By John Benson
Contemporary Christian music’s rise into the mainstream can be traced back decades, beginning with the musical works of the Grammy Award-winning Bill Gaither.
In addition to being named ASCAP’s Songwriters of the Century, Gaither and his wife, Gloria, have written more than 700 popular gospel songs, including standards “He Touched Me,” “Because He Lives” and “There’s Just Something About That Name.”
Despite all of his global success, which includes sales of more than 100 million CDs and DVDs, the gospel legend has vivid memories of touring in the early days. That includes shows in Northeast Ohio.
“We have long roots there that go back to the church days,” said Gaither, calling from Alexandria, Ind. “We’ve been in Youngstown, Warren, Cleveland, Akron. We consider all of that home for us. I remember the early days, coming up close to Youngstown at a church. We have a lot of wonderful memories there.”
At that point in the mid-’60s, the Gaithers were weekend warriors, driving to gigs all over the Midwest while still maintaining their main profession as schoolteachers. Eventually, the travel and success forced the couple to make a difficult, but necessary, decision.
“After 10 years of teaching, I had to go into the principal’s office to say my night job is overtaking my day job,” Gaither said. “I was trying to do both at that time. While Youngstown wasn’t that far of a run, we could make it in four or five hours and still teach school. Going to, say, Oakland, Calif., that was a little bit farther.”
He added the entire experience teaching in public schools was pretty amazing. Specifically, Gaither said he enjoyed teaching ideas, which isn’t too different from what he does with his gospel music.
“As a teacher, I would do a play like ‘Our Town,’ which is all talking about the same stuff we’re talking about in our music – about the importance of a moment,” said Gaither, who pointed to their popular song “We Have this Moment Today.”
He then sang the lyrics, “We have this moment to hold in our hands/And to touch as it slips through our fingers like sand/ Yesterday’s gone and tomorrow may never come/But we have this moment today.”
“We’re writing songs like that years ago, and some of the church folks said, ‘There’s no God or Jesus in there. Is that a gospel song?’” Gaither said. “I think it definitely is a gospel song, because a good relationship with the Deity is making you being fully alive and understanding what’s going on today.”
As for the move to full-time musicians, that was something the Gaithers never dreamed would be an option. Eventually, the Bill Gaither Trio’s Homecoming Tours became the act’s bread and butter with career attendance figures exceeding 1.1 million people.
Today, the Gaither Vocal Band is touring, with a return to Youngstown set for Thursday at Stambaugh Auditorium.
The evening features timeless gospel classics, as well as newer songs from the act’s 2016 Grammy Award-nominated album “Better Together.”
Gaither said he didn’t mind losing this year to Joey + Rory’s album “Hymns That Are Important to Us.”
“Joey + Rory are on our Gaither Music Group label, so we were very happy for them,” Gaither said. “Also, Joey [Feek], who is from our little town, died here with cancer. I was kind of praying they’d get it.”
Regarding how long Gaither plans on keeping up his busy schedule, the singer said, “I’m in great shape, I’m in good health and I’m loving life with all of these young guys. They keep me young.”