The Blackwood Brothers: The Southern gospel pioneers with an 84-year history

Thursday 6th December 2018

Tony Cummings spoke to Billy Blackwood of THE BLACKWOOD BROTHERS about their long history and their new album

The Blackwood Brothers 2018
The Blackwood Brothers 2018

In the long history of popular music there can be few artists to equal the achievements and influence of The Blackwood Brothers. The bare fact that they're members of the Gospel Music Hall Of Fame, the Southern Gospel Museum Hall Of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall Of Fame gives some indication of their musical diversity, while the fact that this year they clock up their 84th year of singing, touring and recording is a staggering achievement. I spoke to the group's baritone Billy Blackwood, who since 2009 has been fronting the longest running band in Southern gospel. He began by jokingly commenting on the Blackwood Brothers' extraordinary continuance.

"Our group started with my dad, James, his two older brothers and a nephew in 1934. This makes 84 years. I do want to stress I was not in the original group. I think they expect us to come out in wheelchairs and walkers. That's not the case. We're very energetic."

Billy knows his Southern gospel history and acknowledges that its origins go back to the renowned singing schools run by songbook publishers who brought harmony singing to tens of thousands of rural congregations. He commented, "In the early 1900s this art-form, this genre, began to take shape and the concept of having music written for four-part ensembles was formulated. The Blackwood Brothers grew up in that, going to singing schools. Having that experience was a big part of the inception of the group and its popularity."

Continued Billy, "In the middle-1950s, things really exploded for the Blackwood Brothers. There was a television programme in the United States called Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, like Britain's Got Talent or The Voice or American Idol. It was the biggest programme in the States in its day. In 1954, the group was comprised of my dad and his nephew, R W - two original members. His two older brothers had retired, but they had two young men, Bill Lyles singing bass and Bill Shaw singing tenor. They appeared on Mr Godfrey's programme in 1954 and won the contest. That enthused a bit of show business into the performance of the Blackwood Brothers because so many doors opened for the group as a result of that. They never abandoned the message. The message has always been central to our group. As gospel singers, we sing the message of the Gospel, which is the telling of the Bible in terms of Jesus' mission and the effect that has on a person who trusts Christ for their life and with their life. It's always been based on the beliefs of Christianity and the Bible, but as the years went on there was an increasing emphasis on the fact that, unapologetically, this was wholesome entertainment. There's a word we use in the States called 'shtick', and it means the showmanship and the performance one engages in when you're on a platform. That's always been a part, at times more than others. There have been certain personnel who have been gifted at that in a way greater than others. So that's been part of our stage performance from pretty early on."

Blackwood Brothers 1982
Blackwood Brothers 1982

The Blackwood Brothers have recorded over 200 albums and sold over 50 million records. Down the years, they have won eight Grammy Awards and four Dove Awards. Cecil Blackwood died in November 2000, and James Blackwood in effect retired the Blackwood Brothers name. Mark Blackwood then formed Mark Blackwood and the Blackwood Gospel Quartet, eventually hiring tenor Wayne Little and bass singer Randy Byrd. In late 2004, Jimmy Blackwood joined Mark, and together they resurrected the Blackwood Brothers.

Billy acknowledged that in the last decade it has been singer, songwriter and entrepreneur Bill Gaither who has taken the Southern gospel genre to unimagined heights of popularity. Said Billy, "When Bill and Gloria Gaither came along, writing songs like 'He Touched Me' and 'I Believe In A Hill Called Mount Calvary' - just so many great songs - their popularity grew tremendously. They were trio, and yet Bill's earliest influences had been The Blackwood Brothers and four-part gospel quartets. He's a great songwriter but even more so he's a historian and loves to keep the story alive to tell the history of this kind of music. The way that all the Gaither videos began was they were recording in Nashville and getting ready to do a song called 'Where Could I Go But To The Lord'. Bill got the idea of bringing in a bunch of the old timers, my dad being one of those - Jake Hess, Hovie Lister, Howard and Vestal Goodman, Dottie Rambo, Glen Payne, George Yonce - and video it. They were just going to record them all joining in singing this old song 'Where Could I Go But To The Lord'. Obviously the lightbulb came on over Bill's thinking. When he saw what they had, he came up with the idea of doing an entire video presentation with that format. That was the first one, and I have no idea how many performances like that they've done now. I've had the privilege and pleasure of being on a lot of them, and my dad was on all of the early ones. That has taken a life of its own and has contributed greatly to the resurgence of gospel quartet music. I don't know where it would be today if it had not been for Mr Gaither's choosing to do that."

The latest Blackwood Brothers album, 'Acapella Hymns', shows that the group have a deep-rooted respect for hymnody. Explained Billy, "Over the years we've been incorporating an a cappella hymn into our repertoire, and preceding this record was a record of classic songs like 'He Touched Me', the great Andrae Crouch song 'The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power', the great Dottie Rambo song 'If That Isn't Love', Jim Hill's great song 'What A Day That Will Be', Squire Parsons' song 'Beulah Land. So we did a CD of 10 classic songs like that and it was a bit of a departure. Most of the industry seems to be going contemporary, but we seemed to be heading in the opposite direction with that CD. It turned out to be the best-selling CD we've done in a long time. We attract an older crowd. In church circles our name is a household word and people come to our concerts expecting old songs. But it's more than the tradition and the expectancy of our audiences, it's the obligation we have to keep those great songs alive. So we did that classics CD and it has gone over fabulously, and I just felt in my heart that it was time to take that a step further and go back even older than the classic songs - take it a step further, stripped of any instruments and just do it a cappella. I think my instincts, or the prompting of God's Spirit, have proven to be accurate because people are loving this CD. Those songs - 'It Is Well With My Soul' and 'To God Be The Glory', 'When We All Get To Heaven', 'In The Garden', 'I Sing The Mighty Power Of God' are such wonderful songs."

What is memorable about the album is the natural reverb which gives the Blackwoods' voices a powerful, other-worldly sound. Said Billy, "Some people would call it a haunting feel. It's hard to describe but it is different. It's an authentic, natural, reverberant sound. I remember years ago I made a trip to the UK and in a village somewhere we walked into a cathedral that had been erected in the 1100s. The massive stone floors and walls were so reverberant. When we walked in there was a boys choir singing the Michael W Smith song - 'O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth'. That was probably 25 years ago but I can still remember the feel of walking in there and hearing that boys' choir singing that song, and the natural ambience of the place was captivating. I think there's a bit of that in this - not that we were in a massive cathedral, but there's that kind of majesty and majestic feeling to the record and I think part of it is the reverberant sound in that room."

The Blackwood Brothers 1954
The Blackwood Brothers 1954

My personal favourite on the album is "Come Thou Fount Of Everything Blessing", featuring the lead voice of Wayne Little. Said Billy, "Wayne has a fabulous tenor voice and he did a great job on that song." 'Acapella Hymns' wasn't actually recorded in a studio. Billy explained, "The last home that Johnny Cash lived in was in Hendersonville, Tennessee, which is where I reside. Johnny had lived there for years, he and June. His home sat on a block overlooking Old Hinkley Lake - a beautiful spot, just a gorgeous place - and Johnny bought a house across the street for his parents. His home was a little bit inaccessible for older people because of where it was and the layout, and this home across the street was all one level, and he knew his parents could navigate that kind of setting. He bought this home for them, and, of course, years later they passed away. A gentleman that I have become friends with in Nashville, who is a strong Christian believer and a filmmaker, made a documentary on Elvis Presley, whom The Blackwood Brothers were dear friends with - I travelled with his show for a couple of years back in the '70s. He did a show on Elvis Presley and one on Johnny Cash, their spiritual roots and their connection to gospel music. The thing that made that so personal to me is he interviewed me for those.

"When Johnny Cash was just a cotton farmer in eastern Arkansas and his family would come in from the cotton fields every day, his family would listen to The Blackwood Brothers on the radio from Memphis. He was a big Blackwood Brothers fan, as was Elvis when he was driving a truck. Before he ever made any records or had any notoriety he would come to The Blackwood Brothers concerts in Memphis. He and his family lived just a few blocks from the downtown auditorium. So there was a real connection with both of them, and my friend Brian was making a documentary on all of that. He interviewed me in the home that Johnny Cash had bought for his parents. They call it the Mama Cash Home. During the course of the interview I remarked about the acoustics in the room. It had a stone fireplace, vaulted ceiling - great reverberation. I said, 'We're getting ready to do an a cappella hymn CD, and this would be a great place to do it.' He said, 'We'll do it.' One thing led to another and we ended up bringing recording equipment into that home, and that's where we recorded the a cappella hymns CD. I thought it was great to come full circle - for one of Johnny's earliest influences to have been The Blackwood Brothers and all these years later we're recording an a cappella hymns record in the home he bought for his parents. Interestingly, Johnny got to the point where his mobility was a challenge, and he spent a lot of his last years in that home, favouring it over his house across the street."

The Blackwood Brothers still commit a lot of time to touring. Said Billy, "The last two years we've done 120 gigs a year. That averages out to 10 a month - some a little more, some a little less. I turned 65 this year. While I still have a tremendous amount of energy, and God has blessed me with great health, I don't want to be any busier than that. When I was a kid, travelling with The Blackwood Brothers, we would do 250, 275 dates a year. Add travel and that came somewhere close to 300 days a year. When I was 18 I could handle that. I can't handle that at 65. God has blessed us: we still have plenty of opportunities to sing. Tonight we're on a concert with other groups in southern Missouri with a dear friend, Brian Lester, whose family has been in gospel music maybe as long as The Blackwood Brothers. We sing in a lot of churches, concert halls - wherever God opens the door for us to go. We just finished a weekend in New England. We were in Boston, Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island. We'd love to come to England sometime."

One of the things that Billy admires about Britain is the wealth of modern worship music emanating from this green and pleasant land. It may surprise Southern gospel traditionalists to learn that, when he has the opportunity, Billy leads worship at his church and sings the songs of Matt Redman, Martin Smith, Tim Hughes and others. Said Billy, "On the record, we did include the Keith Getty-Stuart Townsend song 'In Christ Alone'. When I have the opportunity to lead worship, I lead much more contemporary than The Blackwood Brothers." So who knows, maybe a future Blackwood Brothers album will feature those rich Southern gospel harmonies let loose on a bunch of modern worship songs. Now wouldn't that be something. . . CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


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