Young baritone enjoys heritage
Edwards, 30, feels at home as he sings with Ascension Quartet
BRANSON—The love that 30-year-old Jonathan Edwards has for Southern Gospel music is strong even though most of his age group tends to favor a more mainstream form of Christian music.
Edwards is the youngest member of The Ascension Quartet, a Lebanon-based group that was one of about 60 Southern Gospel acts featured Aug. 30-Sept. 9 at the second annual Southern Gospel Picnic, at Silver Dollar City. He also is a member of Second Baptist Church, Springfield.
“The majority of my peers are listening to the contemporary music, but it’s interesting that as you get older, the more you long for the memory of maybe what Christ did for you, which fits into Southern Gospel music,” Edwards said. “Or, as you get older, you begin to look forward to what God has for you, which is heaven. So I think what tends to happen is, the older people get, the more they actually turn back to the traditional sound and traditional lyrics and themes of what Southern Gospel music is.”
The son of a pastor who is now an Independent Baptist missionary in New Zealand, Edwards literally was raised to the strains of some of the finest Southern Gospel music in the 1970s and 1980s.
“My mom would put me down for my naps and would put on the old record player, three or four records of The Cathedrals and The Kingsmen and The Statesmen, things like that, and I would take my naps every day to Southern Gospel music,” Edwards recalled.
He started singing when he was 13 and continued on into college, where he sang for a year in a mixed ensemble group. He gained experience as a baritone singing in two groups before joining The Ascension Quartet about 1½ years ago.
“I was a worship pastor for eight years when I got out of school, so I’ve been on both sides of it—bringing in Southern Gospel music as well as singing it,” Edwards said. “I tell folks, ‘I grew up on Southern Gospel music, and I love it!’”
He has developed a bit of a reputation within his current group as a Southern Gospel music historian, demonstrating his command of, and advocacy for, the music’s heritage. His research goes back to a time before his birth, when Southern Gospel music, though admittedly regional, was perhaps more widely known than other styles of Christian music. For example, Edwards noted that there was a time when Southern Gospel music interests owned the Gospel Music Association (GMA).
“The Dove Awards began as a Southern Gospel music award show,” he said. “Even The Singing News magazine, when it was formed, had Southern Gospel music as its main chart. I think what happened was as contemporary music, for some reason or another, got hooked up more along the lines of the secular record companies, the money fell into their laps. They definitely took a step apart from Southern Gospel music.
“The No. 1 song that The Cathedrals had in the 1980s was written by Steven Curtis Chapman, who at that time was one of the biggest contemporary artists of the day. The Imperials, back when Jake Hess started them, were a Southern Gospel group, but they’ve always kind of been out front (with a more contemporary sound). So instead of Southern Gospel music really staying involved in the GMA, they kind of separated on their own and began what is known as the National Quartet Convention.”
Edwards said singing Southern Gospel brings him a joy that is hard to describe, other that the fact that he feels at home.
“I love the style of music,” he said. “I like the harmony that a trio or a quartet brings you. If you look at contemporary music, there’s not a whole lot (of harmonizing) in that. Even with your more popular groups now like Third Day, there’s not really what I would call classical, traditional harmony that you find in Southern Gospel music.”
Edwards acknowledged that certain Southern Gospel groups like The Crabb Family, The Isaacs and The Signature Sound Quartet have done well appealing to younger audiences. He also gets an earful at times from his brother, Benjamin, who has a contemporary Christian band. But Edwards, who serves as a part-time disc jockey for Southern Gospel music station KWFC-AM 89.1 FM in Springfield, likes to point out that patience traditionally cements the Southern Gospel fan base.
“The lyrics focus on what Christ has done for us and the place He has prepared,” Edwards said. “We sing a lot of songs about heaven. We sing a lot of songs about the blood. We sing a lot of songs about the cross and where Christ has brought us from. The contemporary music focuses more on a relationship, which is great, but to me, without the cross, there is no relationship.
“Our base (with The Ascension Quartet) would definitely probably be older, but I think you kind of grow into Southern Gospel music.”
Ascension Quartet Bass Singer Dave Taylor, assistant manager for KWFC, agreed.
“KWFC’s been around 38 years, and our audience is as strong as it’s ever been,” he said.
“In a couple of churches lately we’ve been called weekend warriors,” Edwards said. “We all have our jobs Monday through Friday. We work 40-hour plus weeks, and then we climb on the bus on Saturday and we’re gone for two days. We get back in sometimes at 12 o’clock Sunday night and get up Monday and go back to our jobs. So we’re out there on the weekends, doing what we can for the Lord.”
He’s been a member of Second Springfield for nearly two years. He used to drive by the church and tell himself that he would never be a member there because it is so huge. Then one day he was running late going to another church, so he decided to pull into the parking lot
“I sat in the balcony and thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said. “I walked out and called my brother and said, ‘I think I’ve just found my new church home.’ We have an incredible missions program. It just blesses my heart to know that I’m involved in a church that not only sees the vision for Springfield but also sees the vision for the world.”