Ernie Haase is a legend. Introduced to legions of southern gospel fans as the sensational lead tenor for the veteran Cathedrals Quartet in 1990, his storied career continued into the new millennium with the creation of his own wildly successful vocal group – Ernie Haase + Signature Sound. Adding modern sounds, snazzy appearances and high-energy performances to his traditional quartet foundation, Signature Sound has reaped numerous Grammy and Dove nods and sold out tours across the world over the last decade to ushering southern gospel music into the twenty-first century.
But popularity comes at a price. Ernie and his trendy tribe have received significant negative critique for the group’s flashy attire and choreographed stage antics. Yet on the heels of releasing yet another best-selling live project, Oh What a Savior (Gaither Music Group), the group’s head honcho pauses to reflect on his place – past and present - in gospel music and the group’s mission in the face of the critics.
Signature Sound has literally introduced the gospel quartet to the twenty-first century. But not without its share of naysayers. How do you handle the criticism?
Ernie Haase: It all starts with love. I love the music. All I have ever wanted to do is share the music with as many people as possible, using not only my talents but also the personality God gave me. Everything else has blossomed from the love of this musical genre and being true to myself on stage. Do I listen to feedback? Yes! I used to allow people to take me on a roller coaster ride of emotions that was unhealthy. Good comments would take me high; bad comments would bring me crashing down fast. I have matured over the last few years. I don’t tend to ride the highs and lows. I’m not completely “there”, but by God’s grace I am getting there.
You guys are infamous for blazing live shows. How do you keep up the momentum?
Ernie: We were doing an interview in Romania two years ago, and the reporter said we bring so much joy everywhere we go that we should call ourselves the Ambassadors of Joy. We like that. Joy is contagious. Laughter is a great unifier. We don’t take ourselves very seriously, but we take what we do very seriously. Audiences understand EHSS is about making the two to three hours they spend with us in a concert the most memorable, life-changing event they have experienced all year. As a team, we take this approach every night.
“Oh, What a Savior” is your definitive trademark song. Why use it as a title track now?
Ernie: After hearing and viewing the new CD and DVD, Barry Jennings of Gaither Music Group recommended calling the project Oh, What a Savior. And it is fitting. Every singer needs a song that connects them with an audience. “Oh, What a Savior” has literally and figuratively made my career, saved my career and sustained my career. I have been singing it every night since I was eighteen years old, and honestly I have never tired of singing it. It’s my heart. It’s my soul. Jesus is everything and more to me. Hallelujah, oh what a Savior He is!
This project includes several originals, including co-writes by the group. Was it intimidating to write songs that would co-exist with an otherwise legendary track listing?
Ernie: Yes, it was very intimidating. There are so many great songs and great writers in the gospel catalog. After a concert the other night, an elderly lady asked me, “Why don’t you boys write an old song?” It was cute and funny. I knew what she was trying to say. You hope you can contribute some songs through the years that hang around long enough to become an “old song.” One of the greatest thrills I get these days is to hear one of my songs performed by other artists and choirs. It just thrills me to no end.
What groups, quartets or artists influenced you to pursue gospel music professionally? And how do you still pay tribute or incorporate those influences now as captain of Signature Sound?
Ernie: In gospel music, artists like The Statesmen, The Imperials, Dorothy Love Coats and The Cathedrals Quartet. Secular artists like Elvis Presley, The Jackson Five and Michael Jackson were a part of my upbringing. I was also influenced by American musicals. Broadway is still like Disney World to me. In high school, I was the only guy who played on the football, basketball and baseball teams and performed in the musicals.
With all that said, The Cathedrals Quartet was a game changer for me. George Younce and Glen Payne [of The Cathedrals] introduced me to the world of southern gospel music. Bill and Gloria Gaither introduced EHSS to gospel music in a much broader way. I pay tribute to these giants by singing a couple of their hit songs each night, as well as trying to do business and treat people in a way I know would make them proud. I’m sure I have missed the mark a time or two, but that is the way I try to say thank you.
Some folks say Southern Gospel is just a showcase of talent. A vocal competition. Glitz and glam. Beyond good songs and tight performances, what is the group’s greater objective?
Ernie: What looks like flash to some may be a baring of the soul to another. I want to minister with my music. I want to connect with the whole human experience. I don’t wake up every morning and start praising my wife, “Oh baby, you are so pretty and there is no one like you!” There is a time for that, and I do praise her often, but there are times when she and I hurt, struggle, toil and ask questions of each other. And in the grind we find the light of love that makes me praise her. In the Psalms, I read David’s struggles and the praise that flowed. So yes, there is an entertainment side to what we do, but it is only part. I am made for intimacy with God. And sometimes that is praise, and sometimes it is surviving darkness. Sometimes it is fun, yet sometimes God is silent. As EHSS, our greater objective is to sing to the whole human experience in relation to God.
What do you feel is your role in music as both a legacy member and visionary of southern gospel?
Ernie: My role in this phase of my life is to stay consistent with the Ernie Haase + Signature Sound brand that our fans want to hear, and to foster other artists and help them get where they want to go. And I still dream dreams! I want to keep dreaming and always have something to chase after.
For more information, visit: erniehaase.com.
A gifted singer/songwriter, Andrew Greer has been a regular contributor to CCM Magazine for several years.