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Southern Gospel Music: Diesel Sniffers

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The Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) circles I ran in thought southern gospel music was God’s music. IFB churches are known for being anti-cultural, especially when it comes to music. Rock music? Contemporary Christian music (CCM)? Rap Music? Blues music? True Christians® don’t listen to such worldly, Satanic music, IFB preachers told their congregants. Yet, despite all the anti-music preaching, congregants — especially teens and college students — continued to listen to “worldly” music.

Reaction to country music was somewhat mixed. Many preachers divided country music into two categories: old style and new style. Old-style country was grudgingly permitted, but new style country was verboten — no different from rock music. Congregants were encouraged to listen to southern gospel music — country music with Jesus-y words.

As an IFB pastor, I regularly scheduled Southern gospel groups to sing at our church. Most of these groups were local/regional musicians who were willing to come sing for us for a love offering. Over the years, I had several well-known groups come to our church: Robbie Hiner and The Journeymen, to name two. In the 1990s, I went through a CCM phase, thinking that if I brought in name groups, doing so would attract people to our church. Groups who sang at our church included: David Meece, Sierra, Annie Herring (2nd Chapter of Acts), and NIA. As far as attracting new church members? A big, fat bust.

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Ever the marketer, I advertised these concerts, hoping to draw large crowds. (Largest crowd? 400 for Sierra. Lowest? 20 for NIA.) Often, Ever the marketer, I advertised these concerts, hoping to draw large crowds. (Largest crowd? 400 for Sierra. Lowest? 20 for NIA.) Often, people from outside of our area would attend the concerts. Typically, these people were what I called diesel sniffers. Many of the musical groups traveled using diesel busses. Some people would follow their favorite group’s bus wherever it went. For them, southern gospel music was a drug; something that gave them a “spiritual” pick-me-up.

While IFB preachers attempt to paint southern gospel music as something that is “spiritual,” it is, in fact, entertainment. IFB preachers are known for their anti-entertainment preaching. It is well known that Fundamentalists take the fun out of everything. But, when it comes to southern gospel music, these same preachers ignore the fact that this style of music is a spiritualized form of entertainment.

I had a friend who was a devoted southern gospel fan. He and his wife attended numerous southern gospel concerts every year. His love for the music changed after he heard the McKameys sing twice in one week. What upset him, you ask? The McKameys sang their hit song, God of the Mountain. The acts were identical, right down to the lead singer gesticulating at the exact same time and kicking off her shoes. It was all a show. My friend thought these groups were spirit-led, when, in fact, they were well-paid professional entertainers.

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Another friend of mine spent several years traveling with well-known southern gospel groups. He, too, thought doing so would be a spiritual endeavor for him. What he found, instead, was rampant alcohol consumption and immorality. Yes, southern gospel singers have groupies too.

I am fifteen years removed from preaching my last sermon. As I reflect on the decades I spent in the ministry, it’s hard not to conclude that entertainment played a central part in virtually every service. Whether it was my preaching or a quartet singing, the goal was to entertain people. Now, the word “entertainment” was never uttered. Such things were considered spiritual and supernatural. However, when the religious trappings are stripped away, what’s left is entertainment. People may have found my preaching helpful or profound, but make no mistake about it, they found me to be quite the entertainer. So it is with southern gospel music.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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7 Comments

  1. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    The music was, in my opinion, the best part about church. The church where I grew up was located about 30 minutes outside Nashville with over 300 in attendance on a bad week. As long as I can remember, the paid staff included a head pastor, a youth pastor, and a minister of music. Our church was used by pastors as a stepping stone to larger churches (usually ones in the Nashville area). Putting on a good “show” was of utmost importance because there were other Baptist churches around, and no church wants to lose members, especially members with families to boost numbers and coffers.

  2. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    I grew up Catholic in an urban area where priests and nuns enthusiastically embraced the new Vatican II reforms. Our music, there and then, was most often folk music. The guitar was the most common instrument. I loved that music.

    My last experience of Catholicism was in college, late 1970s-1980. Most four-year institutions in the US have a Newman Center located nearby; these are small Catholic churches established for college students, as opposed to permanent residents. The one I attended had a student band of usually four or five individuals on guitar, drums, and sometimes violin and/or cello. The music was wonderful while also being inclusive.

    I gave up on Catholicism in my last couple of years of college; I had many mixed feelings about Christianity, and suspected that the Catholic Church was not a most authentic version (I would later dabble in Evangelical Christianity before concluding that the whole thing was BS). But, due to parental pressure, I did have a Catholic wedding, at that same Newman Center. It is the last time I’ve been in a Catholic church/chapel except for weddings and funerals.

    I was married in 1980. I can still, with my mind’s ear, hear the church music I loved the most. There is no doubt that it was entertainment of a high order.

  3. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    I have been aware that my allegiance to church attendance would surely have improved had I the pleasure of some deep down southern gospel as an enticement. The singing in my Baptist church was rigid and boring even when the spirit revved up the congregation. The rolling in the aisles playing with yourself hoopla would have seriously snagged me as a youngster.
    Egads, holy smoke, jumpin’ Jeo, look at what Jeeeeezus can do!

  4. Avatar
    Dave

    Funny you should mention Annie Herring and the 2nd Chapter of Acts. Many years ago we went to see this group and the crowd was ‘’full of the spirit” with lots of hands in the air and charismatic gesticulations. The next year they were back but this time Annie Hering was sick and the group performed without her. Well I guess the holy spirit was sick too since all of the emotional outpouring I saw the year before was absent. I was still a christian at the time but it still made an impression on me and fed into my growing cynicism.

  5. Avatar
    mary

    i remember the show well. sitting thru it from toddlerhood thru high school. the high screechy stuff to the extreme bass singing so loud it was hard to stand. of course the show of clapping kicking off shoes etc was mandatory. even as a kid i knew it was fake. as a teen, i had to daydream about mtv music videos to get thru it. don’t get me started on the singers themselves. these idiots were complete grifters.

  6. Avatar
    Mike

    SOUTHERN GOSPEL MUSIC. I don’t hate Southern Gospel Music, but personally, I really don’t care much for it. If anyone else enjoys it ( I suspect that possibly millions of people do enjoy it) that is fine with me. Thousands of talented people, both amateur & professional love to sing and play musical instruments to Southern Gospel Music. Attending IFB Churches for over three decades I’ve heard many talented people preform Southern Gospel Music. While I appreciate the talent and ability of vocalists and musicians, in general, the Southern Gospel Music doesn’t move me or do anything within me. I don’t intend for that to reflect poorly on those performing Southern Gospel Music, that just reflects something about me. I don’t view Southern Gospel Music as any more “Spiritual” as any other kind of music. I think it is more a culture thing, and many American Christians have grown up around Southern Gospel Music. It is approved of by many Churches and Pastors while most other types of music is condemned as “Worldly” or down right wicked.
    Bruce, you wrote of your experience of “Marketing” Southern Gospel concerts hoping to gain Church members. Back in 2015 you had a excellent post entitled THE CHRISTIAN MUSIC INDUSTRY. Again, I am thankful for your honesty in your posts. You mentioned in both that post and this one about the Southern Gospel group where the lead lady get’s so in the spirit that she throws her shoe and praises the Lord. The last church I was a member of, that group preformed and the shoe came off. So I was told. I wasn’t there as I had already decided the concerts were nothing more than Christian approved entertainment. And I suspected that the reason some of those concerts were held on Sunday night’s was to attract potential Church Hoppers from other churches. They fill the pew and many of them are tithers. I doubt anyone would say that was the motive and be offended by me stating my gut feeling. That Church is very involved in radio and TV ministries. The resulting business side of these ministries lead me to the conclusion that I myself and the Church I was a member of were just as “Worldly” and operating in the ” Flesh” as much as anyone else. Southern Gospel Music and the Christian Music Industry are contributing factors to my dropping out of and leaving the IFB/Evangelical Church. I enjoy classic Rock-n- Roll. It’s just what I like. I didn’t play rock music for decades because I bought into the IFB standard. I never was one, and still don’t purchase much music or attend concerts, or even play the radio a great deal. In the IFB world many will view me as either “Not Right With God” or unsaved. So be it. To me, Southern Gospel Music is not necessarily spiritual, not is the classic rock that I enjoy any more worldly. They are just different styles of music. Music will always be a part of the Church, and I believe that should be so. But does the Church need to market music just to make a buck in the name of Jesus? Before I was saved I hung out in the Honky Tonks a bit drinking beer. That was in the day that it was legal for 18 year olds to drink 3.2 beer. A long time back. Here is a juke box favorite of mine that I just !ight have enjoyed hearing sing by those spiritual Southern Gospel groups. “THE LORD KNOWS I’M DRINKING” by Cal Smith. Enjoy.

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=VMvyM3iReZA

    *Bruce, thanks again for your work and your contributors and those that comment.

  7. Avatar
    Mike

    I forgot to mention Robbie Hiner in my earlier long commet. I listened to Robbie Hiner on the YouTube Bruce linked. I was unfamiliar with Robbie Hiner. It was enjoyable to listen to him for a few minutes. I don’t recall any of the singer’s on Jerry Falwell OLD TIME GOSPEL HOUR the few times I got to watch the program in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Reason being, I never paid much attention to musical performances back then, it was time to go to Church or later I was always helping on a Church bus route, and, of course, at that time it was a sin to be watching TV anyway in the IFB. While there is absolutely nothing bad or wrong with what I viewed in the Robbie Hiner video, for some reason I sometimes become uneasy, anxious, or angry in some social settings when there is the possibility of being pointed out to speak, sing, or dance before the crowd. IFB was custom make for me with dancing, it is considered sinful and forbidden. So I was never expected to dance in the IFB subculture. By the way, nothing wrong with dancing, same as with music, it might mean more to me if I had the rhythm/musical talents within my being. At times, to be pointed out in a public setting is embarrassing to me and makes me feel foolish. That is just some problems with me as a individual. When given the choice I will many times avoid settings where I may randomly be asked to sing or dance before the crowd. Entertainers like to get the crowd involved in their show. I realize it is just part of the show, but I’d rather not be pointed out in most situations. I am very close to a Hyles- Anderson graduate. That person told me that it was forbidden to listen to Robbie Hiner at Hyles -Anderson college in the 1980’s. Go figure? Jack Hyles and Jerry Falwell were competitors. So much for all that brothers in Christ stuff or really caring about the college students or the body of Christ as a whole. IFB can be very controlling and judgemental.

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