A friend and former colleague of mine from my previous job at Main Street Nashville was kind enough to invite me this past weekend to a Gospel Convention. I had no idea what a Gospel Convention was or what I was signing up for, but I am glad I took a chance on attending the event because it introduced me to a small but fascinating subculture buried in the hills of the rural American South.
As a normal 20-something is want-to-do on a Friday night, I walked into the doors of Murfreesboro Missionary Baptist Church completely unaware of what it was that I had nominally signed up for. Obviously, I know what “Gospel” and “Convention” mean as separate words but together presented a new meaning. For all I know, I was about to enter a singing competition or a kareoke night.
I was immediately greeted by a lovely middle-aged woman with a NeoConfederate flag business card with “Heritage Not Hate” written on it, who proceeded to unveil her life story to me unprompted over the course of a long evening.
She was a member of the Blanton Family Singers and the Reid Family Singers, music groups that traveled all over the south doing Gospel concerts for decades. She’s been singing professionally since she was a five-year-old and both of her children joined the act too. They wrote their own Hymnals and Gospel albums and would bring them to conventions like this one to perform with a choir backing and the participation of the entire audience.
“My parents met at a Gospel Singing Convention, went on dates at churches holding these conventions,” she said. “My mother played the piano at our Presbyterian Church with 3 choirs and she taught several familes to sing. ”
“Being an integral part of a church as Christians is a very important reflection of our family and the upbringing of our children, my husband and I, and several generations past. Obviously which denomination isn’t as important as the true foundation—CHRIST and preaching God’s word directly from the Bible.”
She wasn’t alone either. Almost everybody in the audience was a member of their own group, with their own homemade hymnals, and they’d driven from as far as Alabama or Arkansas to this tiny crowded church to sing praise music.
I’d unintentionally stumbled across a fascinating subculture of Christian musicians who solely create and perform music almost exclusively for themselves and the benefit of other Christians.
As I’ve come to understand, the tradition is a major creative folk tradition that is generally focused in Southern rural areas that took off in the 1800s and was spread by evangelists to largely younger audiences.
“Convention gospel music and community gospel singing are two variations of an American heritage with direct roots in colonial New England and indirect roots reaching to the Italian Renaissance. Community gospel singing is a folk phenomenon that allows individuals to reenact the process of community through artistic expression by singing religious hymns and reaffirming social bonds through the informal festival of a picnic among neighbors,” says GospelConventions.com.
The event was an absolutely blast from beginning to end! I didn’t sing along to the music much, given that I haven’t been a proficient music reader in nearly a decade and wasn’t familiar with any of the original music, but the energy of the room was electricying! Almost everyone in the room sang along to every song and each performance swapped musicians, choir members, and pianists from the stage on a loop for nearly three hours.
And that was just the first day! The group came back on Saturday to sing for another four hours!
“The point of it is to be more participatory,” said my friend Ashley. “The performances give people a vocal break and recognize some of the good singers who attend. It’s a very unique subculture!”
It was definitely a culture shock for me, albeit not an unpleasant one. Everyone at the event was lovely and welcoming! I’m from a musician family myself and I certainly recognized alot of dedication and ferver.
What made it totally unique for me though was the combination of original artistry and fundamentalist flavor. Being surrounded in my personal life mostly by Atheists, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Anglicans, I tend to find that Southern Baptist religious culture is very poorly looked upon. It is culture is that is usually written off as ignorant, shallow, or consumeristic; a hotbed for anti-intellectualism, hatred, “Trumpism”, and the current buzzword of the moment “Christian Nationalism”.
And certainly, I’ve found traces of all these tendencies in my search for new churches. The Baptist culture, especially in its contemporary form, is quite deeply infiltrated by strains of modernity and corruption that compromise its integrity. If the recent allegations of sexual abuse and coverup within the Southern Baptist Convention and Willow Creek Church are any indication, Southern Baptist culture as a whole is in a particularly low place.
But the genuine beauty of the Gospel Convention culture seemed to me that it was a perfect synthesis of creation and joy; participation in creation and worship the likes of which I haven’t always seen in most Protestant Churches. Whereas many churches solely focus on Bible study or charitable ministries, these Baptists were creating their own art—actually decent art that taps into a folk tradition of music and worship that must be a century old or older.
Folk music of this variety might be easy to dismiss as old fashioned or corny, or maybe even amateurish in places, but its all sincere and coming from genuinely talented artists. It obeys very specific rules of structure, tone, style, and content and within those limitations its able to produce wonderful little vignettes of energic worship music the likes of which most major Christian musicians don’t.
They aren’t just consuming mindless pop-rock ballads and plastic self-help idealism. Unlike many of the modernity atrocities that MegaChurch culture has produced, this was genuinely wholesome and even traditional!