The rolling notes of an old-time piano wash through the air. Four-part harmonies swell up in worship—the rich, low end of the bass holding solid ground while the falsetto tenor reaches upward to the heavens. This is the sound of southern gospel—a time-honored staple of the American musical tradition.

Having fostered a deep love for southern gospel music since childhood, Shawn Degenhart, a Washington, Illinois native who currently lives in Metamora, has turned his lifelong passion into a full-time ministry.

Genesis of Southern Gospel
“In the late 1700s and early 1800s, congregational singing was tanking because there was no music education in the public school curriculum,” explained Degenhart. “So preachers would hire music teachers to come in and teach their congregations how to read music and sing harmonies.”

As the ability to read music became more common, the demand for sheet music grew as well. “Publishers began publishing songbooks with new gospel songs,” continued Degenhart, “so that people could read and sing them—not just at church on Sunday, but for social functions and civic gatherings. The church at that time was the primary social hub of the community.”

In the early 1900s, publishers began putting vocal quartets on the road, using them to promote and sell their songbooks. “These quartets eventually went out on their own, realizing they could make a living and not just support someone else’s book sales,” said Degenhart. “That’s how southern gospel music got started.”

For the next 60 years, southern gospel was the predominant form of Christian music. In the 1960s and ‘70s, music tastes began to shift, and contemporary Christian music grew as an offshoot of southern gospel. Yet the traditional sound remains alive, thanks to torchbearers like Shawn Degenhart.

Nurturing a Passion
Degenhart fell in love with music at a young age, taking piano lessons in junior high and singing in the high school choir before attending Illinois State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music theory/composition and music history and a master’s degree in choral conducting. At ISU, he also met his future wife, Anne, who had graduated from Bradley University and was getting her master’s degree in music education.

In 1997, Degenhart attended his first Gaither Homecoming concert, produced by Grammy Award-winning Christian singer/songwriter Bill Gaither. A legend in southern gospel circles, Gaither is not only a musician, but an entrepreneur who operates a record label, booking agency, television production and recording studio, retail store, and copyright management services under the Gaither Music Company banner. Gaither’s Homecoming series helped to bring about a resurgence of traditional southern gospel in the 1990s, and no one was more impacted than Degenhart, who caught a glimpse of his future at the concert.

His passion was further cultivated at the Stamps-Baxter School of Music in Nashville, Tennessee, where he attended a two-week southern gospel music camp each summer for three years. That passion has directed his life’s journey ever since.

The Tireless Entrepreneur
Employing Gaither’s successful combination of faith, musicianship and business acumen as a blueprint of sorts for his own path, Degenhart created his own concert series in the summer of 1999. “I was working at Grace Presbyterian Church here in Peoria,” he said, “and I wanted to capture that Gaither Homecoming style in our own concert.” He invited church choirs from all over the area to come together, and the Summertime GospelFest concert series was born.

These concerts were warmly received, and in 2005, the same year he went into full-time ministry, Degenhart started the Christmastime GospelFest. The following year, WBNH 88.5FM, Pekin’s listener-supported Christian radio station, invited him to produce a radio show of southern gospel music. The result was an immediate hit—the Radio Time GospelFest Hour—which airs six days a week. Last year, the program entered syndication; it is currently playing at 133 stations in 32 states and nine foreign countries, from Scotland and Peru to Kenya and Zambia.

Degenhart now heads GospelFest Ministries, a nonprofit music ministry offering a remarkably wide range of services. In addition to the two popular concert series and radio show, the organization offers publishing, arranging, typesetting and other music production services. Degenhart publishes his own songbooks as well as those of others, and he is currently at work re-typesetting the entire 940-plus song hymnal of the Church of Christ.

A classic preservationist, he’s particularly interested in building up the publishing side of his ministry. “A lot of the big southern gospel publishing companies have been bought up and bought up and bought up…and now the owners don’t even know what they’ve got,” said Degenhart. “I’m all about preserving the heritage—I’d love to start acquiring some older song catalogs and things like that.”

And, to top it off, Degenhart also works as the music director for Grace Evangelical Church in Morton, filling out an already jam-packed schedule.

Growing a Tradition

On December 7th, Degenhart and GospelFest Ministries will produce and perform their sixth annual Christmastime GospelFest in the Caterpillar Performing Arts Center at Five Points Washington. This year, they’ve added a second concert, to be performed at Calvary Baptist Church in Normal three days later. The program will feature classic Christmas songs and stories, sets and costumes, as well as several original southern gospel numbers, with a small dose of comedic banter. The Singsations, a children’s singing group based in Morton, will also be featured this year.

“It’s not your typical concert,” notes Degenhart. “I like to create ‘evenings,’ rather than ‘events,’ so that people can just come, sit back, leave their stress at the door and enjoy some great music. It’s all about building relationships with the audience.”

At just 35 years old, Shawn Degenhart is keeping alive an important musical tradition and leaving his mark on the music he loves. He still finds time to teach at the Stamps-Baxter School of Music every summer, helping the next generation discover their own love of the music, just as he did, and he and his wife launched a music program for young children this fall. a&s