The Gaither Vocal Band decided to make one of its few summer concert dates in Denton, bringing new material from the Southern gospel vocal quartet’s 2012 release, Pure & Simple, to a town better known perhaps for its jazz and indie music.
The quartet is anchored by Bill Gaither, half of the legendary Bill and Gloria Gaither ministry, a musical collaboration that has produced more than 700 gospel songs, eight Grammy Awards and a concert-sized list of hymnal standards (“Because He Lives,” “The King Is Coming” and “Loving God, Loving Each Other” among them).
The Indiana gospel composer and singer formed the quartet in the 1980s, but said he still recalls tuning into KRLD out of Dallas and hearing the Stamps Quartet at noon when he was “a college kid.”
When the quartet — made up of Gaither, Mike Lowry, Wes Hampton, David Phelps and Michael English — takes to the Denton Bible Church worship center on Saturday to play to a sold-out crowd, the group will perform a scaled-back version of their show. Gaither said they’ll have a keyboard, acoustic guitar, mandolin, fiddle and string bass. The Gaither Vocal Band takes most of the summer months off, but the group made the Denton date in addition to last weekend’s stops in Beaumont and Tulsa, Okla.
Gaither made time for some questions about his craft, his commitment and the power gospel music can have over an audience.
— Lucinda Breeding
Denton Time: You’ve been serving your mission field with music for decades. How do you keep your music so fresh and authentic?
Bill Gaither: Well, on a given night it can be tough. I think the audiences probably make the difference as much as anything. When you go out on stage for a concert, the needs there, the needs the people come in with, kind of suck you in.
I will never forget the night we first sang Andrae Crouch’s song “Through It All,” which must have been 40 years ago. There was a young couple, an African-American couple, sitting out in the audience and they had their little girl with them. We were singing these words: “I thank God for the mountains, I thank him for the valleys, I thank him for the storms he brought me through/For if I’d never had a problem, I wouldn’t know that God could solve them. I’d never know what faith in his word could do.’
When we sang that part — I’ll never forget it — that couple, they looked at each other, they grinned and squeezed each other’s hand. And they put their arms around their little girl. That brought me to tears. You could tell they been through some things and they still loved each other.
It could be different in Denton. Maybe there will be some old saint there who has gone through something. And maybe we’ll touch that old saint.
Don’t you ever feel far from God, or just bored by this work? What do you do when you feel like you’re slipping into autopilot?
You know what? If I were doing The King & I like Yul Brynner did — and I think he did the show something like 6,000 times, I don’t think I could have done it. We don’t sing the same program nightly, for that very reason. But it’s the audience that makes the difference.
What do you do to make sure your concerts aren’t mere entertainment, but also an expression of worship?
I think you’re asking the wrong person. You have to ask the person who is sitting there. You have to ask them: Was that worship? Our e-mails, mail and texts show that, on a given night, people needed to learn, needed to laugh, and sometimes, people say they needed ministry, and sometimes they say they needed something they got at the concert last night.
I don’t think we can manipulate that. I think all we can do is go out and have it be, professionally, as good as it can be, and have it be, as art, have it be as good as it can be.
The Gaither Vocal Band has a small tugboat full of musical accolades. How has the group’s idea of excellence evolved over the years?
Every day and every night in the studio, you want to do your absolute best. In art, you’re never done. You always want it to be better, you always want to get better at making your art. It’s a lot like golf. Your only competition is yourself.
I don’t think we’ve ever been guilty of going into the studio with an attitude or saying, “Let’s just get this done.” We always want to be our best. Can you be perfect? Probably not. I think we go into the studio and we work until we’re all smiling.
Are there any songs from “Pure & Simple” that are especially satisfying to perform?
Oh, we have several on the new one that we like. There’s a black spiritual called “Rasslin’ Jacob,” and we have a song called “Glorious Freedom” that we’re really enjoying doing. There’s a part of the song that goes, “Jesus, the glorious emancipator.” We sang it Saturday night, and there were six men who came out from a drug rehab facility to see the concert. One of them was a songwriter. It was great to see them there as we sang that song.
I like that concept of Christ as an emancipator, you know? I believe that is a big part of the message, and I believe that Christ is an emancipator in our time, and not just racially, either. He was way ahead of the curve with women, too. If I were a woman and I heard the message of Christ, I’d want to follow that fellow.
About three years ago, Mavis Staples of the Staples Singers came to Denton for a big indie music festival. There was a lot of buzz around town about her set. It was utterly shocking to see thousands of people — plenty of them college-age kids who are probably suspicious of Christianity and the institutional church — so completely moved at her concert. People at the concert were tweeting things like, “I was a Christian for an hour during Mavis Staples’ concert.” You live this music. Why do you think gospel music can get people who are suspicious of Christians and Christianity in such a state of excitation?
When Jesus was born, the angels started singing. And they’ve been singing ever since. The art and music that Christ has produced since his birth so far outmatches any other world religion. Follow me, here: Some people enjoy it [gospel music] at an aesthetic level, and some people enjoy it on a personal level as part of their commitment to Christ.
How many community choirs sing Handel’s Messiah every Christmas? They sing these words: “He shall reign forever and ever.” That’s really in your face, really out there in black and white. For some people, it’s an expression of faith. For some people, they are singing the most beautiful melody and harmonies ever written.
Why are they dancing when they hear this music? You’d have to ask those people. Are you dancing because you believe the message? Are you dancing because the music is creating a community right there in the moment?
I don’t know. I applaud any kind of music that brings people together. I believe in the message. I still believe that Christ makes sense in a world that doesn’t make sense. I can’t explain all of the things, many times … that are done in his name. The crazy things that are done in his name.
But I believe the message in those songs. And I love the artform.
This Q&A was conducted by Features Editor Lucinda Breeding. She can be reached at 940-566-6877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
GAITHER VOCAL BAND
- What: Southern gospel music concert by Grammy-winning quartet
- When: 6 p.m. Saturday
- Where: Denton Bible Church, 2300 E. University Drive
- Details: The concert is sold out.
- On the Web: http://gaither.com, http://dentonbible.org