Bill Gaither Keeps Southern Gospel Music Alive

( [email protected] ) Jan 06, 2004 12:54 PM EST

What became known as the popular “Homecoming Series” was started accidentally by a taping of a recording session that included Vestal Goodman from the Happy Goodmans and other Southern gospel music artists such as The Gaither Vocal Band, The Speer Family, and The Cathedral Quartet. The spiritual impact that resulted from the music and videos from the “Homecoming Series” soaked deep into the lives of many, especially Bill Gaither’s family.

How It All Started

Bill Gaither began writing music after he resigned that he didn’t have what it took to enter the player field with other gospel musicians. He did this alongside teaching English in his hometown Alexandria, Indiana.

"I became a teacher because I was not good enough to do gospel music," said Gaither. "There were piano players and singers better than me. So I started writing songs. I never realized it would become this popular. Writing came naturally to me."

He wrote songs with titles: “The King Is Coming” and “Because He lives”, but little did he know that the songs he wrote would eventually become notable songs in hymnals. When Elvis Presley recorded Gaither’s song, “He Touched Me”, in 1969, Gaither was nationally recognized. Then, in the 1970s, the Bill Gaither Trio was formed with Bill Gaither, his wife Gloria, and his brother Danny. Today, Bill Gaither sings bass in the award-winning Gaither Vocal Band.

In 1991, Gaither invited his fellow Southern gospel music artists over to a Nashville studio for a recording session in which he also taped. He unknowingly left the camera rolling as, the artists continue to sing and began to share stories around the piano even after the recording session.

In 1992, the video recording was released and well received. Gaither wanted to make another video like the first, so he called the artists together again. That was the humble beginning of what became the “Homecoming Series” videos and concerts. Today, more than 7.5 million copies of the videos are sold and Homecoming concerts can be found in every major venue in the country.

The year 2000 brought a milestone achievement for Gaither and his wife when they were named Christian Songwriters of the Century. Gaither has been known put the life back into Southern Gospel Music.

"Bill Gaither has done so much for gospel music. He quickened peoples' spirit. They heard songs on the radio and saw the videos. They had to come see the groups in person. It gets into your blood,” commented Tim Riley, bass for the 2003 Male Quartet of the Year, Gold City.

Even with all the attention he has received, Gaither credits the work he has done to all those who have helped him. "Whatever I did, I couldn't do without them [the artists]," he said. "I'm like the turtle on the fencepost -- I didn't get there by myself. All I did was expose them; I let people see them and hear them sing."

The Impact

The life not only returned to Southern Gospel music as Gaither performed, it also came into the hearts of one Montana family.

"It all began when my grandpa had a stroke, and we used the Gaither videos to keep him occupied during the day and night," Tricia Alberts recalled. "So then my mom and I got to go our first concert, and we have made it a family tradition to go to the ones in Missouri. Our husbands go occasionally, but most of all, it's special for mom and me. Gospel music is the one thing we found we liked in common, and it has really grown into a friendship."

Tricia Alberts and her mother Becky Wittrock have together attended Gaither Homecoming concerts throughout the years and the Gaithers' annual Praise Gathering in October in Indiana.

Wittrock, who has breast cancer, found said that gospel music is a ministry.

"The songs touch me deeply," she said. "If I'm having a bad day, listening to gospel music lifts me up and keeps me focused on Christ."

Even though she was diagnosed with breast cancer the same day as the Gaither Homecoming concert in St. Louis, she found comfort through the concert.

"I never considered not going," she said. "Being with thousands of other Christians, singing and praising the Lord was good medicine. It also gave me strength to face the reality of what I was going to have to go through. The concert helped to calm some of my fears and reminded me God was in control."

As the cancer spread, Wittrock’s anxiety increased but she eventually found comfort again in Gaither’s videos about “heaven” and “going home.”

"When the doctors tell you that you have stage two or three cancer, who doesn't start thinking about heaven and going home?" Wittrock asked. "I believe my name is on those two videos because they blessed me so much, and finally I had peace of mind. Once I found that peace, I could deal with the doctors and treatment, and I got through it fine."

The Future

Many more people have been influenced by Gaither’s music. Guy Penrod of the Gaither Vocal Band noted how music of the 1940s and 1950s have evolved with the help of today’s technology. "Kids are starting to hear that and say that's cool. We're growing a new generation in gospel music, and Bill is helping to do that with the concerts and videos."

Albert is the walking proof that Gaither’s music appeals to the younger generation. Although her friends might say she listens to “old-fashioned” music, Alberts gives them and other people a piece of advice. "Listen to the most recent form of Southern gospel music before you pass judgment," 31-year-old Alberts said. "Check out David Phelps and Guy Penrod-- they're not bad for 'old men.'"

“Old” may not be the appropriate word to describe Gaither. Gaither has reached his mid-60s but the thought of him retiring is far within reach. "I work together as a team with Gloria," he said. "We have no long-range plans for retirement; we never have. We just walked through the doors God has opened."

Bill Gaither’s autobiography, It's More Than the Music(Warner Faith), is now in bookstores nationwide.