Band: Bill Gaither & the Gaither Vocal Band
Date: Thursday, March 28
Tickets: $25.50-$72.50 available through Ticketmaster
Venue: Saenger Theatre, 6 S. Joachim St., www.mobilesaenger.com
One of Contemporary Christian music’s most iconic names will be bringing one of his most beloved projects to the Jewel on Joachim. Bill Gaither’s career has stretched the generations and the genres, and his talent for taking Christian music into new sonic worlds has earned him numerous accolades, including a Grammy.
However, his love for class gospel harmonies has remained as strong as his faith. His Gaither Vocal Band is a living testament to his love for music not only as an art form but also as a message. Gaither recently discussed his career and his musical philosophies with Lagniappe Weekly’s Steve Centanni.
Centanni: Whereas most people your age are enjoying retirement, you’re still staying busy on the road. What’s kept you active in the music business?
Gaither: In all fairness, I got the best of all worlds. I’m working with four young, great vocalists and give great visions, and they all do other things when they’re not with me. I don’t have to be out there all the time. We’ll do a weekend like we’re gonna do in Mobile and do two other dates. Then, I can come home, and Gloria and I can be grandparents.
We have time to read and think and do things that older people enjoy doing, but at the same time, I’m not giving up something that I’ve loved all my life. I’ve done it all my life. To be able to still do it at my age, I ought to go out and buy a ticket. I’m having way too much fun.
Centanni: Coming up, my mother was a choir director/pianist/organist. So, we heard a lot of you and Gloria and the Gaither Trio. One of the things that made you, Gloria and the Gaither Trio so unique was your musical flexibility. As far as Contemporary Christian music goes, you’ve done everything from pop to traditional gospel and even children’s music. What made you want to experiment with different genres in Christian music?
Gaither: The musicologists say that music that gets your attention when you’re 11, 12 or 13 will be the music that will stick with you all your life. That doesn’t mean that you won’t broaden out from that. For whatever reason, it’s always been harmonies for me. I’m not just talking two-part harmony. I’m talking about four-part harmony or five or six-part harmony. The meshing together of voices and making one beautiful sound got my attention at 11 or 12 years old. I was drawn to it as an art-form.
Later on, I realized there was a message in that art-form. The same thing can be said of Handel’s “Messiah.” You can enjoy it as a beautiful piece of art, and also, you can enjoy it as a statement of faith. The two of those combined had a major influence on my life. I still think one of the greatest lyrics ever written was written by Stuart Hamblen when he said, ‘The things of earth will dim and lose their value. If we recall, they’re just borrowed for a while’ (“Until Then”). What a wonderful way to say, ‘Don’t get too overly impressed with stuff. Stuff comes and goes, but relationships go on forever.’
Centanni: As someone who many would consider a pioneer in contemporary Christian music, how do you think it’s changed since the late 70’s and early 80’s?
Gaither: Well, first of all, it’s changed greatly since Martin Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and was criticized severely at the time because the Church thought it was too worldly. They said it sounded like tunes of the street. That’s a real stretch of the imagination to think that “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is tunes of the street.
Music and art have always had a controversial place within the Church. I bet you there’s more people going to their church of choice today for the music rather than theology (laughing). So, it has changed from the very, very beginning as the culture changes. Sometimes it changes easily, and sometimes it changes with some difficulty.
Composers and creators of songs are influenced by sounds that they hear. A lot of the changes of sound over the past 50 or 60 years are rhythmical sounds. I can remember when they first had drums in the Church, the older people said, “Oh! Do we know what we’re doing here?” The drums helped get new, different kinds of rhythmic feels. That has changed dramatically.
I think another big change is that most songs in the early days were written from the keyboard. Now, they’re written from the guitar. Because I started out as a keyboard player, I had to back up and say that the guitar has taken over. Yes, it has changed dramatically from a rhythmical perspective and an art-form perspective that most of the current songs originate from the guitar rather than the keyboard. A lot of the current stock come from kids who had guitars as their first instrument. I wish I would’ve paid more attention and learned some basic stuff on guitar. I know three chords, but that will not get you into that party.
Centanni: Over the decades, members of the Gaither Vocal Band have come and gone. What’s it been like keeping the group alive with fresh talent?
Gaither: To be honest with you, it’s really been fun. We recently had a reunion, and there were about 17 members who have been in this group over the past 30 years, which is not bad. Some of them have been in for 10 years, some 12 and some 15. That’s a long time for a young man in the prime of his career, David Phelps is a good example, to give me 18 of those years. I’m extremely grateful for that. We’ve had nothing but great singers in this group such as Guy Penrod, Michael English, David Phelps, Mark Lowry and Russ Taff. We had this reunion with all of them in Greenville, S.C. Sixteen out of the 18 showed up. It was a wonderful, wonderful evening. They still have the chops. So, it’s been fun for me to take the various voices that come into the group and play to those strengths.
I love sports, and a good coach plays to the strengths of the players. You don’t play to the weaknesses. You don’t bring in a guy and say, ‘I want you to do exactly what the last guy did.’ He might be capable of it, but he might not be capable. If he isn’t, you have a mess on your hands. I’m the cook in the kitchen. I take all these wonderful foods and put them together. The biggest compliment I get are people who say, “Every time you make a change, I say that it won’t be as good as it was. Every time, you fool me.”
It’s never the same. It’s always different, but it’s still good. A good restaurant owner does that. He changes the menu from time to time, but the basic food is still there. I know I sound like I’m selling it, but the current group is amazing. The people are gonna love them.
Centanni: You’ve won Grammys, and you’ve been called a “Songwriter of the Century.” You’ve produced, and you’ve performed. Out of everything, what would you say is your greatest musical accomplishment?
Gaither (Laughing): That’s hard to say. I hope they would say that I was a bridge, and I brought people together, and I took the best of people’s talents, and I put them in a pot, and I stirred it up, and what came out was really, really good. Musically, philosophically and theologically, I hope that I’ve brought people from diverse backgrounds together and said, “There’s a lot more things that unite us than divide us. Let’s get together and make some good music.”
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