encourage everyone to examine the merits of music beyond the level of taste. Your support is appreciated.

    Mr. Diesel, bluegrass is good stuff, I reckon it is! There is nothing like good American roots music from the Scottish tradition.

    Thanks to everyone who has commented! I actually got linked to a S.Gospel radio station site by the 1st commenter, though the link doesn't seem to show up now.

  5. Marty9:21 AM

    Adam, I respect your opinion. I'm glad that you've found some good content in these songs. I just can't agree with you though, because stylistically I just can't endure much more Southern Gospel. I've had to sit through one too many bad special music presentations to think otherwise. Maybe you can just listen to enough for the both of us. Yeah, that'll be great.

  6. Fair enough, Martimus, bad church specials are enough to tramatize anyone's psych. :-)
    But my only question would be: are you judging the genre on the basis of others' poor attempts at imitation? Listen to a few of the real artists and then issue a final judgment.

    That said, some people just don't like the music. I guess I can't argue with you there.

    God bless you, brother!

  7. I live in an area of Ohio where we have no access to a SG station. It was replaced by Big Band?!?! A lot of us were upset and dissappointed, but were not sure what to do about it. Most people have gradually tuned into the contemporary station. I can handle it in small doses. Do not get me wrong, I believe there are a lot of Godly contemporary artists. I do not wish to take from them. I listen when they are on. My point...predjudice often comes from that which we do not understand. I have introduced many of the youth in our area to SG and.....they love a lot of what they've heard. They like the country flavored SG more than the Qt. stlye, but they've even come to like some of that. It has to be heard to be appreciated.
    Any suggestions on bringing SG back to the air in our area?

  8. Brenda Maxim10:15 PM

    Hi Adam,

    Well, lil' darlin at first you set me off since most of the music I listen to is SG. However I have to admit I am 58 and finally have opened my ears to the new music, Christian of course, for the new generation.Some of it is really good and some of it is boring. I guess everyone has choices and I want to share with my children and grandchildren, and back them up. This was a hard decision for me, but by the grace of God my neck is not as stiff as it used to be. lol. Thanks for a great article, Adam. God bless you, Brenda Maxim

  9. I grew up on Southern Gospel.

    Sometimes when I'm in my wife's car where I don't have any of *my* music, I'll tune it to 93.1 for some of that great old stuff. I'll roll down the windows and crank the volume, smiling at the gangbangers in the 87 Towncar beside me at the light. Thank God they had a bad transmission.

    I often find myself singing along to those songs and realizing that I didn't know I knew the lyrics.

  10. Dan Keeton2:37 AM


    As a Southern Gospel artist and one who was influenced at a young age, I respect and honor those who have influenced me. I do however have to agree at the downward spiral SG has become. I too have cringed at the music covering the US on radio as being titled SG. So I have considered calling what I do something else. But what?

    I simply like good singing. But in my opinion 90% of SG is just plain bad! Yet it still is played by DJs and celebrated in SG media, just because someone paid money for attention.

    Jeeze, thanks for getting me started...Ill stop now.


  11. Hi, I think the love of music must come from the heart. I am a world class level guitarist, and I got there by playing gospel rock,blues,jazz and classical.
    I learned to love all styles.
    My main roots comes from the southern gospel, I play a Jazzy-blues-rock a ablitiy style.
    Also ballads.
    I love songs which are fast and as well ballads which are slow and everything inbetween.
    Southern gospel crosses many gaps, from country to blues to bluegrass,the deep southern sound is bigger than just anyone style.
    Southern gospel has a feel to it.
    And we all know that feel.
    Anyways, keep on blogging.
    Thanks GW Williams
    stop by my blog sometime and say hello... at The Rock & Blues Guitar Blog

  12. Adam, by every count, one would think that I have every reason not to like Southern Gospel music. And being from the South and growing up around the bad "special music" and hairdos, I do have every reason not to like it. But there really are many gems out there. And you're right on about Men's quartets.

  13. Thanks for stopping by, Jeffery. I appreciate your thoughts!