Southern gospel music has been my favorite genre of music since I was a young boy. The genre officially originated around the year 1910 but general historical evidence shows it may have been around in some capacity in the late 1880’s. It came to be known as quartet music due to the original make up of the industry being all male groups.
In the early twentieth century, with such groups as the Blackwood Brothers quartet, the Statesmen, the Speer family, the Stamps quartet and the Lefevre Trio, the genre absolutely exploded in popularity.
During the 1980’s the genre begin to see a decline in popularity. In the early 1990’s the genre saw a tremendous surge in popularity thanks in part to the efforts of Bill and Gloria Gaither and the Gaither Homecoming tour where former older favorites of the industry saw their careers revived.
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. These numbers have since declined.
Most groups report numbers of attendees at their venues have dropped over the last 10 years. As the current baby boomer generation ages, with them goes a lot of fans of the industry. For the longevity of the industry and for its survival, on some level the groups will have to find an appeal to the younger music fans.
The surge during the 1980’s where anyone with a few thousand dollars could record a song and release it to southern gospel radio did much damage to the industry from a quality standpoint. This lack of quality failed to appeal to the members of generation X . Gone were the high quality only releases by legendary industry groups and the genre suffered as a result.
Many church’s recently have incorporated praise & worship music and eliminated their choirs. Many educational institutions have eliminated choir from their curriculum due to funding issues. Children today are growing up having no concept of harmony or how to sing or hear parts.
Southern gospel now stands at a crossroads where it must decide what steps to take to start attracting younger fans. A first step would be to stop fighting the need to update arrangements to a more modern sound. Just as the secular country industry faced a crossroads years back and had to adapt to preserve the genre, so must southern gospel now if it is to survive.
There will always be a place for traditional sounding groups and artists. But the time has come for the industry as a whole to stop shunning the artists who sing a more progressive and modern style of country gospel because they represent the best hope for the industry we love having a future.
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