No one will argue that the best songs come from the heart. Combining pure emotion with finely honed craft results in great tunes. The ability to take a feeling, develop and mold it into a poignant song is a talent that has made Jeff Gibson one of southern gospel’s most successful songwriters.No one will argue that the best songs come from the heart. Combining pure emotion with finely honed craft results in great tunes. The ability to take a feeling, develop and mold it into a poignant song is a talent that has made Jeff Gibson one of southern gospel’s most successful songwriters.
As a member of Heavenbound, Gibson’s songs have filled the group’s top selling albums, but his songwriting credits aren’t limited to their projects. He’s also penned tunes for The Kingsmen (“Just To Know”), Gold City (“Keep On Sailing”), The Greens (“He’s Already Walked Through The Valley”) and other top names In southern gospel music.
“As a writer I’m challenged to write songs that make people think,” Gibson comments. “If you just wash their ears out with the words, you’re not accomplishing anything. It needs to go a lot further than the ears, even the mind; it needs to reach down into the heart. As a writer, that’s what I strive to do. I don’t always accomplish it, but that’s my goal.
“As a Christian writer I have a little slogan. Some would call it corny, but I don’t care. My slogan is ‘first the hearts and then the charts.’ If I can get their hearts first, if the charts come then that’s great, I praise the Lord for it, but I want to minister to them about everything.”
Gibson is one of those individuals who were practically born a songwriter. “I always wrote when I was a kid I made up tunes and of course back then kids were into rock & roll or country or something so I was always making up songs, but I’ve always been in the church and played and sang in the church so I was always writing gospel songs too.”
Gibson studied music in college and wrote the required compositions for classes, which exposed him to jazz and classical melodies. When he and the other members of the group formed Heavenbound while still in college, he began concentrating on Christian songwriting. At first he wrote “I’m Heavenbound,” a song that became the group’s theme, but their first four or five albums were predominantly comprised of other writers’ material.
One of Gibson’s best known works is “Canaanland Is Just In Sight,” which was the Southern Gospel Song Of The Year in 1982. “That was early in my writing,” Gibson recalls modestly, “and I thought I’d collect cuts of my songs. I was collecting cuts of “Canaanland” and when I stopped three or four years ago I had over 600 cuts. I appreciate the fact that people are cutting it. I’m glad because I want my songs to reach people.
“”Canaanland” really launched my career as a writer. When I wrote it I didn’t think it was a very special song. We always stage my new material before we record it just to see how the audience reacts and if it’s going to work out. The first time we staged it, thanks the Lord, they just came unglued.”
Another Gibson song that gets a great deal of response is a tune Heavenbound recorded titled “Can the World See Jesus in You?” Jeff says the tune was inspired by an encounter with an old gentleman that left him with a lot of emotions that easily turned themselves into a song. It came from something as seemingly simple as a trunk full of cold drink bottles that he was supposed to dispose of.
“I was in my devotion one morning and I was praying, Lord I want you to use me today as a blessing. I want to help somebody.’ So I got up from my devotion and went into town. I was coming back home down a little country road and I looked and there was this old gentleman down in the ditch. I turned around and went back… And of all things he was picking up bottles.”
Jeff began chatting with the man and discovered he and his wife were on Social Security and had very little money. He was selling the bottles to buy groceries.
“I opened my trunk and bottles went everywhere,’ Gibson continues. “We filled his basket, his wagon and a burlap sack… and that dear old gentleman was just crying. He reached up and grabbed me and hugged me and held onto me and when he let go he was crying and I was crying and he looked at me and said ‘Son, I can see Jesus in you.’ It really touched my heart and I thought, ‘Lord, how many times have you given me the privilege to be a witness and I’ve let you down.’ I went home and sat down at the piano and the Lord gave me that song.”
Gibson says over the years he’s learned that one of the best ways to continue growing as a songwriter is to write as much as possible. “I try to write everyday just to make it sharper,” he says. “I keep a tape recorder everywhere I go. I have a couple in the bus, one in each car. I have several at home and I try to never get out of each one because I learned a long time ago once I get a song – I get the melody and the lyrics together usually – once you get one, you can’t depend on yourself to say, ‘Well, I’ll put it down later’ because you can lose them. Years ago, I lost a couple like that and said I’d never do it again.”
Gibson, who lives in North Carolina, is a writer for the Benson Company, but doesn’t get to work with the other writers at the Nashville-based company as often as he’d like. He enjoys co-writing; one of his favorite co-writers is Kirk Talley. The two recently penned a hit for The Talleys, “God’s Gonna Send Revival.”
“I’ve done several pieces with Kirk,” Gibson comments. “I admire Kirk’s writing, Kirk [who lives in Morristown, TN] and I write a lot on the phone together. He comes up with great ideas. Sometimes he’ll call at two or three AM and say ‘I need another verse’ or ‘I need some input here.’ So we’ll get on the phone and sing to each other. It’s fun doing that.”
When asked about what kind of demos he produces when pitching songs to other acts, he admits he prefers simple, quality demos. Some of his songs are accepted without ever being demoed.
“The Kingsmen cut I got on Mississippi Live , I walked on their bus and Jim Hamill said ‘sing me some new songs’ and he turned on the tape player,” Jeff recalls. “I sat there and sang two or three songs and he said ‘great, I’ll use one of those.’ That’s about as simple as you can get on a demo and I got a cut.”
In talking to Jeff Gibson it’s obvious he’s a songwriter who really enjoys his craft and is as thrilled with each new cut as he was with the first one. He’s very humble about his success. When asked if he had any advice for novice tunesmiths, he replies, “To Christian songwriters I’d like to say two things; number one, sharpen your craft, whatever you can do from college to just reading a book or going to a music school or whatever, and number two, just stay in the word of God and you’ll always have a source.
“If you’re a writer, if you’re a musician, no matter what you do, if God gives you something you should respect that and always take care of it, love it and do everything you can to make it better.”