Category Archives: Commentary

SG vs. CCM Smackdown: “Who Am I” vs. “Because of Whose I Am”

We haven’t had a southern gospel versus CCM song smackdown in a while, so now seems as good a time as any. The two songs featured today are very similar lyrically, but they come from completely different generations stylistically. Representing the contemporary worship genre is Casting Crowns with their ballad “Who Am I?” When I first heard it I remember thinking it was one of the better worship ballads I’d heard in a while. I still think it’s a cut above average for this genre. Here is a newer, acoustic version featuring their female vocalist instead of Mark Hall:

And representing inspirational gospel, here is the Gaither Vocal Band song “Because of Whose I Am.”

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Most Marketable Southern Gospel Singers?

We all have our favorite southern gospel singers. But some of the qualities that make a great southern gospel singer are unique to southern gospel. There are certain singers who are legendary in that niche, but you listen to them and you think, “That guy could never sing anything but southern gospel.” (I’ll let you fill in the blanks on who some of those singers might be!)

But then you have singers who are still popular within southern gospel, yet comfortable singing multiple styles. This is where classification can be a little tricky. For example, do we classify David Phelps as “southern gospel” just because he sings in the most popular SG group on tour at the moment? Or is he an inspo/popera misfit who just happens to satisfy Bill Gaither’s eclectic, sometimes theatrical tastes? Sometimes a singer’s sound is so far removed from what anyone would call “southern gospel” that it seems like a stretch to keep calling him a “southern gospel singer.”

However, many of our still comfortably southern gospel singers might be marketable beyond southern gospel in the cousin genre of country music. Now I hope all you SG purists don’t rise up in protest, but we have to acknowledge that country is a close cousin of southern gospel, despite their differences. Had Amber Nelon Thompson gone with the flow on her American Idol journey, she would no doubt have been groomed into a country starlet a la Carrie Underwood. Some of our older voices might also fit comfortably into Johnny Cash/Hank Williams-era country music, although that kind of voice has become less marketable over the decades. That’s a sign of how much the face of country music itself has changed. However, there might be room in today’s country market for a smooth, strong upper register bass tone, like Josh Turner’s.

Another genre to consider is CCM. Some of our more progressive SG singers have a pop edge to their vocals that gives them the freedom to try a more contemporary sound. But as with country, whether it’s contemporary enough for today’s CCM is another question. Obviously a singer like Michael English enjoyed a lot of success in CCM during the 90s, but his style is no longer current in that genre.

It is also sad but true that the younger and better-looking you are, the better your chances are for enjoying success in either of these genres.

Among southern gospel voices, who do you think would have the best chance at a career somewhere outside of southern gospel today?

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Meet the New Gaither Vocal Band

Gaither announced it yesterday, and it’s official: Todd Suttles is indeed the new fifth man in the Gaither Vocal Band. Here’s a great new video put together to introduce the new group, devoting a generous amount of time to Adam and Todd:

A few of my comments:

1. Viewers with sharper hearing than I possess have confirmed that the songs we’re hearing in the background are all-new recordings with this lineup. While we’re still short on material that really showcases Suttles’s voice well (I collected everything I could find here), it’s cool to hear a little taste of this blend.

2. I liked Bill’s playful candor in saying that Adam has always been a little bit lost in the shadow of his older brother, so he takes pleasure in pulling him out of that shadow now.

3. I especially loved Bill’s comments about researching Suttles’s background as a physical trainer at Vanderbilt. What he learned from speaking to people who knew Suttles in that context had nothing to do with his singing and everything to do with his character. It’s a great reminder to do whatever you do with excellence to the glory of God!

4. I noticed that the cameraman made the group sing while he took their pictures. I’m not sure if this was because they were showing off or because making your subject speak/sing is a great way to get a natural expression. ;-)

5. I enjoyed hearing Wes and David’s take on the new lineup. Interestingly, David especially praised Todd’s voice. The other day I and another reader were expressing some hesitations about Todd’s chops, but obviously David has had more opportunity than we to hear what he brings to the table, and apparently he’s impressed. I would take a compliment like that from David very seriously. Hopefully Todd will find his groove as he sinks his teeth into some meaty Gaither material.

So, from what you all have heard so far, where would you rank this latest lineup in the pantheon of GVB lineups? Would you rate it as less strong than the last one but stronger than the Wes/Guy/Marsh lineup? Do you agree with Bill’s choice to keep the five-man formula? Do you think Adam and Todd are going to leave their mark on the Vocal Band in a memorable way?

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Todd Suttles: Future GVB Material? (Video!)

[Update: As of February 18th, Suttles has joined the GVB. My thoughts on the new promo video are now available here.]

Various other bloggers have been rounding up everything that can be found on Todd Suttles, the potential fifth man in Bill Gaither’s GVB lineup. His name has come out of nowhere, since he has little background in live music. However, I have read that he’s done some studio work, but his day job is an athletic trainer. According to a fan quoted on Musicscribe, he could “kill you with one punch.” Cool.

But then I realized that I actually had heard Suttles’s voice before. You see, David also posted a video of Wes Hampton singing “It is Well,” which I had fixed for lip-sync and reposted on my Godtube channel some time ago. I noticed this second guy taking the third verse, but never got his name. Turns out, that was Todd! Here is the (fixed) video:

His voice bears a striking resemblance to Jason Crabb. However, in my opinion that performance wasn’t his best. Here is he is chilling out to “Georgia On My Mind”:

[Added February 18th: HT to MusicScribe reader Philip Murray for this low-quality duet of "Encourage My Soul":]

We don’t have much else on him yet, except this Myspace link rustled up by Aaron Swain. Even that is mostly empty save for one really lame ballad (which is the song’s fault, not his) and “Amen.” There are also a few low-quality recent videos of him filling in with the vocal band, though none featuring him. I was wondering, “Is this guy really short or is Adam Crabb just really tall?” until I watched some from a better angle. The verdict is in: Dude is SHORT. He does seem to be fitting in well with the band’s sense of humor:

More:

I’m hopeful, but not entirely sure about Suttles. He’s fresh-faced and talented, with winning stage presence, but from a purely vocal perspective he still strikes me as a little green and pitchy. Furthermore, he seems to have an easier time “selling” a power number than a quiet one. However, this industry could use a bit of fresh talent, and for Bill to catapult an unknown to instant stardom would be exciting. I would like to see where Suttles could go with more training and experience.

What do you think?

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Goodbye Promise Trio, You Were Great

I know I said at the beginning of my 12 Essential Tracks of Christmas that I would provide a list of 12 more tracks that missed the cut. But since the series didn’t generate that many views, I thought I would dive right back into our regular programming instead, because I suspect y’all are ready to rotate Christmas music out of your mixes right about now. I have to admit that I am too. But feel free to e-mail if you would like to see the list. :)

I wanted to take a moment to pay tribute to a young trio that recently disbanded after nearly four years in the business. That group is Promise Trio. The pressures of personality, life on the road, and making a profit in a rocky economy doubtless all contributed to the various group changes and the final decision to dissolve. I thought Promise had great potential from day one and remained consistently excellent for the group’s brief lifespan. It was originally founded as Statement of Faith by Jacob Kitson, who stepped down from Greater Vision at Chris Allman’s return. He, brother Joe and baritone Jon Epley (who just had a fantastic year with the Inspirations and now sings bass for them), recorded just one CD in 2010 before Epley was snapped up by the legendary group. However, the song “Masterpiece of Mercy” would later land on a Booth Brothers recording. Youtuber cbcacs has some good footage of a concert by this lineup. Continue reading

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Of Christian Metal and Holy Hip-Hop

So, I’m a little late to this particular party, but I wanted to address a little brouhaha that flared up a few weeks ago in the evangelical community over so-called “holy hip-hop.” It seemed like a good opportunity to enlarge upon my own philosophy of music when it comes to some of the more, well, un-musical genres. Consider this post a continuation of my earlier, hastily penned offering on the perennial question “What is Christian music?”

In a nutshell, a panel of fundamentalist pastors was asked to weigh in on the “Reformed rapper” phenomenon: young, theologically conservative men conveying rich scriptural truths…through hip-hop music. The panelists’ response was largely negative. Here is the link to the entire 13-minute session. (I wanted to embed it but WordPress isn’t cooperating, apologies.)

I’ll be honest: I agreed with about 90% of what I heard in that video. Was it a little over-the-top in some places? Sure. Judging by the way they just passed right over rock and roll, like “We all know that’s Satanic so we don’t even need to go there!” I’ve got stuff on my ipod that would freak some of these guys out. Also, one or two comments were a bit on the harsh side regarding the personal character of the rappers (though the one pastor has since apologized for the “disobedient cowards” line).

But so many other points they made were dead-on, not just for Reformed rappers but Christian artists like (white) rapper Toby-Mac, who fuses the look and feel of hip-hop with pop. The one pastor was absolutely right that Toby-Mac’s “backwards cap and ready to rap” look is unbecoming for a man of his age. It’s the job of older men in the church to help younger men into mature Christian manhood. And however sincere your heart is, the image you present is part of that process too. Another pastor brought up reverence and proper mood-setting, extending his thoughts to repetitive “7/11″ worship songs or even “something you could waltz to.” Surprisingly, he even disparaged certain songs from his own hymnal as  joyless “funeral dirges.” Although the cultural connotations of rap were (rightly) key in the panel’s objections, these additional criticisms of “white-bread” Christian music underscored the fact that they weren’t speaking from racism or “fear of the Other. ” They were presenting a cohesive philosophy of worship and art that, at its core, has nothing to do with the race of the people performing it. This isn’t news to anybody who really understands the fundamentalist approach to these things.

However, it was only a matter of days before the race card was being played all over the place in outraged reactions to the panel. People from The Gospel Coalition and other outlets immediately began castigating the pastors as old, white, racially insensitive, Philistine louts who “don’t get creation.” I wish I were exaggerating. Frankly, I’m rather embarrassed for TGC, as they usually have higher standards for discourse and reasoning. Even Owen Strachan, one of my favorites, was offering hopelessly hackneyed arguments like “well, pianos and trumpets didn’t fall divinely from the sky, so what’s wrong with using certain sounds as a vehicle to proclaim the gospel?” Right Owen… because pianos and trumpets are just like an entire genre of music that’s previously been dedicated to glorifying all manner of filth and obscenity.

Look, I understand that some Christian conservatives have no problem with “redeeming” rap. I also understand that the intentions of such rappers are pure as the driven snow, that they truly desire to bring the gospel to young people, and that in particular they desire to model upright masculinity for young men. The lack of male role models is a gaping need in the culture at large, but particularly in the black ghetto culture. I believe it’s silly to create a false dichotomy where either you think everything about Reformed rap is awesome, or you think Lecrae is a dirty rotten sinner for doing it.

However, it’s entirely possible to view what Lecrae and his ilk does as regrettable or unfortunate in some ways without calling it sin. Continue reading

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What is Christian Music? (The Very Short Answer)

This post really should be longer, and indeed there will likely be further installments on this topic to come. However, since I don’t have time for a longer installment at the moment, and since I’ve learned from wise advice and experience that the shorter posts tend to generate more comments anyway, this will be a short post. (But you have to provide the comments to prove my rule of thumb correct!) [Edit: Ummmm, assuming comments haven't mysteriously been turned off, that is! Not sure how that happened this morning but it's been fixed now.]

Kyle Boreing recently offered a well-worn answer to the question on Musicscribe, inspired by something he read from Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman. The nub of the rather vague quote Kyle cited appeared to be that “There is no such thing as Christian music.” Kyle clarified his terms a little better to concede that there can be explicitly Christian songs that deal with sacred themes and biblical stories, and on the flip side there are blatantly profane songs that are anti-Christian. This is trivially true. However, there remains in both his post and Foreman’s quote the same ambiguity that always arises in these discussions as between SONGS and MUSIC. On the one hand Kyle acknowledges  the obvious fact that songs can contain a clear pro- or anti-Christian message, and on the other hand he says, “To call one type of music ‘Christian’ over another type of music is like saying ‘This donut is more spiritual than that bagel’,” which seems to be going back to music qua rhythm, melody, etc. But then ultimately he wants to claim that a story-song or some other song that’s not necessarily explicitly Christian might be just as “Christian” in its own way as long as it isn’t offensive.

In my view, Kyle is limiting his options. Continue reading

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Signature Sound, The High Kings, and Musical Heritage

This little post started as a longish “Recently Added” entry about a young Irish folk band called The High Kings. But it quickly blossomed into something more. As I traced the evolution and growth of the band, I began noticing a lot of similarities between this group and our own Signature Sound in southern gospel. Both groups play a very similar role in their respective genres, bringing old music to a younger generation while trying to retain their own artistic identity. Before I knew it, I was writing a mini-dissertation on marketing, musical artistry, and the heritage of traditional music. So, come along with me for the ride, and discover some great new music at the same time! I’ll leave you to savor it for a little bit while I spend the next week cramming for finals and going to Christmas parties.

Signature Sound
L to R: Doug Anderson, Paul Harkey, Ernie Haase, Devin McGlamery

The High Kings
L to R: Darren Holden, Martin Furey, Finbarr Clancy, Brian Dunphy

Continue reading

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Best Of 2013: New Songs

I didn’t have as much time to review 2013′s southern gospel releases as I would have liked. In particular, I would still love to review the debut of the female trio High Road III and Gordon Mote’s All Things New. I’ve sampled both albums and selected a couple choice cuts to mix into this particular list of songs that did catch my ear this year. These are not arranged in any particular order, since I know myself too well to set myself the perfectionist’s task of deciding exactly where each song should place! However, I did decide to put my top three at 8, 9, and 10, so… there’s your smidge of organization.

There were other SG songs recorded this year that I enjoyed, but this particular list aims to exclude covers and take a look at what fresh material the year 2013 had to offer. Some cover songs that I loved include Wilburn & Wilburn’s “Funeral Plans,” Barry Rowland & Deliverance’s “We’ll Go Down Standing Up,” Gordon Mote’s take on Mac McAnally’s “Down By the River,” the Isaacs’ “The Living Years” and Signature Sound’s fresh arrangement of “Glorious Day.” Continue reading

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7 Reasons Why Travis Cottrell Could Be the Next GVB Baritone

I’ve come to realize that unless Gaither kicks Phelps or Hampton down to baritone (unlikely), he really needs to hire a baritone and not a lead to fill the gap left by Michael English and Mark Lowry. That still leaves open the Shane McConnell possibility (after all, he is currently singing baritone with Canton Junction), but it also opens up others.

I’ve heard one rumor that praise and worship leader Travis Cottrell is a contender to fill that gap. Here are seven reasons why that might be a good move:

1. He’s a friend of Wes Hampton’s, so he already has a personal connection with the group. I also found this article from 2009, showing Bill Gaither and Travis leading worship together at Brentwood Baptist Church.

2. He’s a songwriter, so adding him could provide a source for fresh GVB material in the long run. Hampton even covered his song “Jesus Saves” on a solo project.

3. His voice is contemporary enough to flex with the GVB’s shifting styles, yet well-rounded and full enough not to stick out like a sore thumb next to a singer like David Phelps.

4. He already has a fan-base in the praise and worship market, which could draw more young fans to southern gospel if he joined forces with the Vocal Band. Continue reading

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