How does a Minnesotan become obsessed with Southern gospel?
Unlike many conversion narratives, I can’t pinpoint the hour I first believed. I do know that my encounter with gospel music has transformed my understanding of American popular culture.
[But, it took awhile to reach this understanding.]
Ten years of college and graduate school did little to heighten my appreciation for Southern gospel. Thanks to research by fellow graduate student Bethany Bryson, I learned that gospel and country were not very popular among those with advanced degrees. In “Anything But Heavy Metal,” she found that those two genres (along with Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath) were most likely to be disliked by highly educated Americans. I heard little of either in Princeton, New Jersey.
That changed when I relocated to Indianapolis, America’s northernmost Southern city. A few miles from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I taught my first course on religion and American popular culture. I read about the close relationship between gospel music (both black and white) and early rock and roll. Intrigued by the Pentecostal backgrounds of Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, I paid close attention to the religious roots of popular music.
The Indianapolis Public Library indulged my growing fascination with the music of Dixie. Borrowing a recording by Hovie Lister and the Statesmen, I immersed myself in the sounds of one of Elvis’s favorite quartets. Transfixed by their performance of “Get Away Jordan” at the Ryman Auditorium, I was hooked. A regional television show further enhanced my enjoyment of the genre. Holding forth from his big leather chair, Ohio’s Norm Livingston played host to dozens of gospel acts. Sponsored by a farmer’s market on Indy’s Southside, an area of both Appalachian and Latino settlement, it was the home of Southern gospel in the Circle City.