Steeped in Tradition, But Not Afraid of Change
Keeping tradition alive is important to Bill Gaither, but so is changing with the times. Like it or not. And who is Bill, aka William J. Gaither? Only one of the most influential and productive songwriters and music leaders in the Southern and Contemporary Gospel Music genres.
His wife and co-writing partner Gloria Gaither have raised eyebrows for decades at ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), where they were collectively given the first Songwriter of the Century Award in 2000.
And change with the times he has, with evidence wholly showcased Friday night by his youthful entourage of 4 additional members, together known as the Gaither Vocal Band. They performed at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester, modestly attended by the faithful. Among the world-class vocalists who made the trip were top-tier instrumentalists Kevin Williams – guitars, and in-house comedian, Kevin Moore – fiddle, mandolin, and guitars, Matthew Holt – fire-breathing pianist, and Abraham Lincoln’s great-great-great-grandson Greg Ritchie on drums. (That’s a joke, but his long beard might make you speculate).
Attending any event with Bill Gaither at the helm will consist of a combination of “give me that old time religion” and cutting-edge contemporary showmanship. One can expect great up-tempo rhythm tracks, glorious musical arrangements that edify four-part vocal harmonies, and meaningful spiritual lyrics. If you’ve seen any of the many Homecoming video specials on television, or at the Gaither VEVO channel on YouTube, a live performance is all that multiplied by 10. And Friday’s show was high energy, quelled with anecdotal, funny stories of reflection and nostalgia.
Gaither Big on Supporting other Talent
Gaither, the persistent choir director, started off with a brief rendition of the traditional hymn, “How Great Though Art,” followed by a contemporary song with a guest artist, Charlotte Ritchie. She has an attractive vocal style and purity, not unlike Carrie Underwood. A sharp contrast to that number was the hulk of a man, Gene McDonald showcasing his deep bass in the pleasant and modern version of Jerry Reed’s song “A Thing Called Love.”
Gaither Vocal Band 4.0
The Gaither Vocal Band’s spectacular entrance was shrouded in subdued lighting and stage fog, where they shared their anthem “Alpha and Omega” in practiced perfection. Standing on personal pedestals, the men belted their lines with great confidence and authority. This song represents Gaither’s attraction to songs that have monumental climaxes, usually fixed on the victory message of Jesus Christ, the redemption of sin through Him, and the defeat of evil in the long run.
After their self-describing song “Hallelujah Band,” Bill Gaither graciously introduced his respected members as Reggie Smith – tenor, Adam Crabb – lead, Wes Hampton – tenor, and Todd Suttles – baritone.
Gaither is a bass singer, usually. The Gaither Vocal Band comes from a very long line of predecessors dating back 30 years, and Bill manages this younger crew much like an endearing football coach, leading his crew into tightly formed huddles around the microphones, chanting noises of approval from their auditory cohesiveness.
Throughout the evening, Bill’s old age was a reoccurring theme delivered in practiced humorous timing. He once suggested that they ‘better slow down and let these teenagers catch their breath,’ after some energetic singing. When he mentioned that so many of the band members were having babies, he received some chuckles after commenting that he and Gloria ‘have nothing to report.’
After Gaither lamented on the struggles of traveling in those early days, touring in cars with no air conditioning when he first started the Gaither Vocal Band, he proudly kidded around at how good these “kids” have it now, spoiled with a new touring bus, plenty of food, and personal bunks.
Kevin Williams had the audience in stitches after announcing that their leader and “legend” was the proud new owner of a CPAP machine on the bus and that if the bus ever goes off the road into the water, at least ‘Jacques Cousteau’ will be fine on his breathing machine. (That’s an old-timers joke, cause many of you won’t know who that is).
Having such a vast array of songs to play and sing in Gaither’s repertoire, they settled in on a mix of songs from their latest CD, Better Together, including “Heart O’ Mine,” and “Dig a Little Deeper.” In a theatrical way, Bill explained that ‘digging a little deeper’ is the Christian way to avoid getting overly fed-up with society and wishing to perhaps get even. When Todd Suttles suggested he would ‘smack’ someone in the face if they said something bad about his mama, the rest of the band surrounded him like a mutiny was about to occur.
Southern Gospel Music in Good Hands
The gorgeous song “We Have This Moment, Today” is an important life lesson song that is dear to Gaither’s heart, as he is poignantly aware of his own mortality, reminding all to take in the moment and to live it to the max. Many of you will relate to that emotional dynamic that happens when you’re in a happy place of success and good times and wish it would never change. He is there and yet is also pleased that the great empire of Gaither Music he started will go on, and he believes he’s done what he can to benefit God’s kingdom and the body of Christ.
The contemporary interjection of non-Gaither songs of praise, like Chris Tomlin’s “Jesus Messiah” and Zach Williams’ big hit “Chain Breaker” were complete surprises, but another reminder of Gaither’s ability to monitor the pulse of the music business and remain relevant to a younger audience. Gaither Music is a marketing machine and fully understands how to connect with their audiences, old and young alike.
The big finish included a powerful, spine-chilling-all-hands-on-deck version of “Because He Lives,”—the song that put William J. Gaither on the musical map—and climaxed with the entire group singing “Holy Highway.” Their little detour off the highway to Rochester was a welcomed visit for fans of Southern Gospel music.