The Essential Songwriter Collection series lists ten songs each from legendary songwriters that every Southern Gospel fan should add to their collections.

  • “Aloha Time”: Blackwood Brothers, Beautiful Isle of Somewhere, 1960. Bill Shaw James Blackwood makes one of the most challenging Southern Gospel tenor parts ever written seem effortless.
  • “Because of Him”: Weatherfords, Golden Gospel Favorites. There are heartfelt, fast, and powerful versions of the song, but the Weatherfords’ tight harmonies make their rendition the strongest.  (Runner-up: The McKameys, Still Have a Song, 1997.)
  • “Crossing Chilly Jordan”: Dove Brothers, Sing the Quartet Way, 1999. It’s hard to improve on a classic, but between John Rulapaugh’s tenor part and Burman Porter’s bass part, that’s exactly what the Dove Brothers pulled off.
  • “God Made a Way”: Kingsmen, Better in Person, 1985. The Big-and-Live Kingsmen brought a welcome energy to the song—and nailed the rendition.
  • “Inside the Gate”: Chuck Wagon Gang, There’s Gonna Be Shouting and Singing, 1974. Most of Sumner’s songs were male quartet songs; this is one of only two mixed-group renditions on this list, and the only soprano/alto/tenor/bass arrangement.
  • “Lonesome Road”: J.D. Sumner and the Stamps, Live in Nashville, 1971. Is there any contest over the conclusion that only Sumner’s versions are in the running here? The question is primarily which Sumner version to select. Live in Nashville is the strongest.
  • “The Old Country Church”: Blackwood Brothers, On Tour, 1961. The audience had already come unglued before the Statesmen came out on stage to join the Blackwood Brothers for the encore. At that point, not even a near-trainwreck caused by Big Chief when he launched into the chorus as everyone else was closing the song could ruin the take. (Blackwood Brothers tenor Bill Shaw, in particular, led a remarkable recovery, pivoting from singing melody on a tag to harmony on another encore in a split-second’s time.) (Runner-up: Gaither Homecoming Friends, Down By the Tabernacle, 2008—a rendition I described four and a half years ago as “the oddest Homecoming moment.”)
  • “There Is A Light”: Gene McDonald, In Times Like These, 2006. McDonald brought a resonance and confidence to the low notes that makes his rendition stand head and shoulders above others.
  • “Victory Road”: Greater Vision with J.D. Sumner, Quartets, 2003. Naming Sumner as the bass singer to feature on the song is a straightforward decision. What is harder is naming the best set of singers who recorded it with him. Though Greater Vision added their parts after his death, their vocals match his at least as well as any other ensemble Sumner recorded it with—and their track was the best.
  • “What a Morning”: Blackwood Brothers, In Concert, 1960. The challenge of making a list of this nature of Sumner’s songs is that he wrote songs that fit his voice perfectly. Many groups have recorded his songs, but few have topped his renditions.

What do you consider to be the definitive versions of J.D. Sumner’s songs?