In operatic music, the vocal performance is central. Melodies, harmonies, and lyrics find their purpose in how effectively they provide a vehicle for the vocal performance.
In bluegrass music, instrumental virtuosity is central. Melodies, harmonies, and vocal performances all find their purpose in how effectively they provide a vehicle for instrumental virtuosity to shine.
Then, of course, in many genres of music, including portions of pop and non-operatic classical music, melodies are king. Lyrics and musicians find their value as vehicles for an innovative melody.
In Southern Gospel, it’s coming close to the target to say that lyrics are central, but that assessment doesn’t quite hit the target. In Southern Gospel, the Gospel message is central, and lyrics serve as a vehicle for effectively conveying that message. The other musical aspects—melodies, our genre’s trademark power harmonies, and instrumental performances—serve, in turn, as vehicles for effectively conveying the lyrics.
I can demonstrate this in a fairly simple fashion. It is not possible to use musical distinctives, or any other distinctive besides the Gospel message, to provide a definition that accurately encompasses the genre. I have tried it before and come up somewhat short. As I said in the linked post, looking to the genre’s history, with “power harmonies rooted in the four-part male quartet tradition, where the second-highest voice sings the melody” is the closest thing we have to a musical distinctive. But our genre’s remarkable diversity permits a broad array of melodies, harmonies (or lack thereof), and a spectrum of instrumental styles that includes bluegrass, modern country, classic country, neoclassical, 1990s Contemporary Christian Music, traditional Appalachian/mountain music, and, of course, those classic four-part male and mixed group harmonies.
Ultimately, amidst our genre’s diversity, the sole unifying factor—the dominant characteristic that makes a Southern Gospel song a Southern Gospel song—is lyrics which clearly and directly present the Gospel. Defining the Gospel in its narrower sense, many Southern Gospel songs include a call to repentance from sins and faith in Jesus Christ. Or, defining the Gospel in its broader sense, the rest of Southern Gospel songs are drawn from other parts in the grand narrative of redemption, and also, ultimately, point forward or backward to Jesus Christ.