Southern gospel music is a genre of Christian music. Its name comes from its origins in the Southeastern United States whose lyrics are written to express either personal or a communal faith regarding biblical teachings and Christian life, as well as (in terms of the varying music styles) to give a Christian alternative to mainstream secular music. Sometimes known as "quartet music" for its traditional "four men and a piano" set up, southern gospel has evolved over the years into a popular form of music across the United States and overseas, especially among baby boomers and those living in the Southern United States. Like other forms of music the creation, performance, significance, and even the definition of southern gospel varies according to culture and social context. It is composed and performed for many purposes, ranging from aesthetic pleasure, religious or ceremonial purposes, or as an entertainment product for the marketplace.
The date of southern gospel's establishment as a distinct genre is generally considered to be 1910, the year the first professional quartet was formed for the purpose of selling songbooks for the James D. Vaughan Music Publishing Company in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. Nonetheless the style of the music itself had existed for at least 35 years prior although the traditional wisdom that southern gospel music was "invented" in the 1870s by circuit preacher Everett Beverly is spurious. The existence of the genre prior to 1910 is evident in the work of Charles Davis Tillman (1861-1943), who popularized "The Old Time Religion", wrote "Life's Railway to Heaven" and published 22 songbooks. Some of the genre's roots can be found in the publishing work and "normal schools" or singing schools of Aldine S. Kieffer and Ephraim Ruebush. Southern gospel was promoted by traveling singing school teachers, quartets, and shape note music publishing companies such as the A. J. Showalter Company (1879) and the Stamps-Baxter Music and Printing Company. Over time, southern gospel came to be an eclectic musical form with groups singing traditional hymns, a capella (jazz-style singing with no instruments) songs, country, bluegrass, spirituals, and "convention songs". Because it grew out of the musical traditions of white musicians from the American South, the name Southern gospel was used to differentiate it from so-called black gospel.
Convention songs typically have contrasting homophonic and contrapuntal sections. In the homophonic sections, the four parts sing the same words and rhythms. In the contrapuntal sections, each group member has a unique lyric and rhythm. These songs are called "convention songs" because various conventions were organized across the United States for the purpose of getting together regularly and singing songs in this style. Convention songs were employed by training centers like the Stamps-Baxter School Of Music as a way to teach quartet members how to concentrate on singing their own part. Examples of convention songs include "Heavenly Parade," "I'm Living In Canaan Now," "Give the World a Smile," and "Heaven's Jubilee."
Southern gospel is sometimes called "quartet music" by fans because of the originally all-male, tenor-lead-baritone-bass quartet makeup. Early quartets were typically either a cappella or accompanied only by piano or guitar, and in some cases a piano and banjo in areas that were influenced by bluegrass music such as Appalachia. Over time, full bands were added and even later, pre-recorded accompaniments (soundtracks) were introduced.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, southern gospel drew much of its creative energy from the holiness movement churches that arose throughout the south. Early gospel artists such as The Speer Family, The Stamps Quartet, The Blackwood Family, and The Lefevre Trio achieved wide popularity through their recordings and radio performances in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. On October 20, 1927, The Stamps Quartet recorded its early hit "Give The World A Smile" for RCA Victor, which become the Quartet's theme song. The Stamps Quartet was heard on the radio throughout Texas and the South. A handful of groups were considered pioneers in southern gospel music for a series of "firsts." The Blackwood Brothers, with James Blackwood and J.D. Sumner became the first group to travel in a bus, which is on display at the Southern Gospel Museum and Hall of Fame at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Sumner also was instrumental in creating the National Quartet Convention, an annual music festival where many groups, both known and well known perform for a week. The Speer Family was known for bringing blended groups to mainstream popularity where both male and female performers toured together. The best known group of the 1950s and 1960s was Statesmen Quartet, which set the trend for broad appeal of the all-male quartets that would develop years later. The Statesmen were known for their showmanship and introduction of jazz, ragtime, and even some early rock and roll elements into their music and their stage appearance with trendy suits and wide audience appeal and were known for their signature song, "Happy Rhythm" (Rockin and a'Rollin).
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From the start of the genre, the predominant type of artist has been the male quartet. Notable examples from the past and present include, The Blackwood Brothers, Brian Free and Assurance, The Cathedral Quartet, Christian Troubadours, Ernie Haase & Signature Sound, The Florida Boys, The Gaither Vocal Band, Gold City, The Inspirations, Jake Hess and the Imperials, The Kingdom Heirs Quartet, The Kingsmen Quartet, Legacy Five, The Oak Ridge Boys, The Stamps Quartet, The Statesmen Quartet, and the Plainsmen Quartet.
Trios and duos have also been a vital element of southern gospel for most of the genre's history. From decades past, pioneer groups like Chuck Wagon Gang, The Smitty Gatlin Trio, The Happy Goodman Family, The Rambos, The LeFevres, The Lesters, Speer Family, and The Bill Gaither Trio paved the way for modern mixed quartets and family-based lineups such as The Crabb Family, The Hinsons, The Hoppers, The Isaacs, Jeff and Sheri Easter, The Martins, The McKameys, The Perrys, The Perry Sisters, and The Talley Trio.
The genre also has a growing number of popular soloists. Many of these gained their initial popularity with a group before launching out on their own as soloists. Some of the most well known have been Jimmie Davis, Jason Crabb, Ivan Parker, Squire Parsons, and Janet Paschal.
J.D. Sumner and The Stamps toured with Elvis Presley, who originally wanted to be a Gospel singer despite trying out for numerous groups and never receiving an offer to join. Sumner and Presley met when Elvis was 14 years old and the two forged a strong relationship. Sumner sang at Presley's funeral and debunked many myths about Presley's alleged substance abuse and also credited Elvis for saving his life when Presley confronted Sumner about his alcoholism. Sumner held the world record for the lowest bass note ever hit for a human being until 2002, four years after his death.
Anthony Burger was the main pianist for Gaither's Homecoming Series before passing away suddenly in 2006 during a performance. At the age of five, Burger was accepted at the Cadek Conservatory at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. A child prodigy, Burger was playing classical piano repertoire within a few years. In the latter part of his career and life, the world-renowned classical piano company Steinway & Sons announced that Burger was being added to their exclusive roster of endorsing artists, making him the first southern gospel pianist to ever hold that honor.
The Cathedrals were perhaps the most successful quartet of the 1980s and 1990s. The group had massive appeal and recorded their 1987 album Symphony of Praise with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and also made numerous appearances NBC's The Today Show. After the deaths of frontmen George Younce and Glenn Payne, the Cathedrals spawned off two current groups that are immensely popular, The Legacy Five and Ernie Haase and Signature Sound.
Vestal Goodman perhaps the most influential female recording artist of the 20th century with a career that spanned five decade. Born Vestal Freeman, she started, like most gospel singers do, singing in her home church in Fyffe, Alabama. When she married Howard Goodman in 1949, Vestal joined Howard's siblings in their family group The Happy Goodman Family. Many variations of the group existed over the seven decades the family traveled and recorded but the combination that came about in the early 1960s of Howard, Rusty, Sam and Vestal would go on to change the sound of Southern Gospel forever. The Goodmans were a powerhouse sound and with the addition of some electric guitars, bass, steel guitar and drums they made and impact on southern gospel still felt today. Vestal was awarded the first ever Dove Award for Female Vocalist of the Year which in those days was called "Queen of Gospel Music" which was a title Vestal held until and even after her passing. The Goodmans were featured artists on the Gospel Singing Jubilee and after the group took a hiatus in the 1980s Howard and Vestal were featured artists on TBN and PTL Club. 1990 saw the recording of a reunion album and shortly thereafter the passings of Rusty and Sam. In 1991 Bill Gaither invited Howard and Vestal to be part of his new recording project called "Homecoming" which would launch a whole new season of their career. Howard and Vestal were a much anticipated part of Homecoming concerts and videos. In the late 90s and early 2000s Vestal started to branch off and do solo projects including 2 cookbooks and 2 duet albums called "Vestal & Friends" which featured Vestal singing songs with her friends in both the gospel and secular genres. Artists like George Jones, Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, Andraé Crouch, George Younce, Jeff & Sheri Easter, Mark Lowery and many more. In November 2002 Howard died during their retirement tour "The Final Stand", Vestal finished the tour dates and continued to appear with the Gaither Homecoming. On December 27, 2003 Vestal died in Celebration, Florida while on Christmas vacation, she was 74. In 2004 the Southern Gospel Hall of Fame inducted Vestal into the Hall of Fame.
Several secular artists have expressed their love for and influence of the genre by recording southern gospel albums or performing gospel songs in concert. Among them are Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Dailey & Vincent, Charlie Daniels, Bob Dylan, Larry Gatlin, Roscoe Holcomb, Alan Jackson, Kentucky Thunder, Jerry Lee Lewis, Loretta Lynn, The Louvin Brothers, Reba McEntire, Willie Nelson, The Oak Ridge Boys, Brad Paisley, Dolly Parton, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Leann Rimes, Ricky Skaggs, The Statler Brothers, Marty Stuart, Randy Travis, Carrie Underwood, and Hank Williams.
Traditional southern gospel music underwent a tremendous surge in popularity during the 1990s thanks to the efforts of Bill and Gloria Gaither and their Gaither Homecoming tours and videos, which began as a reunion of many of the best known and loved SGM individuals in 1991. Thanks in part to the Homecoming series, southern gospel music now has fans across the United States and in a number of foreign countries like Ireland and Australia.
By the 1990s, the "old-timey" quartet-style music began to develop to include more soloists and duos. Although still mostly popular in the Southeast and Southwest, it has a nationwide and even an international audience. The music remains "more country than city, more down-home than pretentious".
In 2005, The Radio Book, a broadcast yearbook published by M Street Publications, reported 285 radio stations in the U.S. with a primary format designation as "southern gospel," including 175 AM stations and 110 FM stations. In fact, southern gospel was the 9th most popular format for AM stations and the 21st most popular for FM. Southern gospel radio promoters routinely service more than a thousand radio stations which play at least some southern gospel music each week. Recent years have also seen the advent of a number of internet-only southern gospel "radio" stations.
Two popular satellite stations that feature southern gospel are channel 34 on XM Satellite Radio and Channel 67 On Sirius Satellite Radio. Both play the same feed entitled, "enLighten on SiriusXm". Enlighten plays southern gospel and has several featured programs which air weekly including Paul Heil's Gospel Greats and Bill Gaither's Homecoming Radio.
Over the last decade, a newer version of southern gospel has grown in popularity. This style is called progressive southern gospel and is characterized by a blend of traditional southern gospel, bluegrass, modern country, contemporary Christian and pop music elements. Progressive southern gospel generally features artists who push their voices to produce a sound with an edge to it. The traditional style southern gospel singers employ a more classical singing style.
Lyrically, most progressive southern gospel songs are patterned after traditional southern gospel in that they maintain a clear evangelistic and/or testimonial slant. Southern gospel purists view lyrical content and the underlying musical style as the key determining factors for applying the southern gospel label to a song.
Although there are some exceptions, most southern gospel songs would not be classified as Praise and Worship. Few southern gospel songs are sung "to" God as opposed to "about" God. On the other hand, southern gospel lyrics are typically overt in their Christian message unlike Contemporary Christian music (CCM) which sometimes has had "double entendre" lyrics, which could be interpreted as being about a devout love for God or an earthly love for a man or woman.
Becoming popular through songbooks, such as those published by R. E. Winsett of Dayton, Tennessee, southern gospel was and is one of the few genres to use recordings, radio, and television technologies from the very beginning for the advancements of promoting the genre.
One of the longest-running print magazines for southern gospel music has been the Singing News. They started in the early 1970s supplying radio airplay charts and conducting annual fan based awards. They also supply popular topic forums for southern gospel fans to meet and discuss the genre. The move to internet services has brought along companies such as SoGospelNews.com which has become a noted e-zine forum for southern gospel and has remained a supporter for the past twelve years. It too contains the music charts with forums and chat rooms available to the fans.
Internet Radio has broadened the southern gospel music fan base by using computer technologies and continual streaming. Some of these media outlets are: Sunlite Radio which features many of the southern gospel programs likewise heard on traditional radio. This list includes The Gospel Greats with Paul Heil, which recently celebrated 30 years on the air, Southern Gospel USA, a weekly half-hour countdown show hosted by Gary Wilson, Classic radio programs such as The Old Gospel Ship and Heaven's Jubilee with Jim Loudermilk. Another online station is "The Gospel Station." 
Enlightened featured on XM and Sirius radio
The Singing News
Sunlite Radio Media Outlet