First Great Awakening. The first religious revival in the United States is followed by others in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. They lead to new denominations, new hymns, and a sharp upturn in church membership. Belief is refocused from intellectual to emotional. Many of the new hymns have easily remembered choruses, and some are set to folk melodies.
Shape note singing introduced in “The Easy Instructor.” William Smith and William Little’s hymnal introduces notes as printed shapes to enable the singers to find pitch.
The Sacred Harp. Benjamin Franklin White’s collection of hymns published in the four-note Fa-Sol-La format is judged one hundred years later as the book “aside from the Holy Bible found oftenest in the homes of rural southern people.” The hymnal becomes so popular that shape-note singing becomes known as Sacred Harp.
Singing conventions start in the 1840s. They take root in the South.
Charles Tillman hears “Old Time Religion.” In Lexington, South Carolina, Tillman and his father sponsor tent shows and lend their tent to an African American quartet who sing “Old Time Religion.” Tillman copyrights it in 1891 and introduces it to white worship music. He later cowrites “Life’s Railway to Heaven” and popularizes “I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger.”
R.E. Winsett starts a publishing company in Dayton, Tennessee. With ties to the Assembly of God, Winsett publishes Southern Gospel and Black Gospel songs. Later, he becomes the first to bring the work of African American hymnodist Thomas A. Dorsey to white congregations.
James D. Vaughan organizes a quartet to tour southern white churches to promote his songbooks. Its success leads Vaughan to establish as many as sixteen Vaughan Quartets to tour the South in tent shows and church halls.
First Southern Gospel Recordings. James D. Vaughan establishes Vaughan Phonograph Records—probably the first record company in the South, and makes the first known Southern Gospel recordings. They are recorded by the Vaughan Quartet with piano accompaniment. Vaughan now sells in excess of one million songbooks annually, and becomes the first radio station operator in Tennessee when he starts WOAN in Lawrenceburg in 1923. Vaughan shares his radio frequency with a new Nashville station, WSM, later the parent station of the Grand Ole Opry, and Vaughan’s quartets appear often on WSM.
Virgil Stamps leaves the Vaughan Company. Stamps, the head of Vaughan’s operations west of the Mississippi, leaves to start his own publishing company in Jacksonville, Texas. Two years later, he’s joined by Jesse Randall Baxter to create Stamps-Baxter. Like Vaughan, Baxter promotes his hymns with his own quartets. His songbooks include “Precious Memories,” “If We Never Meet Again,” “Farther Along,” and many other classics of Southern worship music.
Smith’s Sacred Quartet begins recording. An amateur shape-note group led by J. Frank Smith—a Methodist teacher in Braselton, Georgia, makes their first recordings. One of them, “Picture from Life’s Other Side,” sells exceptionally well and is later recorded by Hank Williams. Its success ignites interest in recording rural gospel music. Smith’s Sacred Singers make over one hundred recordings, mostly with guitar instead of piano, and introduce many songs that will be recorded often in the years ahead.
Stamps discovers Virgil Brock. A pianist, Brock incorporates a rhythmic style based on Ragtime to his work with the Stamps Quartet. The Stamps also record what will become their theme song, “Give the World a Smile.” Virgil Stamps buys the song from the composers for ten dollars.
Tennessee Music and Printing launched. In Cleveland, Tennessee, home of the Church of God, The company, started by Otis McCoy, buys up assets of other music publishers, including Vaughan. He also signs an African American preacher, Cleavant Derricks, who writes “When God Dips His Love in My Heart” and “Just a Little Talk with Jesus.” Derricks later says that McCoy paid him only in songbooks.
Albert E. Brumley publishes “I’ll Fly Away.” It’s the first “hit” for Brumley, originally from Spiro, Oklahoma. He goes on to write “Jesus, Hold My Hand,” “Turn Your Radio On,” “I’ve Found a Hiding Place,” “Rank Stranger,” and “If We Never Meet Again.” At the time of his death in 1977, he has more than seven hundred hymns in his catalog and is dubbed the “Gershwin of the Rural Route.”
Formation of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet and other quartets. Formed in Choctaw County, Mississippi, the Blackwoods, who relocate to Memphis in 1950, remain the best-known Southern Gospel group. Founding member James Blackwood retired the name “Blackwood Brothers” in 2000, but a descendant group, the Blackwood Quartet, tours to this day.
Many other quartets form during the 1920s and ‘30s, including the Speers, Lefevres, the Chuck Wagon Gang, the John Daniel Quartet and the Swanee River Boys. The Chuck Wagon Gang begins recording for Columbia in 1936, continuing with the label into the 1970s. Music publishers often supply salaries and automobiles in exchange for selling their songbooks and promoting their hymns, but the Chuck Wagon Gang remains unaffiliated with a publisher. The John Daniel Quartet later breaks free of its deal with Stamps-Baxter to join the Grand Ole Opry, where it becomes one of the best-known quartets.
The Oak Ridge Quartet. Singer and promoter Wally Fowler forms the Oak Ridge Quartet, who become the Oak Ridge Boys. Fowler sells the rights to the name in 1958. Many changes of personnel later, they go secular in 1975.
Gospel Boogie. Lee Roy Abernathy from Canton, Georgia, writes and records a Southern Gospel standard, “Gospel Boogie” aka “Wonderful Time up There.” It breaks from tradition by incorporating Pop and R&B influences. Abernathy records it for Chicago’s White Church Records, and it sells 200,000 copies, passing into Black Gospel music (Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Pilgrim Travelers) and Pop (Pat Boone’s version reached No.4 in 1958). Abernathy’s follow-up, “Terrible Time down There,” doesn’t do as well.
Southern Gospel from the Ryman. Wally Fowler starts his All Night Sings at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. Some of the program is broadcast on WSM. Fowler includes a few Black Gospel artists, such as the Fairfield Four, on his programs, but his mainstays are Southern Gospel quartets. Fowler takes his All-Night format to other cities in the South, attracting two million attendees a year by the mid-1950s.
The Statesmen. Pianist Hovie Lister forms the group in Atlanta with lead singer Jake Hess. He includes Black Gospel songs, and creates a dynamic stage presence. They tour as a package show with the Blackwood Brothers. Both sign with RCA Victor.
The Jordanaires join the Grand Ole Opry as one of the show’s Southern Gospel groups. They soon begin working Nashville record sessions as background vocalists, including many of Elvis Presley’s sessions.
Peace in the Valley. A landmark Southern Gospel recording, “Peace in the Valley” was written by African American preacher Thomas A. Dorsey and first recorded by a Black Gospel quartet, the Flying Clouds of Detroit, in 1947. The Jordanaires cover it in 1950, but Red Foley’s 1951 Nashville recording with the Sunshine Boys makes the song into a Southern Gospel standard.
The Lewis Family. Blending Southern Gospel and Bluegrass, the Lewis Family from Lincolnton, Georgia, make a big impact on Wally Fowler’s All Night Sings at the Ryman. Unusually for quartets, the Lewises blend male and female voices.
Word Records founded in Waco, Texas. Word becomes the largest religious record label. In 1995, its new owner, Thomas Nelson, moves the company to Nashville. It is now a division of the Warner Music Group.
Cecil Blackwood forms the Songfellows in Memphis. Elvis Presley auditions unsuccessfully. The Blackwoods buy an airplane, but two of their members, R.W. Blackwood and Bill Lyles, are killed when it crashes in Clanton, Alabama. This creates an opening in the Blackwoods, filled by the Songfellows. Elvis auditions again and performs a few shows with the Songfellows, but lands a contract with Sun Records.
Elvis Presley performs on a July 4 bill with the Statesmen and Blackwoods. It’s a morning event in DeLeon, Texas and the only time Elvis performs three shows in three towns in one day. At DeLeon, he only sings Southern Gospel. He later cites the Statesmen’s second tenor, Jake Hess, as one of his big influences.
Tennessee Ernie Ford releases “Hymns.” A landmark LP rooted in Southern Gospel standards, it remains in print for decades and is on the Billboard album chart for 277 weeks, making it the eleventh best-charting LP of all time. Ford follows it with a similar album, Spirituals.
First National Quartet Convention. Organized by the Blackwoods’ J.D. Sumner, it is held in Memphis, and soon becomes a week-long festival. Later, the event relocates to Louisville, Kentucky and moved to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, in 2014.
The Blackwoods and the Statesmen start Skylite Records. Based in Memphis, the label signs the Oak Ridge Quartet, the Speer Family, and others. After the Oaks became successful in secular music, the Skylite masters are repackaged.
Jake Hess leaves the Statesmen to form the Imperials. He draws members from the Speer Family, Oak Ridge Boys, and the Weatherfords. Based in Nashville, they record with Elvis on his later gospel albums, How Great Thou Art and He Touched Me, and tour with him when he returns to live performing in 1969. They embrace fuller instrumentation and modern presentation.
J.D. Sumner of the Stamps Quartet and James Blackwood form the Gospel Music Association. At the instigation of GMA member Bill Gaither, the GMA launches the Dove awards in 1969, offering recognition to all styles of Christian music. The Association and its Hall of Fame are in Franklin, Tennessee.
The Blackwood Brothers gather 193,000 signatures on a God and Country petition to stop the ban of prayer in school. By this point, the Blackwoods have recorded 50 LPs and sold more than two million records.
Hee-Haw. Although ridiculed by mainstream media and dropped by CBS-TV, the show is enormously successful in syndication. One of the show’s highlights is the Hee Haw Gospel Quartet comprising Grandpa Jones, Buck Owens, Roy Clark, and Kenny Price singing in the traditional quartet style.
The Oak Ridge Boys switch from sacred to secular music. They score seventeen No.1 Country hits.
Gaither Homecoming. Following a Gaither Vocal Band recording session for the album Homecoming, many of the musicians stay to reminisce about the golden days of Quartet singing. Among the participants are the Speers, Jake Hess, J.D. Sumner and the Stamps, the Gatlins, and Hovie Lister. The impromptu session is videotaped and becomes a hit VHS tape, leading to a series of taped concerts dubbed Gaither Homecoming. The 2004 tour draws half-a-million attendees. The Gaithers are categorized as Progressive Southern Gospel, an increasingly powerful movement within the Christian music community.
Southern Gospel increasingly blends into Contemporary Christian music, although authentic Southern Gospel quartet singing can still be heard. In 2014, the National Quartet Convention, established by the Blackwoods in 1957, moved to Pigeon Forge, TN. Nationally, 285 radio stations identify themselves as Southern Gospel stations.