Bill Gaither says that when he was in high school, people would ask his father, "What's Bill going to do?"
George Gaither would reply, "Well, he likes music," and the questioner would respond, "Yes, but what is he going to do for a living."
Bill Gaither observes, "That's a very fair question to ask, even today."
It wasn't as if in the 1950s scads of artists were making a full-time living writing and performing, particularly in gospel music. There were only a handful of gospel quartets making a go of it without a day job.
But now, it's amusing to note that people once wondered what Gaither would make of himself.
Today, the 74-year-old is an influential artist and presenter, a writer whose songs are not only chart-toppers but part of many church hymnals, and a producer and executive who oversees companies that stretch well beyond music.
He's also still a guy from Indiana who takes a moment to cite a sad aspect of his upcoming date at Rupp Arena, on May 22. His old friend from Mount Sterling, Billy Joe Hall, died a few weeks ago. They had planned to see each other at the concert.
When a line of questioning starts to go to Gaither's towering influence over Christian music, the legend himself is quick to point out writing and performing music of faith is nothing new.
"You go back to Brahms and Beethoven and Mozart and all the great classicists, and Handel's Messiah — you can't get any more Christian than 'king of kings, lord of lords, he shall reign forever and ever,'" Gaither says. "That's pretty Christian."
But Gaither acknowledges that a lot has changed in modern Christian music since he was first taken with sounds of gospel quartets on the radio growing up in Alexandria, Ind., in the 1940s.
"I realized four guys standing around a microphone could make some exciting sounds," Gaither says. "I was totally captivated by a bass singer that could sing that low and a tenor that could sing that high.
"I was really drawn to the artistry of it and the harmony. Later on, I realized it was saying some words and a message that became part of my whole theological basis of my faith and who I was."
Gaither eventually graduated from Anderson College in Indiana and, along with his wife, Gloria, went to work as an English teacher for nearly a decade by day, while increasingly writing and performing at night and on the weekends.
His breakthrough song was He Touched Me in 1964 (later recorded by Elvis Presley). But Gaither still held down the day job for several years before embarking full-time on a career that resulted in songs such as Because He Lives and Let's Just Praise the Lord, many of which he wrote with Gloria.
Long before today's praise and worship artists such as Chris Tomlin saw their songs showing up in church services, the Gaithers had the experience of seeing their tunes published in the hymnals of venerable denominations such as the Methodist Church.
"It's one thing to write a song; it's another thing when a song becomes part of a community," Gaither says. "We all want to write a We Are the World song. We want everybody to sing our songs."
He recalls traveling to churches in the Midwest in the '60s. When he started to sing He Touched Me, the congregation would join in.
"They'd take it away from me, and I'd look over and say, 'Hey, Gloria, we're getting pretty good,'" says Gaither, who, with his wife, was named Christian songwriter of the century by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in 2000.
Through the late 20th century, Gaither became a towering influence in Christian music as an artist and by becoming a pretty good talent scout, helping establish eventual Christian music icons such as Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant and Sandi Patty.
That influence can be seen today in the current lineup of the Gaither Vocal Band, which includes established stars in their own right — Michael English, Mark Lowry David Phelps and Wes Hampton, along with Gaither.
"We try to keep it under four hours," Gaither says of the show, which includes opening artists such as Karen Peck and New River and Russ Taff, who at one time was one of the top artists in contemporary Christian music.
Gaither observes that today's Christian music has become something quite different from the days when he tuned in those gospel quartets on the radio. But he's inclined to put everything in a broader perspective.
"The styles have changed," Gaither says. "The message is still basically the same: king of kings, lord of lords, he shall reign forever and ever."