Hopefully Bill Gaither will be with us for many more years. But unless Jesus returns first, the day will eventually come when Gaither either retires from road life or passes away. Will Southern Gospel survive after he retires?
Right now, the success of the Homecoming series introduces people to Southern Gospel, and many (though not all) of these people eventually become fans of individual groups especially those that appear or appeared on the Homecoming series (which, incidentally, will be a much longer list of groups after the private tapings a few months ago with 300+ artists.)
For a decade or two, momentum from the glory days alone will keep the industry going. Hopefully other mega-groups will rise to a level that attracts new fans into Southern Gospel, but that is never a guarantee.
I think it is safe to say that even if the day comes the last full-time professional Southern Gospel quartet retires (if that ever happens), local and regional groups will keep going on the strength of the music they heard growing up.
But I also think that unless there is a national industry (using the term loosely) of professional songwriters to write top-notch songs, professional studio musicians to record soundtracks for use by both the national and the local cover groups, and professional groups and radio stations to put the songs before the public, the river that feeds the small local springs of Southern Gospel will eventually dry up.
Is there anything on the horizon that could infuse fresh energy into the genre?
I was thinking the other day that an infusion of fresh energy into Southern Gospel in a post-Gaither era could come from classic songs entering the public domain. If what David Bruce Murray says here and here is correct, songs written between 1923 and 1978 will expire after 95 years, regardless of when the author died. [EDIT, 11/7/10: Regrettably, the link is broken, so it has been removed.] As that body of work comes into the public domain, steadily on a yearly basis, this could provide an added inducement for singers of all genres to record a Southern Gospel song. This could help both keep the Southern Gospel genre and the individual Southern Gospel classic songs from being consigned to the dust bin of history.
It will, of course, be essential for professional songwriters to keep writing new songs, and for professional studio musicians and vocalists to keep recording them. But perhaps an expanding, useful public domain will help keep Southern Gospel going.