By Matt Baker
It was 2006. I was scheduled to sing in a church in Clovis, New Mexico. I didn’t realize whom I was opening for until that week. The group I opened up for that night made a lasting impact on me; they became my favorite group and still are to this day. I’m talking about Greater Vision, from Morristown, TN: lead singer/emcee Gerald Wolfe, baritone Rodney Griffin, and Chris Allman singing the tenor part.
Gospel music fans from all over the world have fallen in love with the smooth harmony and the timeless lyrics heard on each project they release. What I’ve come to love is their class and consistency on and off the stage; the Greater Vision I saw in 2006 is the same Greater Vision I saw a couple weeks ago in Morganton, NC. Their love for the Lord is evident in their music, and in this conversation, we’ll see some of the heart behind this faithful journey they’ve been on for 25 years now.
Gerald Wolfe is a powerhouse in the world of Southern Gospel, and it’s hard to imagine Greater Vision, or the Southern Gospel industry itself, without his presence. However, he says, that almost happened. “During High School, my plan was to go to the Navy after graduation, using the ROTC Program to pay for my education, since I had finished my High School’s three-year ROTC program. Thankfully, God had a different plan that brought me to where I am today. If I had followed my plan, I would probably be retired from the Navy by now, and playing the piano or organ in a church in Morristown, TN., or leading congregational worship.”
Chris Allman is the most recent addition to this bunch and after a break of several years you’d think there would be changes to the focus of Greater Vision. “Well,” says Allman, “At this point I wouldn’t really be considered the newbie anymore. I’ve been back nearly five years. Believe it or not, it’s not much different. We’re just all older and more patient!”
This older group of Greater Vision still has the powerful singing and heart-gripping songs of the earlier version. It’s not often that in a group, you have at your fingertips two of Gospel Music’s most prolific songwriters. Rodney Griffin and Allman have written literally hundreds of songs in their career and they say this desire to write came out of the need to express themselves more personally in their music.
“Sitting at my desk in Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Virginia in 1989, I wrote my first song,” says Griffin. “I found myself writing during my lunch breaks. The only problem was I didn’t have an outlet for any of my songs. I wasn’t singing with a group at the time, yet I had a desire to say something. I had written 25 to 30 songs before I had the nerve to try to pitch something to a group.”
Allman notes, “I just had a real desire to say something through music. It was as if just singing other people’s thoughts wasn’t altogether satisfying. I prayed for the gift to write and God granted it.”
Occasionally the writers will bring forward a song that just doesn’t work for the trio, and other artists then record these works. Griffin comments, “I’ve been blessed to write several songs that we haven’t recorded. One of those that touches me deeply is: “Will You Marry Me.” I believe it was recorded on Lauren Talley’s first solo project. Musically, it doesn’t fit us, but wow, when I think of the message, it is deep.”
Griffin and Allman songs have garnered awards and accolades for the group, but this doesn’t make the Greater Vision men stand-offish or place themselves apart from their audience. On any given night, a concert attendee will find any of the men, or all three of them, at the product table. Griffin comments, “It’s always a treat for me to hear how a particular song we sang encouraged someone in some particular instance. There is nothing more encouraging to a writer than to hear what God did with a song in someone’s life – especially when you are looking them in the eye!”
Interacting with their audience has led this trio to initiate a new phenomenon in Southern Gospel, the Gospel Music Hymn Sing events. The old hymns seem to come to life and the response to these congregational singings has been amazing. “We sing in lots of churches, and over the last several years, I’ve noticed that people are singing less and less,” says Wolfe. “Worship services seem to becoming more of a spectator sport than corporate worship experiences. I’m sure there are many reasons for it, but at least one of them has to be that people don’t always know the songs that are being sung on the platform, and they aren’t engaged in the experience.
“I felt like it was important to my generation, and the generations coming up behind us, to at least try to re-introduce people to congregational singing. It’s certainly not a new idea, but I did, and do, feel very strongly about getting people involved in corporate worship, and one of the best ways to do that is by using familiar songs. Songs that people may not have heard in a long time, but that are instantly recognizable and singable. Songs that remind us of the greatness of God, and of personal encounters we’ve had with Him. Familiar hymns and Gospel songs have a very unique way of crossing generational boundaries, and I’m very excited to play a very small part in bringing multiple generations together in this way.”
One of the surprising effects of these Sings has been the involvement and the excitement of the youth in the audience. Wolfe notes, “I’m very grateful for the parents and grandparents who bring their children and grandchildren to our Gospel Music Hymn Sing events. I always look forward to talking to kids, after the event, to get their take on what they’ve just experienced.”
“I’ll admit I do get a little frustrated with Youth Pastors who don’t see the value in encouraging their young people to attend these events and get involved. Younger people need to be involved in worship with older people. Corporate worship is a family affair.
“Younger people can learn a great deal about worship by watching how older people engage in corporate worship. Likewise, older people can benefit from the energy of younger people who are actively involved in worship services. I believe the best way to bring all the age groups together is through congregational singing. It has worked in Christian Churches around the world for centuries and no one has come up with a more effective idea yet.
“Don’t take my word for it; just look around you next Sunday morning, and see how many people are participating, compared to the number of people who are just watching.”
Bringing back hymns into the church is a favorite subject with Wolfe, as is one of his favorite all-time quartets, the Cathedrals. Every now and then, you might see a fourth and fifth man up on stage with the Greater Vision guys. These men aren’t permanent fixtures in the group, but their presence is definitely felt when they team up with Gerald, Rodney, and Chris. Greater Vision brings back some of the Cathedral classics when they team up with Mark Trammell and Pat Barker, in a group they call the Second Half Quartet.
“I really enjoy the chemistry we five have on the stage and it goes without saying that the Cathedrals were very instrumental in my wanting to do what I do,” says Allman. “Some may not know but, when I was 12, the Cathedrals came to my father’s church and George got me up on stage to sing a song with them! That kind of sealed the deal for me.” The Second Half Quartet will soon have a project available for audiences to enjoy.
With lives that have been filled with music, one would think it would be impossible to pick one favorite piece. But if they were only able to sing one more song, Wolfe says that for him it would be, “Jesus Paid It All.” “The song title tells why,” he says. Griffin comments, “My all time favorite song is still, ‘The Old Rugged Cross.’ I love everything about it.”
Allman admits, “That’s a hard question that would probably change with every season of life. I wrote a song that we’ve never sung with Greater Vision, but says it all, in my opinion. Steve Ladd cut it and singled it. It’s titled ‘Jesus Saves.’ Isn’t that what the world needs to know?”
For the avid Gospel Music listener, you’ll find that what you hear from Greater Vision in 2015 isn’t a great difference from what you may have heard from Greater Vision in the 1990’s, and that’s a very good thing for them. Greater Vision found their sound a long time ago; they’ve stuck with it ever since and it continues to bless people and minister to listeners literally all over the world.
Griffin says, “I guess what’s neat to me about this group is that even after 21 years here, our look and song style are about the same as it was back when I came. We are a church oriented, traditional style gospel group that loves each other and the people we sing to.”
These three men have decades of ministry experience under their belts, garnering awards each and every year within the group, as well as individually. If they chose to boast in this great success, they could easily do so. But if you see Greater Vision in concert, by way of testimony you’ll hear these men proclaim that it’s not an award, or a number one song, or a bus, or a stage, which makes you successful in the eyes of the Lord. It’s being faithful in the little things, being obedient to His Word, loving people like He does, and serving with what talents He blesses you with. These things I’ve learned by example from the three men you’re reading about right now. And as long as the door is open, you’ll hear this same message proclaimed all over the country from Gerald, Chris, and Rodney. These are faithful men, and Heaven is paying attention.
Please find Greater Vision on the web at www.greatervisionmusic.com and be sure to attend one of their concerts. You’ll enjoy the Second Half Quartet as well, and we hope you try to find one of their Gospel Music Hymn Sing events. The ministry of Greater Vision will touch your heart.
By Matt Baker
First published by SGN Scoops in April 2014.