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Southern Gospel Music – What Kind of Future?
I’m a big fan of All Quartets Radio, the marvellous online radio station run by Carl Ramsey that I listen to often while working at my computer. In February, I presented an interview with Carl, and this is now one of the most visited pages on my website (I presume someone has linked to it, though I don’t know who).
I’ve come to realise that Carl is a provocative guy, with lots to say on the current state - and the future - of Southern Gospel music. So recently I asked if I could interview him again, and graciously he agreed.
* Living in Australia, and having discovered Southern Gospel only a couple of years ago, I’m a total outsider. So listening to your station has been a real education for me. Previously I’d only heard the latest recordings, which I certainly love. But on All Quartets Radio I hear a lot of the original recordings, and I’m realising that perhaps new isn’t always better. The new recordings are very slick and bouncy, while the older ones are rough. But in that roughness there’s a lot of heart. It’s like listening to old Elvis recordings. How do you see the state of Southern Gospel? Is it changing too quickly? Is it becoming too commercial? Is it moving too far away from its roots?
Carl: Southern Gospel music is suffering mainly from the idea adopted some years ago of having charts of the most popular music. I object to that, because this isn't about the Number One song, it's about ministry. Yet, for most of the full-time quartets now, they almost have to play the charting game to get concert dates.
The charting is also a flawed system. It is based on requests to a certain group of radio stations. One of the first things I learned as a young broadcaster was that requests do not indicate what most of the people in the audience want to hear. There are also political influences that affect the charts, so they are a very false indication of what people really want to hear. McCray Dove of the fantastically popular Dove Brothers Quartet told me recently they have never had a song even high on the charts, yet they won Quartet of the Year honours from two organizations last year and are taking the audiences by storm. And they sing traditional quartet style. They have had a strong influence, leading many quartets to start adding more traditional sounding music to the concerts and recordings.
If Southern Gospel really thinks it is necessary to have a chart system, then why don't they base it on sales? Most groups know exactly how many sales they've made as soon as a concert is over. Many of the main groups have computers on their busses. They could report sales back to a database computer, automatically upload the figures and if retail outlets would do that too, then they could come up with a project that is Number One, although they wouldn't know which song people were buying the recording for.
The secular world has album charts. So Southern Gospel could do it if they wanted. If a group didn't have a computer on the bus they could upload the info as soon as they go home, or call someone to upload for them or even call the numbers in if necessary. A touch tone phone system with an 800 number could be programmed to receive reports using Personal Identification Numbers and still come up with an automatic tally. This would also eliminate any suspicion that someone is cooking the numbers for a friend or due to financial or political pressure. This happens with the current system. I know that for sure.
The charts have also led to a dramatic increase in what I call family groups. Now there have been great family groups in Southern Gospel, like The Speer Family. But the new ones are a different breed, singing something that is not at all traditional Southern. The singing quality is not as important as the emotional appeal a group can generate. If these groups want to have that kind of approach, they should not be part of the Southern Gospel genre. They should have their own genre and Southern Gospel should not embrace their style. It is dividing the genre and that is not good.
Music evolves in any genre, except perhaps classical. But the evolution into a family group and soloist genre is driving the quartets off the charts and thus off the "on the air" radio stations. So that's why I started All Quartets Radio. Listeners get quality singing and strong messages in song. Four-part harmony allows for the fullest sound and the greatest amount of creativity. Besides, what is Southern Gospel music without a great bass singer?
As for the quartets, there is a tremendous return to the more traditional sound. The overall quality of singing is improving, but there are still tenors who try to sing too high and basses that try to sing too low. The key for any good singer is stay within your range and leave the very high or low stuff to those who can truly do it. There is many a great quartet singer in the hall of fame who wasn't the highest or lowest or loudest, but sang well and stayed within their range.
Ministry is on the minds of most quartets. There are a few that have lost that vision and are kind of living like entertainers. But there are so many wonderful, down-to-earth and sincere people in the quartets that it is very encouraging. You will especially find this with the regional quartets who are often extremely good, work full-time jobs during the week and sacrifice greatly to sing on weekends. They are kind of like the pioneers in the quartet field back in the 30's and 40's.
Not too many quartet singers are getting rich. As a matter of fact, most barely make a living and some don't. If you want to be a quartet singer today, you have to really be called of God and have a determination to do this come what may. There are some exceptions, but that is by and large the case for the singers.
* I know so little about the history of Southern Gospel, but I presume it was originally very ministry oriented. Is that still the case? Are Southern Gospel groups intent on spreading the Gospel, or are they becoming too commercial?
Carl: I answered some of this in my previous reply. But I can add one more thing. There is a very good quartet that very few people know about called the Daybreak Quartet. They don't play the concert circuit. Instead, they go into churches and work with evangelist and evangelism ministries. When I talk to them, they talk about how many people came forward at a recent meeting they sang at and things of that sort. They even sang during the Olympics in Australia at a huge chapel and recorded it for a CD. They were there to help with the evangelism outreach ministries of several athletes. They are the only quartet that has ever talked to me in that exact manner. But there are still many that are really ministry oriented even though they don't express it the same way The Daybreak Quartet does.
* Can you name some groups that are doing a truly great job in spreading the Gospel, as well as playing great music, but who don’t get nearly enough recognition? What can be done to help them get more recognition?
Carl: The Daybreak Quartet would certainly be one. The Dixie Echoes are another. They are tearing the house down most places they sing and they are a great group of down-to-earth Christian men. The Liberty Quartet of Boise, Idaho is another. They are having bus trouble now, which is not uncommon for quartets. To cover the great expanse of the US and do their concerts, most quartets depend on a customized bus and a bad bus has put many a good quartet out of business.
The Melody Boys Quartet is perhaps the finest pure quartet on the road. They get very little recognition from the so-called industry. But they can sure sing, and are very creative in their arrangements. And you'll never hear any bad singing from these men.
The New Speer Revival sounds very much like the old time Speer Family. They have good singers and one of the very best bass singers in the quartet field, Doug Young. He is much underrated.
The new Chuck Wagon Gang is excellent and is turning a lot of heads. Their alto Shaye Truax is opera trained and has one of the most beautiful voices you will ever hear
The Calvarymen Quartet of Flint, Michigan is fantastic. This is a regional group that travels on weekends and works full-time jobs during the week. Very talented and creative.
Out of Canada, there is one fantastic quartet in British Columbia called His Image. Wow. Very creative. Very, very good. Very little known.
Southern Sound is not a household word in the quartet field right now. But they will be. This is a good a quartet as there is, and they are very unselfish, team oriented. A great sound and a great group of singers and real gentlemen.
Those are just some of the great groups who aren't getting the recognition they deserve.
* All Quartets Radio must be about 18 months old now. That’s a huge achievement for what’s essentially a family operation. How are things going? Has it been a struggle? Is your audience growing? What sort of feedback do you get from listeners?
Carl: All Quartets Radio has been a struggle, but it is the joy of my professional life and fulfils the sense of ministry that I have missed in the field of journalism and radio production the last several years. I can honestly say that the Lord has accomplished some rather miraculous things to get us on the air and keep us going.
Just as my wife and I felt the definite go from the Lord on the station, I was laid off from a fairly well-paying job. We had assembled a little over $30,000 to start the station, but after a day or two we both agreed that we believed God wanted us to leave that money alone and go ahead with the station. When we faced some tough financial times that December, a local church came in and paid most of our bills that month to allow us to get back on our feet. And we had not asked for assistance.
The single greatest thing that has kept the station going is the royalty-free licence we developed to legally avoid paying the extremely high new royalty the US government imposed on webcasters ONLY, for the sounds they play off of tapes, CD's and records. It is so expensive that it has driven most music stations off the internet. Even one multi- million dollar Southern Gospel webcaster had to go off the internet due to the royalty.
But here we are, with a great variety of music and a growing list of artists we can play. We recently got one of the great historic quartets back. The Statesmen Quartet of the early to mid 1950's was an innovative and influential quartet and we now have almost 40 songs by them we can play. We are just adding the Greater Vision quartet recordings. The group is usually a trio, but they recorded a CD with 15 different bass singers, including tracks of some who have passed away. So what could have been a disaster for us has turned out to be a good thing. Our listening audience actually went up very noticeably right after we switched to the royalty-free format.
We are not rolling in money to operate the station, but we make it every month and a recent fund appeal was quite successful. We feel we've seen so many great things happen that it just does not seem to us that the Lord will let us go off because of finances.
Here are some emails we received recently:
I spent 25 years travelling with Southern Gospel quartets from the Mississippi east to the coast...until I tore a vocal chord in the mid 80's. Your efforts mean more to me than you can ever know. Since you have begun broadcasting, I have spent many early mornings in the office with tears flowing as I recall the blessing of ministering to people through that style of music, and as your music brings healing to my soul. Many of the groups that you play, I have been on stage with...dating back to the Rebels and Stamps in the 60's and the Couriers, Cathedrals and Kingsmen, etc., in the 70's and 80's. I regret that I can't offer monthly support right now, but am hoping to be able to do that later in the fall.
Dear Carl Ramsey
I can't begin to tell you how much I love your music! I have wanted to listen to this type of music for a long, long time. There definitely is no other music like it!
The audience is growing slowly, steadily. We have not had the funds to advertise lately but we are improving our website, so we will get higher rankings in the web search engines. It will not affect the look of the website but is in the hidden language called HTML code. We are also going to The Grand Ole Gospel Reunion and The National Quartet Convention, thanks to the generosity of some listeners.
Some days we have so many listeners that people are getting busy signals because we are exceeding the number of listeners we can have at one time. We can increase that number if we have the money to pay for more listening capability.
* Carl, you’re certainly willing to say it as you see it. I really admire that. Is there anything else I haven’t asked you?
Carl: The greatest need for Southern Gospel is to start attracting young people to the genre. The industry, so to speak, needs to launch an aggressive campaign to expose young people to this music. Not all are going to like it, but many will. Without such a campaign, I fear that in another 10–20 years there will be no audience, especially for the quartets.
We need to get some of the exciting young quartets in front of huge youth gatherings, and promoters need to offer dirt-cheap tickets to young people and youth groups. They need to contact personally youth ministers in local churches and work out special party or group attendance packages for their concerts. Quartets tell me when they sing in churches, most of the young people tell them they really like their music. This has to be done on an organized, national scale. I will do what little I can to encourage this, but the industry leaders must wake up and make this a high priority right away. Most of the people at the concerts now are grey-haired, like me. That is great. They deserve to hear the music that they love. But we need to bring the new generation in to enjoy it too.
* Carl, thank you so much. You’ve got a great ministry that’s a blessing for many people around the world. Long may you continue!
July 4th, 2003