A decent case could be made that modern Southern Gospel songwriting hit a peak in the 1980s. Groups like the Cathedrals, the Kingsmen, the Florida Boys, Gold City, and the Nelons introduced the hits that would sustain their careers and draw their crowds through the 1990s.

(Parenthetically: Modern Southern Gospel songwriting is distinguished here from convention-style Southern Gospel songwriting, which peaked in the 1930s and 1940s. Convention songs were written to be published in songbooks; modern Southern Gospel songs were written to be recorded by groups.)

This isn’t a purely subjective opinion. Let’s turn to that ever-handy resource, our June 2011 list of the 200 most recorded Southern Gospel songs. Let’s excerpt from that list, by decade:

  • 1970s (9): Sweet Beulah Land, The Lighthouse, Gentle Shepherd, Because He Lives, I Go To The Rock, What a Lovely Name, Glory Road, He Pilots My Ship, God Walks the Dark Hills. (This isn’t counting two songs imported from other genres, “He’s Alive” and “Through it All.”)
  • 1980s (11): Boundless Love, Champion of Love, Lord Feed Your Children, Step Into the Water, Blood Washed Band, Can He Could He Would He, Great is the Lord, Let Freedom Ring, Master Builder, Plan of Salvation, When He Was on the Cross
  • 1990s (1): Jesus Saves (Not counting a song imported from Praise & Worship, “Shout to the Lord.”)
  • 2000s (3): The Promise, Jerusalem, Hard Times Come Again No More
These numbers, though only from one statistical measurement, confirmed my overall impression: The 1970s produced numerous huge songs (often not associated with any one group), while the 1980s were every bit as strong (though more group-centric, thanks to the rise of radio singles.) The 1990s saw a slump, and the 2000s saw a noticeable rebound.
Naturally, the lists only cover the most enduring songs, as measured by the number of times they have been revisited by major Southern Gospel groups. Of course, it’s not like the 1990s were devoid of great songs. Undoubtedly, several more will make a top 200 list eventually. But, at the same time, the 2000s’ showing demonstrates that it’s not the 1990s songs have had insufficient time to grow on us.

But defining the “what”—the slump during which the songs from the previous decade carried the genre’s most popular groups—is far more interesting than investigating the “why.”

  • Could it be that a fresh generation of songwriters arrived in the 1980s, writing some of their biggest ideas, not hitting a new stride until the 2000s, with 15-20 more years of maturity?
  • Could it be that groups got in the habit of cutting songs from those songwriters, and missed a new generation of writers?
  • Could the decline and disappearance of Canaan, and its associated publishing companies, have played a role?
  • Could the collapse / fading of other record company giants of the 1980s, coupled with the rise of Daywind and Crossroads in the mid-90s, have led to a time of transition before the newer generation of companies built strong songwriting catalogs?
  • Could songs of this caliber be laying forgotten as hidden gems, with good but weaker songs sent to radio for unfathomable reasons?

Which of these reasons are the strongest? Could there be other reasons?

And, for the most important question of the set: What were songwriters of the 1970s and 1980s doing differently, and what do current writers need to do to recapture that today?