Still Singing in Tennessee

Published on March 16, 2015
Written by Ray Access

A brief history of Gospel singing in Tennessee

Southern Gospel music typically refers to the tunes that white Christians developed around the turn of the century. Growing in popularity beside the black Gospel music that urban dwellers created, Southern Gospel came into its own thanks to a pioneer in the genre, Tennessee-born James D. Vaughan.

Vaughan put together the first major quartet made up of white singers. He established a publishing company that made and sold song books based on the music from the quartet and that included many of his own compositions. A slew of Tennessee Southern Gospel performers and teachers continue the tradition of teaching the bible to Appalachian families through song.

Outside of Church

Hymns are sung in church. Whereas Gospel music portrays the teachings of the Christian bible in much the same manner, it tends more toward a vibrant, and often irreverent, tone. The color lines fade, traditions take a back seat and toes get to tapping when a good, soulful gospel tune gets going.

Whether it’s sung a capella, with a guitar in the background or to the accompaniment of a full band, Gospel music, a true Appalachian art form, stands proudly beside much of the American musical heritage –– right alongside jazz, blues and country. Some historians outside the walls of the church hail Southern Gospel as the “fourth great genre of grass roots music,” and the “fourth major type of southern music,” according to James R. Goff, author of Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel.

The Tennessee Tradition

Upholding the legacy of James D. Vaughan, many singers and musicians from soloists to Gospel groups continue to perform his music. Any weekend throughout the year, you can find good old Southern Gospel music from artists that include:

Mainstream Gospel

Some Tennessee-bred Southern Gospel even went mainstream over the years. Take the Oak Ridge Boys, who hailed from Knoxville and started playing in the town where the atomic bomb was being developed in the late 1940s. The Oak Ridge Boys made their way to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville where they helped to bring Gospel center stage in the county’s consciousness. Over the years the members of the band have changed but their passion has not.

The band brought a bit of rock and roll to the traditional Gospel tunes and found a home among fans around the world. The Grammy-award-winning band continues playing today. In January 2015, while on tour in Texas, they met and played for President George H. W. Bush and former First Lady Barbara Bush.

Tune in for a taste of those famous Oak Ridge boys singing a Southern gospel medley: