Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Master's Radio: Southern Gospel Music as Familial Tradition

“I still have a religious side,” I said when my girlfriendquestioned my interest in Southern Gospel music. She laughed and rolled her eyes. In retrospect, I suppose she had every reason to laugh, for the majority of the time she and I had spent together over the last year found us in various states of undress. My life didn’t mirror that of someone who listened to Southern Gospel music, at least not from the perspective of the majority of people who listened to the religious music I had become so fond of over the years. And I suppose, ultimately, that over the years since this conversation that is so engrained in my memory, I’ve accepted this realization, for my listening to Southern Gospel often has far less to do with any sort of religious worship or Godly communion. Rather, my love for the music of my grandmother and those like her, with whom I so often associate gospel quartets, has become for me an act of remembering and upholding familial and personal tradition.

My grandmother would often attend the National Quartet Convention in Louisville, Kentucky, just a few hours from our home in Ashland with friends of hers from church and other avenues of her life. They would stay in a hotel in the city, and the pictures she would bring home from their journeys depicted less a serious setting than a fun retreat rife with pajamas, junk food, and playing cards. At least where the hotel was concerned. When it came to the music, they were serious, for it was a passion that ran deep in my grandmother, and I can assume likewise in her friends. To Nana, the music was just an extension of her love for God and the desire she had to serve Him to the fullest of her abilities. My grandmother was the type to stand with her hands upraised toward Heaven, her eyes closed, as she sang along to the songs she knew, sung by the groups whose members she talked about on a first-name basis—people like George Younce, Bill Gaither, and Kirk Talley, to name but a few of the singers whose names I would come to learn over the course of my childhood because of my grandmother. And the best part, for me, was that my grandmother would return home from Louisville with cassette tapes, and later CDs, of groups she had discovered at the conventions, and it would be those recordings that would serve as the soundtrack for my days spent in and around the kitchen with my grandmother as she cooked, cleaned, and did the laundry.

It seems only natural, then, that I would gain an appreciation for Southern Gospel given my long-term exposure to it. Just as my grandfather’s listening to Ray Charles and Conway Twitty led to my being the only person I know my age who knows every word to “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” (hardly a song on par with the moral message of the music my grandmother chose), my grandmother’s constant playing of gospel music washed over me, boring deep into me and taking root. One of my earliest memories is of riding with my grandparents to pick up my mother from her nursing job at Three Rivers Hospital in Louisa; it was on these trips that I would come to learn the song “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” a gospel song that would serve as the precursor to everything I would learn over the next several years about the music. I would be constantly exposed to it—church, church camp, my grandmother’s kitchen. Everywhere I went, it seemed, in some avenue of my life, there was Southern Gospel music. Quartets and solo artists came to church for special services and revivals; they provided the morning and evening music for week-long camp meetings at Mt. Hope, a campground in Flemingsburg, KY, that I would come to view as my grandmother did: the closest we would get to Heaven on Earth. There even came I time when I spent my New Year’s Eve at the Paramount Art Center, a former movie house that now houses plays and concerts, taking in a Kirk Talley concert to ring in the new year. I was, if memory serves, the youngest person there by far, but I knew I was precisely where I needed to be.

By the time I reached sixth grade, I was listening to primarily Christian music. A new Southern Gospel station had begun broadcasting in our area—Joy FM—and my parents had begun listening to it in the car and around the house. Now I was exposed to Southern Gospel regardless of which part of the family I was with: with my parents in our house and with my grandparents next door. My parents had even begun to sing Southern Gospel in our church in a makeshift quartet comprised of my future youth pastor and his wife. And all the while, I was moving about the house, walking to and from school, cutting the grass, listening to gospel quartets and singing along at the top of my lungs, never mind the fact that I couldn’t—and still can’t—really sing. During this time, I was stunned when I found out that other Christians listened to non-Christian music. I was listening to the Cathedrals and Kirk Talley, as well as some Contemporary Christian music, and it was unfathomable to me that my friends and peers weren’t. That they were listening to music about sex and violence and drugs—this was during the heyday of boy bands and the influx of Latino pop artists, and rap, as always, was popular—was representative of a dichotomy in the Christian faith, though at the time I didn’t have the critical thinking skills or vocabulary to express it as such: those who professed one thing and did another were the people I had idolized and seen as holy servants of God. I hadn’t yet learned about the dual nature of man, and the compartmentalization of elements that, when taking as a whole, make us who we are. All I knew was that Christians listened to Christian music, and the fact that some didn’t disallowed me to resolve what it meant to be a Christian and live fully in the likeness of God.

But it was around this time that my own exterior and interior religious self would begin to separate from each other. Where once I was a Christian—inwardly, outwardly, and all around—I found myself beginning to give in to the ways of the world, and it started, I suppose, with music. I began listening to the music of my peers, taking an interest in what was cool and modern. Over the next few years, I would function almost as a split person—part Christian, part world-liver. There was always a part of me, even if only deep down and hiding, that was a Christian and loved gospel music on some level for the worship aspects of it, the extension of my love for God and my wanting to serve him as He commanded. Somewhere along the way, though, in the days of high school and the questioning and critical thinking that comes with the confusion of adolescence, as we question who we are and why; as we try to separate our beliefs and ideas from those of our parents, trying to understand what beliefs were actually ours and what had only been masquerading as truth (or Truth); and we attempt to come into our own; somewhere during this existential journey, something within me changed, and I don’t know that even now I can pinpoint precisely what it was. Somehow, I was living as two different people—one person on Sundays, Wednesdays, and every other Monday for youth meetings and activities, and another during the rest of the week, even on Sunday afternoons and evenings after church. In essence, I had become one of the people I couldn’t understand when I was in sixth grade. Somewhere, though, I still had an appreciation for the music I had loved growing up, but it was during this time that the meaning of Southern Gospel music began to change, perhaps imperceptibly at first: my purpose for listening to the music for which I had always had an appreciation was not solely a religious one. This change would manifest itself slowly over the years, taking a shape that led some to believe my faith had been totally abandoned; others that it was still burning deep within me. It all depended on the context in which someone knew me. And then ultimately, my appreciation for it diminished to the extent that I didn’t really consider it at all.

And then my grandparents died. My grandparents, on whom I had relied so heavily during my life—through the loss of my mother when I was six, my dad and stepmother’s marriage when I was nine and the subsequent often-tumultuous years that would follow; through those summer months spent listening to Southern Gospel quartets in the small kitchen as mygrandmother made me fried biscuits for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; during trips to the beach and out west to see family, to church camp. My grandparents who were so influential in my becoming the person I am today. Now gone. Both of them within six months of each other in 2004 during my junior year of high school and into the summer before my senior year. And it was while going through their house, reminiscing of the good times that I will forever associate with my grandparents, that my love of gospel music was rekindled. Tucked away in a smallcupboard in my grandparents kitchen and in a tall rack not far from it were several of Nana’s cassettes and CDs that she had accumulated over the years at quartet conventions, revival meetings, and gospel concerts; I took them with me and played them, reveling in the music I hadn’t truly considered in years.Which is how I found myself in the middle of a mall in Nashville after having spent the previous several hours in nearby Clarksville passing out witness tracts and church invitations for a church run by my youth pastor’s cousin. I don’t remember how the conversation started, but at some point my then-girlfriend said, “You listen to gospel music?” It wasn’t just a question: it was a condemnation, a statement of disbelief that probed the exterior I had put up over the past several years of existential searching for my place in a world that would allow me to be both critical thinking liberal humanist and devout Christian with a child-like faith, following the path that had been carved before me by the likes of my grandparents and those like them who modeled for me the virtues of Christian living.

“I still have a religious side,” I answered.

The rolling of her eyes said more than anything she could have verbalized. I had, in that moment, a crisis of self—a self that I had been cultivating for the past several years as I began to question what I believed and what those beliefs meant in a modern world. What had I become? And was it too late to return to that child-like person I was who blindly believed whatever came from the pulpit or the music in Nana’s kitchen?

Over the next several years the church I thought I had known growing up—the church as a body of believers coming together for a common purpose, regardless of the church building they happened to attend on a Sunday morning—would be presented to me more and more legalistically: a series of rights and wrongs, dos and don’ts that seemed to matter far more than anything else I had learned about God in the previous years. Churches I knew were exposed as solipsistic—only their view of the Bible was good enough, only their pastors holding the answers that people needed. Acts that were not technically wrong, or that were are least seemingly up for debate—going to a concert at a bar, for instance—were met with secretive admonishments of “I can’t believe he would do that. And to think, he’s an usher on Sundays!” a refrain apparently best when offered behind closed doors and the back of the person in question. A drink of alcohol was presented to me as the first step down a slippery slope that would surely lead to a moral degradation from which there could be no resurrection short of a miraculous intervention. This new view I was beginning to see mixed with the question that had begun in high school and was only exacerbated by my inquisitive nature and fostered in my humanities courses in college where I was exposed to history and interpretation of religious ideologies that had been previously foreign to me. But through it all, I retained what I had once called “my religious side,” listening to Contemporary Christian Music, going to church and concerts, and for a while, I struggled to reconcile the two selves that had manifested themselves in my life. There were periods where I was intensely fervent and “on-fire,” to use the associated lingo; but there were other times, seemingly more and more often, that that fervor was replaced by a growing sense of apathy, my religious side atrophying for one reason or another, not that even now I can truly assign blame to any one cause. For the most part, during my college years, Southern Gospel was as foreign to me as another language—it was no longer truly a part of who I was.

That’s not to say that I wasn’t exposed to elements of Southern Gospel during this time. The summer after my senior year of high school I was still cognizant enough of the music and those involved that when the Kirk Talley scandal made it to the pages of GQ, I was shocked to read the article, to see someone I had idolized as a child in that predicament. And one of the first things I remember thinking was: “I wonder what Nana would say?” Though I didn’t make a conscious effort to listen to Southern Gospel during this time, I was exposed to variations of it, or at least music that was similar: the gospel recordings of Johnny Cash, Ray Price, Gillian Welch, and Joan Baez, all of whom have had songs and records with a religious side; a good gospel track tucked away in the middle of a bluegrass record; the occasional gospel song in church, a deviation from the standard praise and worship that so often comprises the worship services of any number of churches I’ve attended in my young adulthood. 

The power of music is interesting in that it, perhaps better than anything else, can strike a chord down deep within us, eliciting from us an eye-closing, head-swaying moment of pure joy. It needn’t be religious music, it must only be true music—true in the sense that it has the power to move us. There have been times over the years, even after my questioning period of a conflicted self arose, that I’ve stood in church and listened as a song enveloped me, sending an awe-inducing shiver down my spinea song that I could feel far more than I could hearand let it take hold of me. I’ve returned to listening to Southern Gospel over the past couple years, and when I began to take writing seriously, it served as the soundtrack for writing sessions, as my stories came to life in a religious world colored by my experiences; the gospel songs and groups I knew growing up painting a shade of what I wrote. And there are times when a trio or quartet can harmonize through “I’ll Fly Away” or “He Made a Change,” or I can watch Bill Gaither on television late at night as he leads a choir of many familiar faces through a rendition of “That Old Country Church,” or I can stand in church in the midst of a crowd and be lifted to the presence of God as a group sings “Amazing Grace” in four-part harmony, can feel God wrap His arms lovingly around me; but more often than not, when I listen to Southern Gospel now, I am transported instead to my childhood: I’m seven years old in my grandmother’s kitchen as she cooks me fried biscuits while a quartet plays through the speakers of her stereo; I can smell the sweet aroma of melting butter from the frying pan, can taste the delectable treat being prepared for me; or I’m standing at her side at church camp in a sanctuary with no walls in the years before they closed it in, while the evening summer breeze sweeps in with the setting sun, and all I want is to open my eyes and look around, but we’re praying and I can’t; or I’m at my grandmother’s funeral while a family friend sings a rendition of Kirk Talley’s “Serenaded by Angels” and I’m too numb to feel much of anything. Southern Gospel has become a connection to my past, for there is nothing I wouldn’t give to spend one more Saturday night by my grandmother’s side on the couch watching a Gather Homecoming recording, or to spend one more Christmas Break at the kitchen table every morning as she prepared my breakfast of fried biscuits; and now if I close my eyes while the Cathedrals sing, I can almost taste the grape jelly as it mixes with melted butter, oozing out of the middle of a biscuit as my teeth break the golden-brown crust, and for a moment, even if for just a moment, I’m there at the table, and I can relish it against the bittersweet longing that comes with aging until the song ends.

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