The tragic death on June 22 of Kingdom Heirs builder (and longtime baritone vocalist) Steve French and his companion, Lindsay (Black) Hudson, has reverberated far beyond Southern Gospel’s geographic centre, beyond the magnificent New River Gorge bridge from which the two renegade lovebirds plunged, and past any references to literary tragedy one might superficially infer.
An early end to life is always sobering. A nefarious end to a life you’d had reason to regard with admiration will come as a shock to the system. Industry admirers and faithful Kingdom Heirs followers who had formed varying degrees of relationship with French — through the shared experience of “special moments” of which he was often chief architect — were left dumbfounded, and grasping for answers.
Alas, no answers were forthcoming from the official voices of the industry, even as sketchy news reports lit fires of angst and bewilderment across the fan base. Rank-and-file sycophants policing online forums, predictably, were beating back legitimate inquiries with self-righteous perspectives and Bible verses. (Pah! Pah! Pah!) All seemed oblivious to a simple truth that emerges every time a community’s world has been rocked by an unthinkable event involving those the people think they know: logic is the necessary device they reach for to stabilize their world.
Good people die. Accidents happen. Reckless behavior reaches its natural consequence. Disasters come and go. Bad people barge in to wreak havoc on someone’s perfectly ordered world. Yet, to those left standing, it’s all survivable as long as reason can be found to help them make sense of it.
Few fans were aware that, dwelling in the shadow of his light — beneath the veneer of the profession and, in no small way, obscured by the amoral industry self-interests that had been propping up his pious on-stage persona — were the constituent elements that would make the “impossibility” of such an ending for French less so. Deprived of access to information critical to processing what seemed so shockingly without reason, then, fans’ reach for equilibrium was cruelly extended, causing the rip in the fabric of life as they know it to lengthen and the agony of disbelief to be prolonged.
The Steve French story warps through time and space to find me here, and I am affected on a deeply personal level. I’m quite familiar with the location. (In a better day, I studied the New River Gorge bridge up close, while scheming to ascend and descend its magnificent arch.) Too, French projected a persona onto a world in which I once moved that was understood to be safely insulated from any of the factors that would ultimately contribute to his doom. Back in the day, when I was part of a team endeavoring to build a quartet of note in a nearby state, Steve French’s success story (shared with his brother Kreis) in resurrecting the once-flailing Kingdom Heirs and building them into an attraction that would become a fixture at Dollywood Theme Park was a case study we were pointed to.
For me, innocent disbelief didn’t stay around long, however. It soon morphed into something else. Perhaps I’m too much of a skeptic to accept things at face value anymore, but the uninformative and cryptic (I’m sure it was unintentional) message appearing under the factually incorrect headline “Steve French passes away” on the Singing News website set off the same alarm bells triggered in December, 2014 when a false narrative about his sudden “retirement” from the group took root there.
As was the case then, the facts were easily discoverable elsewhere.
But I’ve found myself brooding anyway, largely on this most unlikely convergence of lines I’d trusted to maintain their parallel all the way into infinity: a seemingly above-the-fray artist, a landmark bridge that rises 876 feet above a spectacular Southern river valley and then a troubling place having been reached by a fellow journeyman where life itself would become negotiable. I also brood about the state of media, upon which one can seldom rely anymore.
Social engineering tactics and tailored narratives, à la coverage of the June 12 Orlando massacre, do not stop at the doorstep of Southern Gospel — nor, I suspect, of the Christian world its players purport to represent. For all its heavenly assertions, this industry most assuredly belongs to that world where seeds are planted in furrowed minds to achieve very earthly outcomes. The noise of deceit surrounding the Steve French story post-Kingdom Heirs is akin to a flock of blackbirds, suddenly startled, taking flight.
Media, of late, has ceased to be about providing honest information, asking honest questions and providing context to help audiences understand events that affect them. It has exchanged traditional principles for a more populist role as provider of all the news we figure you wish we’d print. Offending no one, save for “the other side” — whomever that might be. Reporting nothing in unaffected voice. Pulling no one out of his or her comfort zone to encounter reality when it might be harsh.
We’re at a place where dishonesty, accomplished by omission or slant, is deemed okay as long as it achieves the protection or prosecution of some reputation or cause considered deserving of such adjudication. And there is a matching audience out there, be assured, only too ready to bestow equal status on evidence-based reporting and fabricated narrative alike.
In fairness, the Singing News and the various publications, websites and blogs catering to the gospel music industry do not represent the practice of journalism per se; they are industry organs, given more to hyping personal appearances, new recordings and radio ratings than reporting hard news, and church-centric sensibilities generally influence any actual reporting. It is also worth noting that misuse of time-honored phrasing, supposedly to soften the harshness of reality for a presumed-timid audience, is not the private domain of industry organs; it has crept into mainstream news reporting too.
That said, a notation-in-passing about French’s gospel music past in the Beckley Register-Herald’s straightforward news item was more honest in the sense of narrative than anything coming from the industry itself. It left room for the discerning reader to see a yawning gap between this image of Steve (onstage at the National Quartet Convention in 2011) and the reportedly on-the-run character capable of tumbling to his death in the company of a young woman, herself the mother of two small children. Until gospel music fan Ben Garrett acknowledged the reality in a July 6 blog post, pens inside that world had been eerily silent.
The Singing News bills itself as “The Printed Voice of Southern Gospel Music”. Professional groups buy space in it to communicate with their fans, and they covet gaining mention in the magazine’s editorial content — especially the inch-deep fluff feature stories that unfailingly flatter. They yearn to be chosen as winners of annual Singing News Fan Awards. They hawk subscription offers, right along with their own product, from the stage and provide space for the magazine on their record tables. As the agreed-upon official source for industry news, nothing of significance occurs within the ranks of the major groups — nor at the industry’s executive level, for that matter — Singing News editorial staff doesn’t know while it is yet brewing.
This is why its editorial response to the French tragedy being limited to lifting a post straight from the Kingdom Heirs Facebook page — and leaving it hanging there, inaccuracies and all — was an eyebrow lifter.
More was expected. More was required.
First and foremost, Steve French did not “pass away”. That expression refers specifically to expiration of life, usually by natural causes, in the absence of violence. A gruesome plunge from a great height is not the equivalent of a gentle and orderly release of spirit from an expiring body. He was killed at age 56 — either by his own hand or someone else’s — and legitimate reporting, where it exists at all, would take care not to diminish clarity by treating harsh fact with kid gloves.
What’s more, the Singing News had lent itself to applied misdirection in 2014, in how his barely believable “retirement” from the Kingdom Heirs was reported. That the outrageously pious verbiage quoted in the piece (painting a picture of an exciting new “God-led” pursuit as the impetus) came from French’s own press release excuses no one, since the industry’s tightly-knit inner circle knew full well that was not why he had to go.
No one would expect the magazine to, instead, go against its own mission or business model and craft an exposé on French’s veering onto a disapproved path, but to permit that misleading press release to dominate the narrative was inappropriate beyond the pale. There is little wonder the industry’s Printed Voice was left with no latitude to execute a come-clean maneuver once his spectacular demise hit the news.
I’m pretty confident I can figure out what led the thinkers of the day to confound by way of malleable truth. But lies beget lies, no matter how “holy” the intent, and they beget even more lies, until there emerges a dependence on customized truth.
Perhaps it’s time for the Southern Gospel industry to come clean on just what it is — Christian entertainment primarily, ministry occasionally — and to take ownership for the immense pressure it places on the shoulders of its performers to present themselves as ministers.
Most performers have neither the qualifications nor the inclination to belong to the priesthood; they’re just having fun, making music and making a living in this culturally Christian environment that is musically and theologically particular to societies in the U.S. South. Most performers, however, are perfectly fluent in Biblespeak (as are their audiences), and they tend to put on the mantle of piety as soon as they hit the stage. Then there is the curious phenomenon of church-inanity, a posture reflective of the dominance of church life in the culture, that has evolved to become as integral a component in the genre as the lived faith the lyric steadfastly implies.
Southern Gospel music, just like the culturally experienced faith that gives it both purpose and place, is a complex machine of many moving parts. And the rough-and-tumble, good-ol’-boys makeup of many professional groups is more a reflection of where this music lives than any call to ministry the individual performers are compelled to project onstage.
Many performers fail, quite routinely, to live up to the spiritual ideals of the dominant evangelical faith once they’re off the stage. It doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm for quoting abstract ideals, however, and this plays an important role in obscuring many of the blemishes of imperfect lives. To those of us from other cultures, who generally view religion as an on-or-off proposition, it helps explain the presence of rogues and scoundrels in the midst — at times even among those who self-identify as being in ministry.
Publications such as Singing News magazine endeavor to project theoretical Christian values on the everyday business of gospel music, painting every day as a Sunday experience irrespective of the fact that ordinary people simply don’t live that way. The vast majority of gospel music performers view themselves as ordinary people, not stars or leaders of flocks. SN is perhaps one of the most heavy-handed forces in promoting the entertainment-as-ministry ideal over the entertainment-as-entertainment reality. This philosophy comes with an inherent aversion to “awkward” stories, which is perfectly understandable, but insulating the desired milk-and-cookies image of Southern Gospel from the ravages of unbridled truth requires a level of editorial acumen its decision makers clearly do not possess.
Cower in the shadows of fear at the prospect of reputations and enterprises becoming exposed to wolves (real or imagined) if you must, but say nothing rather than shape narratives that are an affront to truth. When the reality is harsh and the truth inconvenient, the intelligent editorial position is still the moral one. When two or three have reason to agree together that you cannot be trusted with fact, on the other hand, you have received the most devastating indictment that can be leveled against your stature as a public voice.
The last thing you need is to become the talking point.