Group Change Philosophy 101

Over the past several weeks we have seen multiple personnel changes, and some from fairly high-profile groups involving some well known singers.  In thinking about these changes, what kind of thought should go into choosing a replacement when a group member leaves, in terms of the sound and musicality of said group?

It would seem to me that there are two tracks, or paradigms that can exist when considering hiring a new singer.

Track 1:  Singer-Centric.  In this track, the group hires the best singer available at that part.  When this happens, ideally at the first few rehearsals (formal or not), a group will discover the specific strengths and weaknesses of the new singer.  What styles best fit the singer, what is the person’s comfortable and effective vocal range.  What current staged songs does the new singer perform well, and which currently staged songs don’t fit the singer and need to be replaced with something else?  Also, at this point you discover the musical style and direction future recordings should take.  This direction is preferably tailored to fit the voices that are making up the group.  The advantage to this is that you gain the ability to hire the absolute best voice available since you are willing and flexible enough to tailor your sound and direction to that voice, but the inherent disadvantage is that you become a musical chameleon, and may not have a very consistent sound, depending on your personnel.  Obviously it is early in the game to really tell, but from the outside looking in, it would seem that the Perrys have taken this track with the hiring of Bryan Walker.

Track 2: Music-Centric.  In this track, you set a clearly defined musical direction for your group.  It’s similar to asking the group as an entity, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”.  You then make personnel decisions based on that clear musical direction.  For example, if you want to be a group that sings smooth, complex harmonies, you’re probably not going to hire a baritone that has a big, edgy sounding voice.  That same baritone could work well for a group that is looking for a very progressive sound.  The advantage here is that you give your group a consistent identity, and your audience knows exactly what to expect from you.  The disadvantage is that it severely limits your pool of potential hires, and you are at the mercy of finding someone with just the right fit.  Again from the outside looking in, it would seem that Signature Sound took this philosophy with their hire of Devin McGlamery when Ryan Seaton departed.

Sometimes you can almost tell which track a group takes by the way the press release is worded.  For example, if the press release talks about what a great singer the new person is, and how they will bring a fresh approach, you can pretty much bet that the group followed track 1.  On the other hand, if the press release talks about how well the singer fits with “who we are and what we want to do,” you can basically bet your bottom dollar that the group took the track 2 approach.

The potential problem arises when you try and mix these two tracks.  If you just hire someone that has the vocal range to sing the part, and then try to force them to fit a certain musical direction, sometimes that doesn’t work.  If said musical direction doesn’t really fit said singer’s voice or vocal style, then you are setting both the group and singer up for failure.  This ends up being truly unfair to both parties.

Of course there are numerous other concerns besides just musicality that have to factor in these decisions.  Things like personalities, moral and societal norms of the members, doctrinal beliefs, families, and the like don’t deserve to be overlooked.  However, this is Southern Gospel MUSIC we’re talking about, and the music concerns need to weigh heavily as well.

Personnel decisions are never easy, and hopefully this sheds some light on some of the thought processes that should take place when they arise.  Whether or not these things are always considered, well……


About Wes Burke
I'm a .NET developer and Southern Gospel music fan. Married with a wonderful family.

7 Responses to Group Change Philosophy 101

  1. New SoGo Fan says:

    This was really inisghtful Wes. As usual, I really enjoyed reading your musings on this kind of thing!

    I would say that if we thought about it, we could probably make predictions ahead of time as to which track a given group might take. For example, if you have a group that’s just known to be a solid, good quartet, without any particular “style” that sets them apart, odds are they’ll just be looking for the best singer as a replacement. For that matter, this could even be true of a really great quartet, but one that still is distinguished from other quartets simply insofar as they sing better.

    But a group like Signature Sound doesn’t just stand out from the pack in this respect (although their blend is in fact well-nigh unbeatable). They stand out because they’ve developed a style that goes way beyond the music. They’ve developed an image, an approach, a flair if you will, that’s in some ways a little hard to describe but that certainly, as you’ve noted, makes the hiring task much fiddlier than normal.

  2. Good topic, Wes.

    The Chuck Wagon Gang, for obvious reasons, must hire a certain style of singer or lose that identity they’ve worked so long to maintain.

    Other groups that are willing to flex their style from time to time can make a greater point of tailoring song choices to whoever they hire. This takes longer to develop, but can pay off in the long run. Jerry Martin sounded nothing like John Rulapaugh, for example, but it ultimately paid off when Jerry recorded “I Can Pray.”

    Of course, fans are going to continue to insist that a group sing certain songs, and anyone coming in who is new will be forced to learn those songs or not last very long. This is especially true when you have a group with a long legacy like the Kingsmen or Gold City. These groups can hire the best singer available, but that singer better be able to step up and sing at least some of those songs from 10, 15, 20, or even 30 years in the past convincingly. The Kingsmen can get some mileage out of a song like “When God Ran,” but they still have to do “Glory Road.”

  3. Pingback: Billy Hodges Leaving The Kingdom Heirs « Nate's Southern Gospel Ponderings

  4. Chris Unthank says:

    I think a big thing that most groups miss out on (was just having this same conversation last night with a good friend of mine) is the spiritual implications of a replacement. As important as the musical and personality preferences are – a group member has to connect spiritually with you and what you are wanting to do with your group. You have to be on the same page as far as what exactly your ministry is, who it targets, and how much of your group is ministry vs. entertainment. I think that’s a big problem with a lot of group changes. For whatever reason – it’s not necessarily a bad thing either – groups and members are connecting on a spiritual – and it’s causing issues as well…

  5. Chris Unthank says:

    That last line should have read:

    “groups and members aren’t connecting on a spiritual level – and it’s causing issues as well…”

  6. Pingback: How To Properly Change Group Personnel « Minnesota SG Fan

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