If you grew up around Southern gospel music, then you know the work of songwriting legend Bill Gaither. Bill and his wife Gloria Gaither's contributions to the hymnal include "The Longer I Serve Him," "Because He Lives," "The King is Coming," "Sinner Saved By Grace," "It is Finished" and a Grammy winner for Elvis Presley, "He Touched Me."
In addition, Gaither has sung God's praises since the '50's, primarily with recording acts the Gaither Trio and the Gaither Vocal Band. In the '90's, the Gaither Music Group's multi-media ministry expanded with the creation of Gaither Homecoming, an award-winning series of videos and albums featuring some of gospel music's most influential families and singing groups.
At age 84, Gaither's new podcast More Than the Music, presented by the Game Show Network, offers him a fresh medium to spotlight gospel music's county cousins and others with Christian testimonies.
Gaither cast a wide net for his initial list of podcast guests, snagging appearances by NBA legend Paul Westphal, broadcast journalist and author Mort Crim, former deputy director of the FBI John Pistole and three country acts with stories of faith and perseverance: Larry Gatlin, Rory Feek and Alabama.
Wide Open Country recently chatted with Gaither about the guests from his first round of country-themed episodes.
Gatlin might be the ideal guest for a podcast that's sort of like eavesdropping on conversations between Gaither and his oldest friends.
"Larry and I go clear back to the early days in Texas when he sang with his brothers in a gospel group," Gaither says. "You know a lot of the country guys came out of the gospel field. I've said this for a long time: the two fields are like kissing cousins because I think we drank the same water when we were kids. From a style perspective, the only thing that makes a difference in a gospel tune is the lyrics. One's talking about love. Both are talking about relationships, values and family stuff. Of course, country loves harmony and gospel loves harmony."
Gatlin's ability to write a great gospel tune, namely "Help Me," a song cut by Kris Kristofferson for his 1972 album Jesus Was a Capricorn, strengthens those friendship bonds.
"We also have a lot in common with Larry because he's an English major," Gaither adds. "Gloria and I are both English majors. A lot of the great country writers, including Tom T. Hall, are English majors. Whether they got a degree in English or not, they know how to use poetry and they know how to use word pictures."
Beyond their intellectual connection, Gaither and Gatlin simply like the same stuff.
"We share a lot of the same gospel heroes," Gather says. "He grew up listening to the old Statesmen Quartet and the Blackwood Brothers, and so did I. When we get together, we try to recreate the great, great songs those guys did and the fun they had doing it."
Few coping with personal loss have remained as steadfast in their faith in God and their contributions to countrified Christian music as Rory Feek.
Yet more than just personal beliefs and uplifting music bind the Feek and Gaither families. Feek's late wife and duet partner Joey Feek, who died in 2016 after a battle with cancer, was born and raised in Bill and Gloria's hometown, Alexandria, Indiana.
"When I was teaching English back in high school, I had both Joey's father and mother in my English class," Gaither says. "Not in the same class, but I taught them both. So, with those two, that history goes back a long, long time. June and Jack, the parents, are just wonderful people in our community here. When Joey married Rory, I got acquainted with them and did a lot of things with them before the cancer thing came along."
Like Gatlin, Feek's part of the Bill Gaither Mutual Admiration Society.
"I always love Rory's writing," Gaither explains. "He's just a good country writer. He knows how to take everyday stuff like 'It's Hard to Be Cool in a Minivan'... That's why I love country writers. They talk about stuff we all go through."
Although Alabama's status as country music's most successful self-contained band owes more to the Beach Boys than that old country church, there's just one degree of separation between their music and Gaither's. That's because cousins Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook grew up on Sand Mountain, Alabama, an important region in the development and spread of shape note singing and gospel quartets.
"I met Randy one night because we were in Chattanooga, which is not far from Sand Mountain," Gaither said. "Somebody said, 'Randy Owen's out there from Alabama. He bought a ticket to our concert.' I said, 'I'd love to meet him.' So he came backstage and said, 'Oh man, I grew up with this music.'"
Gaither uses this encounter as another example of the similarities between country and gospel, especially when it comes to what's being sung and who's sitting in the audience.
"Vince (Gill) is married to Amy Grant, and he often says I sing to them on Saturday night, but she sings to them on Sunday morning," he adds.
Plus, the early Gaither Homecoming videos that featured Sand Mountain's own Happy Goodman Family and others no longer with us mirrored the Grand Ole Opry's attempts to honor its past.
"The motivation to do those videos was we were going to kind of hang it up because I have lived forever, it seems like," Gaither says. "So I thought we've had a great career and we're going to hang it up, but before we hang it up, let's honor some of these pioneers. The country people did this a lot better than gospel people have done it. When the gospel people got old, they just kind of went out on the farm. The country people have always had the Opry and Branson and places for wonderful artists whose audiences got old with them. They started out when they were 25, and all of a suddenly they were 75 and their audience was 75. I just wanted to honor them, so we got Vestal and Jake (Hess) and James Blackwood and Hovie Lister.
"We got them all in a room and sang an old gospel tune called 'Where Could I Go But to The Lord'," he adds. "That was going to be it, but we got around a piano to take a picture, and we started singing. Singing every song we ever knew when we were pups. In the gospel field, that's easy because everyone knows everyone else's songs. That went on for three or four hours, just singing for fun. There was a camera watching it, and we had them mic'd up. I just put bits and pieces together. It wasn't the most professional thing in the world. But man, we put that thing out there, and people went crazy. They said, 'I grew up with this stuff.'"