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. 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.
Southern Gospel is sometimes called “quartet music” by fans because of the originally all-male, tenor-lead-baritone-bass quartet make-up. Early quartets were typically either a cappella or accompanied only by piano or guitar, and in some case a piano with banjo. Over time, full bands were added and even later, pre-record accompaniments were introduced.
Some of the genre’s roots can be found in the publishing work and “normal 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 black gospel-influenced songs, traditional hymns, acapella (jazz-style singing with no instruments) songs, country gospel, bluegrass, and “convention songs” (which were more difficult). Because it grew out of the musical traditions of rural white people in the South, it is sometimes called “white gospel”, to differentiate it from 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.”
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 Smith’s Sacred Singers, 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 Victor, which become the Quartet’s theme song. The Stamps Quartet was heard on the radio throughout Texas and the South.
Others such as Homer Rodeheaver and the Cathedral Quartet became well-known through their association with popular evangelists such as Billy Sunday and Rex Humbard.
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 Triumphant 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 Cook Family Singers, The Happy Goodman Family, The LeFevres, The Lesters, Speer Family, The Rambos, and The Bill Gaither Trio paved the way for modern mixed quartets and family-based lineups such as The Crabb Family, Greater Vision, The Hinsons, The Hoppers, The Isaacs, Jeff and Sheri Easter, The Lewis Family, The Martins, The McKameys, The Perrys, The Perry Sisters, The Ruppes, 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. Southern Gospel was an early influence on popular secular performers such as Patsy Cline, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Elvis Presley.
A list of southern gospel artist articles can be found at Southern Gospel performers.
Gaither Homecoming Series
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.
Today’s Southern Gospel
Although still primarily “old-timey quartet singing,” Southern Gospel was evolving by the 1990s to include more soloists and duos. It was most popular in the Southeast and Southwest, but it had a nationwide audience. The music remained “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 USA 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.