Gaither Prefers Simplicty: Gaither Vocal Band Members Are All Songwriters

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

There’s obviously a lot to be said for craftsmanship when it comes to songwriting, but most everyone will agree that no degree of technique or any amount of knowledge can replace passion. The best songs are the ones that just erupt from a deep well of emotion and refuse to be ignored.

There’s obviously a lot to be said for craftsmanship when it comes to songwriting, but most everyone will agree that no degree of technique or any amount of knowledge can replace passion. The best songs are the ones that just erupt from a deep well of emotion and refuse to be ignored.

Gospel songwriting veteran Bill Gaither is well acquainted with those songs. He and his wife, Gloria, are responsible for many of the most moving gospel songs of the last few decades, including “Because He Lives” and “He Touched Me,” songs widely used in church hymnals alongside century-old classics.

In recent years, Gaither has almost single-handedly resurrected the Southern gospel music industry through his series of popular Homecoming videos that feature that genres best-loved artists together on stage. To date, the collection has sold over six million units.

Mark Lowry, David Phelps, and Guy Penrod, who round out the membership of the Gaither Vocal Band, are staples on the Homecoming videos as well as on the Southern gospel tour circuit. When not on the road, each actively pursues songwriting as a vital part of their careers. In fact, Lowry has enjoyed a great deal of solo success as a comedian, and as a writer, best known for co-writing the modern-day Christmas classic “Mary, Did You Know?” As for Bill Gaither, these days he wears many hats, but he’s quick to admit songwriting is still his chief passion. “I’m a writer. I’m a performer. I’m a business person. I’m a producer,” he says. “On any given day, I’m all of those…but the songs will last long after a guy is gone and dead if they are done well.”

A member of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and winner of countless accolades, Gaither says his writing has changed somewhat over the years. “I think the biggest change in my writing has been from, hopefully, quantity to quality,” he says.

“I think when you’re younger, you write everything you think. Everything that comes in your mind, you think ‘Oh, this would be a great idea for the world. Stop the world now.’ As you get older, you concentrate on those things you have learned to be of lasting value. I’m not saying there aren’t some god things that happen when you’re writing everything you think because if you put enough stuff out, something is going to stick to the wall, but I really think the biggest thing has been from quantity to quality. We aren’t writing as much, but I think the things we do write are things I’m quite proud of, and things that I think need to be said.”

A song that falls into that category is “Loving God and Loving Each Other,” which became the title cut of one of the Gaither Vocal Band’s recent Spring Hill albums. “The whole idea is from Jesus when He said ‘Love the Lord they God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself,” say Gaither.

“To get that down in some simple terms that the folks can understand is a good challenge.” Gaither says he wrote it for the Vocal Band “because the Vocal Band needed a statement like that. And it’s fun when we sing it nightly and people start applauding and saying ‘I love this song. I love this idea.’ We don’t sing two lines before the crowd starts singing with us. It’s become a crowd song.”

When asked what makes a song popular with a crowd, Gaither responds, “The simplicity of the music makes it accessible to a crowd, and I think sometimes my musical limitations have helped as far as being able to write songs that people can sing.

“I think sometimes, if musicians aren’t careful, they’re writing songs for other musicians, and not for the masses. And I’m not saying we’re necessarily writing songs for the masses, but I’m happy that a lot of our songs have been songs that people can pick up quickly and enjoy singing. To write some material that will be here after we’re gone, that’s always the challenge.”

David Phelps says a live audience is the best barometer for great songs. “You get a sense of what works,” he says. “You get up and perform a song and that’s the best way to find out. Sometimes something will sound good on record and just flop on stage. Some songs are great on the radio and great recorded, but really hard to sell to an audience…It’s about communication, and what you can communicate to an audience.”

Gaither says the goal in writing songs is to write something that will endure, but the ingredients that make a song timeless are hard to calculate.

“I think it has to be a song with some eternal perspective in it,” he says. “I think over a long period of time, people sing hymns because even though the world is falling apart, they can sing about things that are eternal and have some steadfastness to it.”

Due to the busy schedules that the Vocal Band members maintain, it’s rare that they have time to co-write with each other. “We all live in different places,” Gaither says, “and usually when we’re coming together, we’re usually coming together to rehearse songs we already have, but probably ought to co-write more.”

Texas native Phelps echoes that sentiment. “Guy (Perod) and I have written some together,” Says Phelps, “but it’s a time thing. We are so busy, it’s hard for us to get together.”

Phelps would like to write more with his fellow Vocal Band members, but in the mean time he has been penning tunes that may be used for an upcoming solo project. He admits he’s learned a lot from Bill and Gloria Gaither.

“I heard Gloria say one time when someone asked how long it took to write a song. ‘It takes 50 years and 30 minutes.’ Basically that sums it up,” says Phelps. “There are people who can sit down and write a hit that radio will pick up, and it will be a hit for a little while. Then it will go away and we’ll never really think about it again.

“That’s unlike the songs Bill and Gloria have written, and the key to that is they come from experience. The trials, the victories, the defeats that happen in your life, that’s what you write about, and if the writer is good, it can become something that’s eternal that a lot of people can relate to.”

These days the Gaither’s wisdom continues to impact other young writers. One of Bill’s frequent collaborators is his daughter Suzanne. The two of them co-wrote a stunning ballad, “Lord, Send Your Angels,” that has just been recorded by Candy Hemphill Christmas. The song was one of the most moving moments during the funeral of longtime Cathedral’s lead vocalist Glen Payne. (Gaither had sung the song to Payne during his last visit with him the night before he died.) The song teems with raw emotion that leaves most listeners in tears. It’s a visceral reaction that is often lacking in today’s music.

Surverying the musical landscape from his vantage point, that’s something that disturbs Gaither. “There’s a big gap between now and 20 years ago, not only in Christian writing, but all kinds of writing,” Gaither says. “I think, 20, 30, or 40 years ago, it was more a writer coming in with his guitar. Let’s take a secular song [for example], blue because his girlfriend left him, Hank Williams sat down and wrote ‘See that lonesome whippoorwill, it sounds too blue to cry,’ which I think is a better motivation than coming in and saying ‘We need 10 new songs for this album, let’s get three or four writers together.’

“I would rather see more stuff coming from people’s guts than what I do see. I don’t mean that in a critical way, because we’ve been privileged to have a lot of songs recorded and people have been very kind to us, but I would like to see more stuff coming from the gut.

“You can formula yourself to death. I still think it comes down to a great heart, especially in country and gospel music. We need passion and intensity in what we do. I’m not saying you shouldn’t study and develop your craft, but boy it’s really sad to see nothing but craft without the basic kernel of passion. If I had to take one, I would take the natural genius, and the passion and the heart.”


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  1. I heard the song “The Love of God” and instantly fell in love with it. Please let me know how I may acquire a piano score of this song, I would like to have our church band present it as a special one day.

    Thank you

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