Although long outshined by Contemporary Christian Music, traditional Southern gospel music has kept its fans and has even grown as it has moved closer to its evangelical roots.
In his new book Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel (University of North Carolina Press, $24.95), historian James R. Guff Jr. writes that the gospel music tradition, as represented by such vocal quartets as the Blackwood Brothers and the Statlers, pioneered the Christian music industry in the early 20th century adapting folk and country music to traditional Christian lyrics. But by the 1970s, traditional gospel music — Guff is not referring to black gospel music — was pushed to the margins as Christian musicians wedded Christian lyrics to rock and other contemporary sounds.
Today, Southern gospel music is a separate genre from Contemporary Christian Music. It still resonates strongest with Southern white Pentecostals and Baptists (although African-American groups are now accepted in Southern gospel circles), who see the music both as entertainment and a source of faith and solace. A sign of the new interest is seen in the flagship magazine of the industry, Singing News, which doubled its circulation to 200,000 during the 1990s.
Guff notes that gospel music is tied to the fortunes of evangelicalism in the U.S. and, if anything, the various groups have intensified their commitment to presenting a Christian message through song. Throughout the 1970s, only 17 percent of annual performances took place within the walls of churches. By the mid-1990s, that average had soared to a remarkable 65 percent. As evangelicals involved themselves in conservative politics in the last two decades, Southern gospel songs and lyrics have likewise taken up such themes as patriotism and pro-life issues.