God and Country Music: "Contemporary Christian Country Music"?

Each week in God and Country Music, Nick Rynerson gives country music a chance and examines the world of Americana, folk, alt-country, and popular country music. 

With the rise of legitimate Christian hip hop and the continual presence of mainstream CCM (that sounds like something of a cross between Eddie Veder and Kenny G) and even a thriving Christian hardcore scene, the Christian scene seems to have an alternative for almost every popular type of music. Well, almost every type. Somehow, the high and lonesome sound of country music has escaped reproduction within the evangelical church.

To understand why this is (and to understand why DC Talk never had a slide guitar player) let’s look at Country music itself. Mainstream Country music started fundamentally as a Christian effort, with church singers such as The Carter Family and other old white gospel groups singing about their heavenly home.  And throughout country music there has always been a spiritual undercurrent. For example, No Depression, which is a nickname for the alt-country genre, comes from the title of an old Carter Family song “No Depression in Heaven” (covered, by the legendary Uncle Tupelo). And as country music progressed, divided and commercialized, that spiritual tune remained influential.

But as I covered a few weeks ago, Popular Country Music has become infested with a moralism that is rooted in nostalgic religion and patriotism. This slow drift into sinful tendencies is nothing that is uncommon to man (or man’s music). But country music is unique. When rock and rollers are in outright rebellion to authority and pop music is about getting really drunk really fast…

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…country music is just about being good.

Essentially, in the parable of the prodigal son, Country music is the older brother while Rock, Rap and Pop are the prodigal son.

It is that prodigal son-style licentious sin that leads Christian musicians to carve their own path in a particular musical genre, scraping the rebellion but keeping the aesthetics. To those Christian artists credit, despite the quality of the art, they usually at least convey the gospel adequately. But where are the Christian’s in country music? Have they been lulled to sleep by the appeal of law and works-righteousness or do they still see the beauty and tradition of Nashville as a place that can be redeemed?

The answer is probably a bit of both. While many country artists use the genre and culture to talk about themes or redemption, God and gospel whether as homage to times past or out of sincere devotion. And yet, the Phariscetical tone to a lot of Country radio’s “God-talk” is hard to ignore. Rodney Atkins’ song “Watching You” about his son’s imitation of his habits is tell-tale of a safe, regulated Christianity that serves as nothing more than a salute to conservative culture and “country culture”. The song basically shouts “if you want to be a good father you need to hunt, wear cowboy boots, drive a truck and pray”.

And on the other side of the coin, Patty Griffin’s latest album Downtown Church was a collection of age-old hymns that have littered the Americana landscape for years and some new gospel tracks. While Griffin wouldn’t describe herself as an orthodox Christian, she has captured the heart of the gospel. Her rendition of “All Creatures of Our God and King” is soul moving. And how amazing that it received a warm welcome from the Country world!

Like everything that man gets their grubby hands on, Country music is broken. And it uniquely strangles the gospel in its lyrics unchallenged by “Christian culture” while at the same time allowing for some of the most beautiful and intimate expressions of faith. Is this not the story of our lives? Our self-righteousness can sedate us just enough not to take action, while slowly rotting our souls (and music), but in the same medium, there exists the potential for such beautiful redemption. There exists such a well of gospel to tap within the hallowed halls of Country music’s history; it’s a shame we settle for so much less. This is everything from the bible to Country music to television to church: don’t settle for Diet Christianity.

About Nick Rynerson

Nick Rynerson lives in Normal, Illinois (no, seriously). In his free time, He writes, attempts to play mandolin, reads and hangs out with his groovy wife. Nick has a soft spot for any song with a banjo and thinks Bruce Campbell is the best actor on earth. However, he is a terrible golfer and has particular distaste internet controversy . Nick is passionate about the Church, (lower case) orthodoxy and whatever he's been reading about recently.

Follow Nick on Twitter: @Nick_Rynerson
or at his website: nickrynerson.com

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    The criticism of Atkins’s song works if you overlook what Atkins sings: He realizes his son is watching him and asks for God’s help so that his son will find an idea of manhood that is more than cowboy boots and appropriately timed profanity. I didn’t see where it mentioned hunting or hats. It could be seen as a loose illustration of 1 Corinthians 8:7-13 and how our actions may cause “weaker” brothers and sisters to stumble in their faith journeys, or of Jesus’ warning in Matthew 18 about causing “little ones” to stumble as well.

    Although I think “Watching You” is treacly and I don’t much care for it, I think it should get a little fairer treatment than it’s given here.

    But if you want to open fire on “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away,” though, I’ll be happy to hold your ammo pouch.

  • http://nickrynerson.com Nick Rynerson

    Okay, I’ll give some ground on that one. I assumed a little bit about Atkins’ intentions in the (what seemed to me) hasty inclusion of the prayer talk in the song. It could be that his point all along was to admit his shortcomings and allude to 1 Cor 8:7-13. Thank you for the helpful feedback

    And how about Tim McGraw’s “Better Than I Used To Be”? Sheesh… That one almost deconstructs itself!

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    As you say, it’s kind of a catch-22 — these songs may be talking wrongly about faith matters, but at least they talk about them. The same can’t be said for several other genres.

  • http://www.lawngospelcom Brother Hank

    Nick,

    I appreciate what you wrote here. My only constructive criticism is that you may have overlooked the peculiar manner in which the contemporary country music genre carries with it a “B-side” of gospel music, unlike any other genre. While the Tim McGraws and Rodney Atkins of the world (his song about “going through hell” only makes your point the more!) give a shout out to Christian moralism and poor doctrine, the “gospel albums” of a host of other country artists are usually nothing more than solid hymns straight out of the hymnbook. Alan Jackson’s “Precious Memories” is a prime example, but other examples are myriad. All this is to say, there is not widespread analogous to other genres in this regard. You don’t see Jack Johnson coming out with a “Mother’s Hymnbook” album, or Jay-Z doing a release of “Worship and Faith”.

    Unlike other CCM’ers, there seems to be a distinct ability (for better or for worse) for country music artists to sing songs of both brokenness and redemption, although when they attempt to combine them, the result is as shallow as “Jesus take the Wheel…”

    Thanks again for the post! Keep provoking that thought!

  • Geoffrey R.

    The article and the comments are quite insightful. I think I agree with Brett on Atkins (both in the possible high motives of the song and also its “treacly” feel), though I think your thesis, Nick, of some country music as the “older brother” holds surprisingly well. Now, while Alan Jackson may have some solid hymn-like songs as Brother Hank observes, he does also have “Where I Come from,” with that memorable line “Workin’ hard to get to heaven,” which strikes me as a good illustration of Nick’s thesis.

    And though, on the whole, I am (alas) not particularly a fan of country music, any shout-out to Patty Griffin is welcome in my book.

  • Steve Schuler

    It’s been a few years since I listened to pop-country with any regularity–and I listened to it only because I worked a retail job and the default music was country. I didn’t like it much, but its tendency to alternate between sentimental religious moralism and celebratory licentiousness seemed pretty natural to me. It perfectly reflects the rural American culture that fosters and consumes much of the pop-country fare. Picking up women at the bar on Saturday night is followed by cleaning up for church on Sunday morning, or at least by feeling guilty that you’re not cleaning up for church. You may drink hard every night, and your biggest goal in life may be to keep your truck running, but you’re going to insist on singing “Amazing Grace” at your grandmother’s funeral. It’s a contradiction that rural America has lived with for generations.

    At its worst, the religious moralism of pop-country sounds outright hypocritical, and it doesn’t do much for the quality of the music, either. Nevertheless, what Flannery O’Connor said about the South still applies to much of rural America: it is definitely not Christ-centered, but it is still Christ-haunted. People are always looking over their shoulder, afraid that God may be following them around. Songs that reflect that anxiety stand a better chance of artistic coherence, if not commercial success. Johnny Cash managed both, somehow.


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