Table of Contents
Articles in this issue
From the Editor:
The Anglican Crackup
The View From
The Case of Chaplain Yee
Instructions From the
The Social Gospel Lays
an Egg in Alabama
God and the EU Charter
Mel Gibson, the Scribes, and the
The Religion of Country
The Religion of Country
by David Machacek
In June, journalists
registered a surge of popular piety in country music. Randy Travis’ song
Three Wooden Crosses soared, unexpectedly, to the top of the
Billboard country music chart—the first single from a Christian record
label to do so—and an article by Brian Mansfield in USA Today on June
4 counted at least 10 songs with more-or-less explicit religious content on
the country music charts.
There’s always been a lot of piety in country
music—tearful prayers, salutes to God-fearing parents, and even occasional
mention of coming to know Jesus are commonplace. But in recent decades, it
has almost always been songs with a highly generalized form of piety that
get a hearing. As insiders (but not most listeners) have known, there has
been a well-policed boundary between country music and “Christian music,”
which carries an explicitly and often narrowly evangelical Christian
“Labels and radio were always a little
concerned about getting TOO religious and . . . offending a segment of the
audience” Radio & Records’ Lon Helton told Miami Herald
reporter Howard Cohen on July 2. The assumption in much of the country music
programming world is that products that are too narrowly evangelical are
decidedly unpopular—that is, limited in appeal to a narrowly defined market
niche—and songs that get too preachy are unlikely to get much airplay.
It’s also a boundary that is actively defended.
On September 27, 2002, the Associated Press reported that the Country Music
Association (CMA) had filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Christian Country
Music Association (CCMA) of trading on its name.
Almost a year later, CCMA president Gene
Higgins responded in a press release carried by the PR Newswire: “There are
several associations and organizations that use the marks, ‘CCMA’ and the
CMA have not, to our knowledge, filed suit against any of these businesses.”
Only the Christian Country Music Association was targeted by the lawsuit.
Why? According to Higgins, the complaint
alleged that promoting Christian Country Music Association Awards as the
“CCMA Awards” created a “likelihood of confusion . . . among consumers, the
media and the industry.” A boundary was getting fuzzy.
And the tension goes both ways. When Christian
performer Amy Grant began recording and releasing secular music, she was
perceived by many in the contemporary worship camp to have “sold out."
“Spiritualism has long been a part of the
format,” Bob Barnett, program director for WKIS-FM 99.9 in South Florida
reminded readers in a July 2 Miami Herald story by Howard Cohen, but
it’s a generic, civil religious spirituality—that is, “country with a red,
white and blue capital ‘C,’” as noted by Dayton Daily News writer
Carol Simmons in a June 5 response to Dixie Chick Natalie Maines’ anti-Bush
jab. “I would look at it like a four-legged stool,” Barnett continued. “The
top platform is the country format but the legs are represented by
spirituality, family values, patriotism and respect for legends.”
“There is doubtless a new mood after 9/11 and
Iraq war among the ‘red state’ Americans who make up country music’s
audience, one in which faith, along with patriotism, takes center stage,”
Gene Edward Veith wrote in the June 21 World Magazine. The
aggressively patriotic songs that hit the charts in the immediate aftermath
of 9/11 sang the nation’s battle cry in the “war on terror.” Now the mood is
more reflective, and country musicians are wrestling to make sense of recent
events even while reaffirming faith in a benevolent God.
Randy Travis’ hit is a story song about hope in the
face of tragedy. The three wooden crosses are roadside memorials to the
victims of a bus accident. One of the victims, a preacher, gives his Bible
to a fellow passenger, a prostitute, in his dying moments. She survives the
crash and reads from that bloodstained Bible to her son, who grows up to
become a preacher. The images are powerful—wreckage, a dying preacher, a
reformed prostitute, three roadside crosses, the Bible—but equally powerful
is the story’s assurance that everything happens for a purpose.
Similarly, in Walker’s A Few Questions, which
evokes the story of Job, the singer raises questions about the way God runs
things but ultimately returns to a position of faith:
An’ why did my cousin have to die in that crash?
A good kid, only seventeen, I still wonder ‘bout that.
It seems unfair to me.
Some get the chance to chase their dreams,
an’ some don’t.
But what do I know?
I wasn’t there the day you filled up the oceans.
I didn’t get to see you hang the stars in the sky.
So I don’t mean to second-guess you,
Or criticize what I don’t understand.
These are just a few questions I have.
Consider also popular releases by Dolly Parton and
Phil Vassar. Parton made her first appearance on the charts in a decade with
Hello God, in which she questions God: “are you out there…are you
listenin’ anymore?” A scolding God replies in Vassar’s This is God:
“You fight each other in my name…look at what you do to the world that I
Is country music becoming more religious? Probably not.
Notably, as reported in Mansfield’s USA Today story, programmers
didn’t notice the surge in expressions of piety in country songs until
journalists began asking questions about it. Popular piety is a
taken-for-granted part of the genre. However, as noted by Tom Baldrica, BNA
vice president of promotions, in Mansfield’s report, songs that are too
overtly religious will be weeded out by station programmers. “It won’t get
to the point,” Baldrica said, “where country music…listeners will think
they’ve tuned into ‘The Good-Time Gospel Hour.’”