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Harris Blackwood: Gospel giant still singing songs of praise
1001 BILL GAITHER
Bill Gaither, right, performs with Matt Maher during the Dove Awards on Oct. 13, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. (Mark Zaleski) - photo by Associated Press
Bill Gaither was sitting on the porch of his home in Indiana as he talked to me by phone this week. It is the same house where he and his wife, Gloria, have lived for half a century and wrote some of America’s best loved songs.

Gaither, 81, is now among the elder statesmen of gospel music. When he and his wife begin writing songs some folks were a bit wary of their new style of Christian music. Hymns had a very traditional sound and Gospel music had a very consistent tempo.
Harris Blackwood
Harris Blackwood


“I was just writing songs that I felt,” said Gaither. “Every writer does that. When I hear people get critical of today’s music, I say ‘Give them a chance because they gave me a chance when I started writing back in the ’60s and some of it was not their cup of tea.’”

Gaither’s songs and recording have amassed half a dozen Grammys and more than two dozen Dove Awards, the top honor in Christian music. They have been recorded by artists ranging from Vaudevillian turned TV showman Jimmy Durante to The Statler Brothers and Elvis Presley.

The singer and songwriter’s musical empire has been built in his hometown of Alexandria, Indiana, where he grew up on a family farm. He taught high school English for 10 years before working beginning his full-time music career.

“I’m sitting here as this kid who grew up on the farm in Indiana realizing I’ve been to the Sydney Opera House, Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, and Radio City Music Hall and saying ‘How did all this happen in this little town of 5,000 people?’”

Gaither is highly identified with his “Homecoming” concerts that began in 1991 and gave a boost to both Southern gospel and contemporary Christian music. He brought together members of legendary gospel groups, such as Hovie Lister and the Statesmen, the Imperials, J.D.
Sumner and the Stamps Quartet, Eva Mae LeFevre and her son, Mylon. The tours sold more than 1.1 million tickets across the world.

Gaither is currently touring with the latest edition of his vocal band. A concert is scheduled at Free Chapel at 7 p.m. Oct. 13. Another Georgia concert will take place Oct. 28 at the Macon City Auditorium. In addition to Gaither, the group includes Wes Hampton, Adam Crabb, Todd Suttles and Reggie Smith.

He said he finds some of the new Christian music inspiring, including a song called “Chain Breaker,” written by Zach Williams, a songwriter and worship leader from Arkansas. It will be among the songs performed at the Gainesville concert.

“I thank God for (Williams) who felt that particular song and that particular rhythm feel and melody because it touches a lot of hearts,” Gaither said.

He is often credited with helping to preserve much of the history of Southern gospel music from the 1940-1980 era, including many groups with ties to Georgia, such as the Harmoneers, the Statesmen, the LeFeveres and the Sunshine Boys.

“A lot of great groups came out of Atlanta, “he said.

Over the past 25 years, many of those who have shaped gospel music have died. Gaither recorded interviews and performances with them. He says the faith that he has written and sung about reminds him that they will meet again.

“A gospel song talks about life and death,” said Gaither. “One says, ‘This world is not my home, I’m only passing through.’ So, I’m grateful for the years I had with those wonderful people.”

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on www.gainesvilletimes.com.

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