Thursday, March 20, 2008

I'm in love with madness

For those of you who aren't aware, this is my favorite time of the year outside Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving. I love March Madness! I picked a few upsets this year, but my Final Four is pretty safe: North Carolina, Kansas, Texas, and UCLA. I manage the Liberty bracket. This year we have about 25 participants. Doran forgot to fill out his brackets so he's already clinched last place.

I usually finish in the bottom half. Last year I finished something like 8 out of 16. Lori beats me every year. It's pretty embarrassing. This year I set up a separate bracket for our family. Trey is obsessed with this. I'll probably finish last. This is the only time of year I cheer for North Carolina. I can't have them messing up my bracket with a loss.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Old, New, and Change

OK, I know that what I'm about to say amounts to heresy for a few die-hard Southern Gospel fans out there, but just hold on. This past weekend Liberty toured for the first time in New Mexico. It was a great trip and fun to sing to crowds who had never heard us before. We've met so many wonderful people over the last few days. One guy who I really enjoyed getting to know a little bit better was Big Al Thomas from Albuquerque. Big Al has the oldest syndicated SG radio show in America. It's been going since 1972. Anyway, he's a fan of a lot of those classic SG groups such as the Speers, the Statesmen, the Blackwood Brothers, the Downings, and many more. He's a walking encyclopedia of Gospel music. Anyway, I told him that I had very few recordings of the Statesmen and none of the Blackwood Brothers. Well, if he didn't get me some of their best albums. What a guy! So, the last few days I've been listening to these greats from years past.

Now, admittedly, these guys are off the charts when it comes to the talent level. They didn't have Pro Tools, vocal overdubs, Melodyne, or any of the other recording enhancements available to today's groups. If one person made a mistake, everybody recorded the whole song over. Most of the time they are spot on. Very impressive! I also appreciate what these groups did to pave the way for Southern Gospel as we know it. Driving through the night in a sedan, 2 guys in the front, 3 in the back trying to grab some sleep before the next concert, that's a tough life. Long before Ernie Haase and Signature Sound were criticized for their "dance" moves, the Statesmen and Blackwood Brothers were tearing up the stages with their dynamic performances and fancy footwork. They paid the price for where we are today.

But...I have to be honest with you, I don't like their music as much as I like today's Southern Gospel music. I'm ducking as I type this, because I know you SG purists out there are flinging your hand about trying to find a bottle or tomato to chuck at me. You're thinking I'm off my rocker, and "if that's the way those Liberty boys are then I'm through buying their music". You have deduced that I'm obviously some Southern Gospel neophyte who doesn't have an appreciation for the classics or, even worse, some CCM-wannabe SG commie who yearns to be relevant rather than true to the genre. Sorry to disappoint you, but none of that is true. I would venture to say that outside of my disappointingly minute stockpile of classic quartet recordings I know as much or more than most fans/artists of my age. I have followed Southern Gospel music as long as I can remember. My first heroes weren't sports stars, but rather quartet members. I say all that to say that my opinion is as valid as any other.

Southern Gospel music, like any other, has evolved over the years. Groups such as the Oaks and Imperials (just to name a couple) began to incorporate a more contemporary edge to their songs and performances back in the 70s. SG became even more closely aligned with country music (who went through their own changes during the same period), using country licks and instrumentation on studio albums. My observation is that as CCM moved from the inspo/pop sound of the 80s and early 90s to commercial rock n' roll, SG groups stepped in and incorporated those styles into their songs and recordings. Today, Southern Gospel is about as diverse a genre as you'll find. Quartets such as the Melody Boys carry on the classic quartet harmony; the Inspirations, the Primitives, and other like groups carry on the Appalachian sound; groups like the Isaacs or Crossway are as good as or better than any group played on the country FM station, groups such as the Martins and the Talley Trio have found a niche in a more inspirational sound, while the Hoppers, Legacy Five, Gaither Vocal Band, Gold City, and others have made their recordings a mixture of yesteryear's simple lyricism and today's progressive rhythms, melodies, and arrangements. And, that's a good thing. I find the song selection and lyrical strength of albums from today's marquee groups to be greater than their predecessors. I enjoy the sound of a full orchestra that occasionally graces a power ballad accompaniment. I appreciate the rhythm sections and guitars that are now standard on current recordings. I'm enjoying where this SG evolution has taken us.

While I'll always appreciate the heritage of Southern Gospel and have a respect for what the SG trailblazers were able to accomplish with so little, I can't go as far as to say they were better. I'm not convinced.

I've noticed that everyone has an affinity for the music that they grew up with. They're zealous about the groups that they listened to during their teenage/early-20 years. So, that being said, I'll admit that my favorite SG quartet is the Cathedrals. Are they the best ever? I don't know. But, they're still my all-time favorite.

A lot of this glorifying of the past comes from a deeper philosophical root that exists in many of us: an innate inability to accept, much less embrace, change. It doesn't just happen in Southern Gospel, it happens in broader society. For some reason it seems more pronounced in the church-world, though. Now, it might be that my perspective is skewed due to the fact that I've been in ministry since college, and that it's still out there in secular culture, too. My point is this, though: we tend to view the past through rose-colored glasses. We become comfortable with our likes and dislikes and the older we get the more inflexible our tastes become. Because, that's really what it comes down to: taste. In the church-world it should be about the message not the (excuse the cliche) method. Now, I know that in some instances more emphasis is given to being relevant as opposed to redemptive (thanks for the wording, Pastor Dave), but I don't think that this is usually the case. I think that most churches, music groups, whatever, are trying to present the message in such a way that is relevant and practical to the parishioner, the concert-attendee, whoever the target audience happens to be. And to do that, change is necessary. Face it people, our world isn't pre-Vietnam anymore. We're not even pre-September 11 anymore. Our culture is constantly evolving. While our fundamental, biblically-based belief system must not change, we should always be evaluating our presentation, approach, and/or technique. Change what doesn't work.

Based on their history, if the Statesmen were around today they would be one of the most progressive Southern Gospel quartets on the road. But, they're not here. So, enjoy, support, and encourage the groups that are doing it right. For that matter, enjoy, support, and encourage your church/pastor/ministry team when they do it right. If you're having problem with changes, evaluate what is contributing to your discomfort. Is it because it's outside the bounds of your particular tradition? Is it because it's not biblical? Is it because you simply despise change? Loosen up. Change, when made for the right reasons, can be exciting and liberating!

I'm not sure how I got here with all this rambling, but there you have it. Don't stay who you are. You're either growing, dying, or dead.