There’s Always Americana: What’s Happening to Traditional Gospel Music?

Image by SeppH from Pixabay

When I opened an email with music from iconic gospel quartet group The Igramettes, I immediately took note of their record label. By its name, I knew that it had little to do with gospel music, though it had everything to do with this great group who’s existence has spanned the better half of a century. Though I’d only heard of the ladies, they are and have been quite a big deal over time. Their album “Take a Look in the Book” released last Friday and carries the hallmark of a classic gospel quartet album. Stay tuned for my forthcoming review of the latest chapter of their storied run.

In traditional and especially quartet music, there’s a phenomenon in America that has adopted many great groups of yesteryear. It’s not uncommon to discover new acts in what is close to their final act. Many times, their catalogs are revisited, their classics remastered, and their careers rejuvenated. You wouldn’t see The Rance Allen Group on an Americana label or performing at a folk festival, nor the likes of Pastor Shirley Caesar, but gospel quartet has a connection to Americana/folk music interest that deserves some conversation.

I’ll concede that though Americana/folk audiences seem interested, there is a longstanding divide (save Bob Dylan and a few others) in that demographic that is part of the oppressive past gospel artists sang their way through.

In the past, I have encouraged quartet groups to take interest in the Roots Gospel category at the GRAMMY Awards. One such winner is The Fairfield Four (2015), gospel icons in their own right. Research will indicate that their ascent to the helm of the Roots Gospel category in 2015 wasn’t within the gospel industry. In fact, the gospel industry doesn’t seem too concerned with quartet and traditional gospel music, these days.

Days Gone By…

Perhaps, it’s time to move on from the traditional sound to a more contemporary sound, but what about the people that want to hear traditional music? What about artists with traditional music in their hearts and hands? Some of them are just as bad at contemporary music as some contemporary artists would be as a traditional artist. And furthermore, what about the songs that got us over? Have we gotten so “over” that we don’t need to look back or even work to preserve the sound…our sound?

It’s happening in many genres, though. Jazz is disappearing from the airwaves, except for the movement of the Gaithers, Southern gospel would be a thing of the past, and even country music looked its demise in the face and altered course before it was too late. Country music facing its mortality actually led to its resurgence. This led to its recent resurgence, but what will happen for gospel music who now solely relies on its contemporary sound that’s more “gospel worship” rhythm and blues and pop than soul?

Country music may not look like it used to, but it certainly isn’t dead.

Nina Corcoran, Consequence of Sound, January 31, 2020

Years ago I asked a question, “what happened to the Hammond organ in gospel music?” I asked this because though you could clearly see an organ on the bandstand being played by world class musicians, they were inaudible on the recording. As an audio engineer, I get how to “mix out” certain instruments and frequencies, but it’s hard to understand why this staple of the gospel sound has lost its relevance. There’s no organ on the recording, yet churches full of listeners still have an organ as the main instrument, furthering the divide from the industry down to its consumers.

Months later, I discovered that what we lost (the Hammond organ) in gospel music was found in R&B and Neo Soul! Contemporary arrangements make songs less playable for smaller churches and instrumentation, they’re not singable to average singers and because A&R (artist and repertoire) are a thing of the past, many of the songs are simply undesirable.

We have contemporary “anthems” and spirituals, sure, but there was never a need to replace what was. The gospel industry owes it to itself to hang on to the traditional sound before it’s coopted by those with the resources to do what the gospel industry has long been unwilling to do. Want proof that the gospel industry is coming up short by overlooking traditional artists?

Go to a quartet concert and look at the line before and after the concert. People want it and will stay as long as they can to see their favorite artists. Then, they’ll stand in line for a picture and buy a cd on their way home. If quartet artists kept better track of their numbers, it would upset the charts and topple the current hierarchy in place, now. Because the festival circuit isn’t widely encouraged, you only see mainstream gospel artists at a handful of festivals. But traditional and quartet artists have been long been booked on jazz festivals, touring foreign countries regularly and back at home, working quite regularly singing their music.

In 2015, the Jones Family Singers were huge news because of their unlikely with an atheist journalist who loved their music. He loved their music so much that he wrote about them which led to them linking with a producer (Alan Berg) who recorded a CD and DVD of their journey. Following the release of their CD, the family group was featured at SXSW, toured Russia, performed at the Playboy Jazz Festival, the Monterrey Jazz Festival, the Newport Folk Festival, the Winnipeg Folk Festival, the North Sea Jazz Festival and really made a huge splash at home and abroad in addition to the release of their film which at one point could be viewed on Netflix.

While the Jones Family enjoyed a great run in the mid 2010’s, this didn’t translate to overwhelming success in the gospel industry which further fuels the thought that most gospel and traditional music is comprised of independent artists and labels, with what can be perceived as little to no interest from mainstream labels.

The Ingramettes’ consistency at home has thrust them into international conversations and performances

In 2017, Melvin Williams independently released what I felt to be one of the greatest traditional and quartet music tribute albums (“Where I Started From”), lately. Perhaps it was sales, perhaps it was timing, but I was quite disappointed that it wasn’t considered for a Roots Gospel GRAMMY Award. His documentary “Down Home Gospel” aired nationally on PBS Stations and received a 2018 EMMY nomination.

The labor of love is fueled by his mission to “PTGM” (Preserve Traditional Gospel Music). The Gospel Roots category is the best placement for traditional gospel as the category considers folk gospel southern gospel albums. The 2020 winner in this category is Gloria Gaynor whose breakout album “Testimony” shocked doubters and even fans who had no idea she was now a gospel recording artist.

Gloria Gaynor is living her life’s purpose with new gospel album, “Testimony”

So, there’s no room in the gospel industry for traditional gospel music, who’s making room for the sound the got us over and brought us through…to this place of success and recognition the gospel industry currently enjoys?

Before we end this conversation, what happened to choirs? They didn’t disappear, in fact many choirs of varied sizes are forced to go the way of independent artists. They’re just no longer a bigger part of the current gospel music landscape. The Brat Pack in gospel is still going strong, but who else? Their longevity shouldn’t be punishment to the next generation of choirs who aspire to be heard globally as well. It’s clear that the industry shifted from choirs to duos and as it stands now, solo artists. But, why? Each week listeners go to church to be a part of something…a choir or praise team depending on the membership. What God gave in the form of gospel music to black people is ours to steward. Business is business but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing!

Mishandling the Business

In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells a parable about a businessman who gave his servants “talents” or “minas” to watch over while he was gone. One servant had five, another two and the last had one. Each of the servants with more than one were able to provide a return on what was entrusted to them. The servant with only one talent hid his and had nothing to show for when the master returned. He was harshly judged because he hid it and provided no return-not even the bare minimum he could’ve gotten from the “exchangers”. His punishment was not only to be cast out, but he lost what he had and it was given to the servant who doubled his five. What does this mean for gospel music? It’s unfathomable to think that traditional gospel will sit on a shelf and that traditional gospel artists will continue to “wait outside the gate” for an industry that has seemingly turned their backs to them.

As The Fairfield Four, Blind Boys of Alabama the Ingramettes and a growing list of talent have discovered, their gifts were better suited in “other” hands! If the doors of gospel music remain closed to traditional gospel music, don’t worry, there’s always Americana!  

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