Popular Oak Ridge Boys Reflect Southern Gospel Movement that Helped Create Elvis and Patsy Cline


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Fans are very familiar with the harmonies of the  Oak Ridge Boys, the  country and gospel vocal quartet  that have popularized many songs including “Elvira, " "Bobbie Sue," and "American Made."

The group has been around for a long time, founded in the 1940s as the Oak Ridge Quartet. They became popular during the 1950s. Their name was officially changed to the Oak Ridge Boys in the early 1960s, and they remained a gospel-oriented group until the mid-1970s, when they changed their image and concentrated on country music.

The group is part of the , Southern Gospel movement, which began in the early 1900s.

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 cases a piano and banjo. Over time, full bands were added and even later, pre-recorded accompaniments were introduced.

Because it grew out of the musical traditions of rural white people in the South, it is sometimes called "white gospel."

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.

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.

Book cover: Then Sings My SoulRecently, the University of Illinois Press published Then Sings My Soul  by Douglas Harrison, an associate professor of English at Florida Gulf Coast University, 

This interview was published by the University of Illinois Press blog:

Q:  What distinguishes southern gospel music from other forms of gospel music?

Harrison:  It depends on what aspect of the music you emphasize. Stylistically, southern gospel is actually fairly eclectic and freely absorbs a lot of adjacent styles (country, pop, black gospel, even jazz and some elements of orchestrations from classical music), but southern gospel is most well known for close harmony, sung in small ensembles (usually threes or fours).

Historically, this style of singing grew out of the shape-note gospel music movement that flourished in post-Civil War Appalachia. The seven-shape notational method used to teach and sing this music, distinct from the earlier four-note method used in Sacred Harp singing, was the core of a broad-based recreational culture involving singing schools and community (or “convention”) singings popular among working-class and poor whites throughout the South and Midwest well into the twentieth century (convention singing still persists today in small pockets).

Culturally, southern gospel expresses the fervent piety of the fundamentalist evangelical worldview. So whereas other forms of gospel and Christian music (generally speaking of course, there are no absolutes here) tend to be more about praising and glorifying the divine, you get a lot of songs in southern gospel about the blood of Calvary, the suffering of the cross, the saints’ struggles here below, and the ultimate triumph of a blood-bought church on high.

Q:  Who are the most prominent performers in southern gospel?

Harrison:  By far, Bill Gaither – as the impresario and namesake of the Gaither Homecoming Friends musical road show that he and his wife have led for the past twenty years – is the industry’s worldwide ambassador. If anyone who has only a passing familiarity with southern gospel knows of a performer’s name or music, they’re probably from the Homecoming Friends show. Beyond Gaither, the most popular performers are almost entirely male quartets (Triumphant, Kingdom Heirs, Legacy 5, for instance), mixed gender foursomes (for example, The Perrys, The Hoppers, The McKameys) and trios (Greater Vision, Karen Peck and New River, The Booth Brothers, among them).

Q:  Do these performers reach their audience via traditional music business methods like touring, radio airplay, and CD & download sales?

Harrison:  Yes and no. I mean, southern gospel relies on radio and retail in a very conventional way, and southern gospel performers tour nationally. So in this sense, yes, southern gospel relies on traditional music-business approaches. But the southern gospel scene looks very different than, say, a Sugarland or Rascal Flatts tour in terms of economics. In the first place, southern gospel today is not at all a moneymaker on the order of country music or rock or pop or even more contemporary forms of Christian music.

My research indicates that more than half of southern gospel’s performers make less than $25,000 annually from southern gospel music, and only a sliver makes
more than $50,000 annually from gospel. And with a few exceptions, most of those southern gospel performers who do make a comfortable living have some of the heaviest touring schedules of almost any commercial performers out there (it’s not uncommon for a nationally touring act in southern gospel to work 250 or more dates a year, compared to, say, something more in the range of 50-75 for your average country music star).

And, more significantly, for many of its participants, southern gospel isn’t only or even primarily business. It’s a ministry. Consequently there’s this great tension within the southern gospel world between its aspirations to be a form of ministerial outreach and its
practical function as a brand of commercial Christian entertainment. So, both among performers and fans, a good deal of energy is expended in simultaneously foregrounding the ministerial aspects of the gospel in song, while also making sure there’s enough money to make payroll this week and keep fuel in the bus and bankroll the next recording project and so forth.

Q:  How do Evangelical Christians utilize or relate to gospel music?

Harrison:  At its heart, my argument is, as I say in the book, that “the interaction of lyrics, music, and religious experience in southern gospel functions as a way for evangelicals to cultivate the social tools and emotional intelligence necessary for modern living.” Gospel songs are particularly good at creating contexts in which people simultaneously align themselves with orthodox culture, while also feeling that the difficult truths of their unorthodox experience are validated and have a meaningful place in religious life. In other words, gospel has the ability to hold orthodox doctrine and unorthodox experience in workable balance for its participants. This is particularly important in a fundamentalist culture that officially treats negative feelings and experience as evidence of sin or encroachments of doubt planted in the heart by the forces of darkness.

Gospel equips its participants to hold contradictory propositions about themselves, their beliefs, and the world at large in productive tension in a way that you don’t as regularly find at church or Bible study or other more official parts of Christian culture. In the book, I put it this way: through gospel, “evangelicals develop the capacity to think and act as modern pluralists or situational relativists when necessary, while retaining their identification with anti-modern religious traditions.” So the implications of
gospel’s function in this regard are significant, not just for understanding gospel music but for understanding how fundamentalists acquire the tools to be in the post-modern world.

Q:  What is the “gay-gospel paradox”?

Harrison:  It’s my shorthand term for the reality that, as I say in the book, “the most culturally fundamentalist sacred music in evangelicalism could hardly be said to exist without queers and their contributions as fans, songwriters, performers, producers, players, and industry executives.” Of course gay people have always been drawn to the creation and experience of religious art. But it’s a lot less complicated to sing Handel’s “Messiah” with a gay men’s chorus in Chicago or L.A. than it is to be a gay southern gospel singer or songwriter or player or even just a fan in Mount Pisgah, Tennessee, or Gore, Oklahoma, or the Ozarks of Missouri where I grew up.

In identifying and exploring the gay-gospel paradox, I’m interested in what attracts gay men to gospel music, as well as what this attraction – the conflict between evangelical orthodoxy and modern life – tells us more broadly about how religious authority is contested and regulated, both by individuals and communities.


Visit your local library for these resources:


Oak Ridge Boys CDs on Worldcat

Then sings my soul : the culture of southern gospel music
by Douglas Harrison, (2012).

Homecoming : the story of southern gospel music through the eyes of its best-loved performers
by Bill Gaither and Jerry B Jenkins, (1997).
Shares stories and reminiscences of Southern gospel music as seen through the eyes of its performers, both young and old, and includes black-and-white and color photographs of groups such as the Blackwood Brothers, the Speer Family, and the Gaither Vocal Band.

Close Harmony: A History Of Southern Gospel
by James R. Goff Jr. , (2002).

More than Precious Memories: The Rhetoric of Southern Gospel Music
by Michael P. Graves and David Fillingim, (2004).



The Oak Ridge Boys - Joe, Duane, William Lee & Richard
Date:30 August 2007, 16:21:48
Source:originally posted to Flickr as Dsc02596

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