Cheat Sheet: Southern Gospel

I'm a God-fearing, church-going girl who knows her Christian music, but because I grew up in California, one area has remained a mystery until sister-brother-sister act The Martins sat down with me in Nashville to graciously explain the ins and outs of Southern gospel music. It's a good thing, too, because this is a genre where outsiders most definitely need a tour guide.

Southern gospel can trace its roots back to barbershop quartets, borrowing from those groups' tight harmonies and upbeat approach. Many of the performers come from poor and/or rural areas in the South -- The Martins grew up in Hamburg, Ark., living without electricity and running water for several years but unlike their musical counterparts who sing the blues, this group doesn't focus on their troubles or what they don't have. Southern gospel is all about putting on your Sunday best and singing about the joy of being saved. Listen closely and you'll hear traces of old spirituals and classic hymns. You'll also hear the kind of stellar harmonies that can come only from people who share a gene pool. In fact, many Southern gospel singers hail from large families, and the groups are often made up of siblings, parents and spouses.

Many of those who feel at home around this music were raised in it. They spent their childhood vacations traveling to the annual National Quartet Convention (the initiated just call it N.Q.C.), which draws upward of 40,000 fans a night. Here, anybody who is anybody (as well as those who hope to be) sets up a booth and meets and greets the fans. There are performances and other events, too, lending it the feel of a huge if a bit more commercial church picnic. This kind of unparalleled access to its star performers is something that sets Southern gospel apart. In fact, it's practically mandatory: an artist who doesn't take time to visit with fans before or after every show will lose their following fast.

The genre can also claim to have inspired some of secular music's biggest names. Performers like Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline and Tennessee Ernie Ford were all inspired by Southern gospel. Today, early groups like The Stamps Quartet, The Blackwood Family and The Cathedral Quartet have given way to newer groups like The Crabb Family and The Martins, who stray from the strict confines of the genre to add in country, pop and other influences. There are also popular soloists like Janet Paschal and Russ Taff. It doesn't always sit well with purists, but this kind of evolution is keeping the genre alive for a new generation to discover.

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