Country music can get a bad rap in some southern gospel circles. When Sarah Palin described southern gospel as “sort of like country” at the NQC, people were just dying with embarrassment (even though I think that’s a perfectly natural thing to say given the interplay and musical similarities between the genres). Although some listeners and many artists have expressed appreciation for the genre, the wrinkled nose seems to be a rather common reaction.
I think perhaps that’s because country music is viewed by certain SG fans as an unsavory genre. And to be honest, it can be, which is why I don’t listen to my local country station. But it doesn’t have to be. Moreover, while a lot of country songs really are just lachrymose and/or bitter meditations on lost love, it would be unfair to paint the whole genre with that brush either.
A new country album just came out yesterday, and the title track/lead single is called “This is Country Music.” It attempts to capture in a single song everything that country music is about. The artist is one of my favorite country singers, Brad Paisley. Not all his songs are equally appropriate, and I feel like he’s lost the thread over the last couple albums he’s done, but I enjoy this song. I thought it might be fun to talk about it on a southern gospel blog.
This is the first stanza:
Well, you’re not suppose to say the word “cancer”
In a song.
And tellin’ folks that Jesus is the answer
Can rub ’em wrong.
It ain’t hip to sing about
Tractors, trucks, little towns
Or mama. Yeah, that might be true.
But this is country music,
And we do.
Already, some signature traits of country music have been identified. For one thing, it’s heavily rooted in the story-song. It tells stories about family and sometimes the heartbreak of losing a loved one. But right up front, something else is stated quite plainly—the recognition and affirmation of Christianity. Country music goes places other genres aren’t interested in, and that includes “tellin’ folks that Jesus is the answer.” Paisley himself claims to be a Christian, and you can find Christian themes in more than one of his songs, which goes for many other country singers as well.
So far, so good. But some may balk at the next stanza:
Do you like to drink a cold one on the weekends,
And get a little loud?
Do you wanna say, “I’m sorry” or “I love you”
But you don’t know how?
And do you wish somebody had the nerve
To tell that stupid boss o’yours
To shove it next time he yells at you?
Well, this is country music,
And we do.
All right. Now, I’m sure many people would be shocked and offended by this, but for some reason it just makes me suppress a grin. Let me hasten to assure my readers that I do not like to “drink a cold one” and party over the weekend. But I’m trying to look at the overall message that’s being conveyed here, and to me, it’s appealing. Who hasn’t tried to say “I’m sorry” or “I love you,” but found the words sticking in his throat? Who hasn’t worked a job where you really do wish the boss would get what was coming to him? (Note: If you sing in a southern gospel group, consider this non-applicable to that particular job, because I’m hoping/assuming that you get along with your boss!!) The point is that country music relates to people wherever they are at, and it offers companionship:
So turn it on,
And turn it up.
And sing along.
This is real.
This is your life
In a song.
Yeah, this is country music.
“This is your life in a song.” That’s fascinating to ponder, because it can mean so many things, both good and bad. When you look in a mirror, you might not like what you see…but it’s the honest truth. That’s the key word here: Honesty.
This is where a certain kind of southern gospel fan might say, “But if country music is talking about us all the time, then how can that have any connection to God?” Well, first of all, this song states early on that Jesus is the answer, so it would be incorrect to say that country is a godless genre. Nevertheless, there can be a tendency in country to focus on the problems without providing any kind of hope to answer them. And some country music seems to revel in a self-pleasing lifestyle where God is out of the picture. That’s the bad side of it. It’s real, and it’s out there, and I don’t just want to make fun of the people who point it out.
But there’s a good side too, and I think you hear that in my favorite verse:
Are you haunted by the echo of your mother
On the phone,
Cryin’ as she tells you that your brother
Is not comin’ home?
Well, if there’s anyone that still has pride
In the memory of those that died
Defending the ol’ red, white and blue,
This is country music,
And we do.
Just to preempt potential rabbit trails, this is not the place to debate over whether Christians can be patriotic. I trust that most of us love our country (while readily admitting she has many flaws) and would agree that this verse is saying something valuable and important. We instinctively feel a rush of emotions when we think about the sacrifices that have been made to preserve this nation, and we feel an ache in our hearts when we hear stories of fallen soldiers. I believe that these instincts are God-given. We can see and feel God in something beautiful and true. The pride we feel in this nation and in the memory of our soldiers’ sacrifice is really gratitude for something beautiful that God has given to us.
This is where a kind of music that tells real-life stories can have value to it. It has value when it re-connects us with our humanity and helps us find God in the process, even when God’s name is not specifically mentioned. I see God in a cross and an empty tomb, but I also see God standing by the woman dying from cancer, the farmer toiling and sweating to harvest his crop, and the mother weeping for a son who will never come home.
So the next time you hear “gospel” and “country” in the same sentence, consider that the association might not be all bad after all.