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.
“I like Johnny Cash, but I don’t really like country music”.
As a country music nerd, this is a “bridge the gap” response in many a conversation about music. Which, to be fair, who doesn’t love Johnny Cash? He walked the line! His sound is accessible, mystical and pure old time country music. His success has been cross-genre because of his association with Sun Records (instead of Nashville), his numerous collaborations and his rock and roll radio hits, so naturally people who don’t like country music have been exposed the great Johnny Cash.
He is what might be called an “accessible” Country singer. Garth Brooks had some similar crossover, as did the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. There is something so appealing about country music when it is packaged outside of the typical Country music box. But other absolutely stunning artists get buried in the “country-music genre” that are only uncovered by those already sold on the country sound.
For example, I don’t know very many people that say “Oh, I don’t like country music but I really like Kasey Chambers”.
Did you listen to that song? It’s exceptional! If you like that song then there is very little room to say that you don’t like country. Because that is country. Yet this stuff can get buried in the baggage of country music. Every genre/culture/group/etc… has baggage and it’s easy to tell what that baggage is. Just think of the negative stereotypes of something: that is the baggage. Country music has to fight off a reputation of ignorance, militant patriotism, cheesiness and extremely abrasive, poorly played banjos and slide guitars.
And such is the church. Just like country music, there are parts of the church that people who are not in the church like. Just like my country music conversation, I have had just as many “Yeah, I’m not really a Christian but I like [XYZ] about Jesus” when the subject of Christianity comes up. Which, since Romans 1:19 is true and people are in fact made in the image of God, makes good sense why people would like parts of the Christian message. The golden rule, the Sermon on the Mount and “God is love” (1 John 4:8) are the “Johnny Cash“s of Christianity. They are the things about Christianity that fit well to a preexisting philosophy. These things have been presented in a positive light and break the negative stereotypes that many have towards Christianity. It becomes easy to identify with one or two principles of Christianity but not Christianity itself. But there is a problem with this way of thinking: it isn’t real life.
Sure, the negative stereotypes are a part of it all (Country music is in fact responsible for Toby Keith and Branson, Missouri…we’re so sorry) but when you embrace something in its fullness and behold it in it’s proper context then the stereotypes sometimes make sense. For example, when you understand that Christians evangelize because they have the greatest news possible (atonement for sin, relationship with the Creator of the Universe and a pardon from hell) it makes much more sense and even becomes beautiful. The gospel is like a magnificent choir, if you only listen to one or two singers then you miss the beautiful arrangement.
Just like Country music’s twang becomes a look into the archives of the rural American landscape where most people couldn’t afford violins, pianos or electric guitars but had to make due with what they had. As CS Lewis has said, looking at something, whether it be Christianity or Country Music, will always present a skewed picture of the entity itself. Instead, we must look along them to comprehend their true worth, beauty, truth and substance. To look along is to see what others see as they see it, not just to critique from the outside. So before you write off country music or Christianity, consider the context and be assured that there is beauty beyond the crossover hits.