God and country music: Despite all the drinking and cheating, genre comfortable with religious themes

Published: Thursday, Aug. 4 2011 6:00 p.m. MDT

God is tough to find in popular music these days.

Religion writer Joe Carter went looking recently and found that among the five dozen songs that topped Billboard's pop charts in 2010, there was nothing centered on God and family.

"While there are a few 'daddies,' they aren't referring to fathers," writes Carter in a February 2011 article on FirstThings.com."

He found similar results on the R&B/hip-hop chart, though the final song on the top 60 was called "God in Me," by the gospel group Mary Mary.

It was more of the same on the adult contemporary charts. Of the top 60 songs in 2010, not one verse included a reference to mother, father, child or marriage, much less a line about Christian deity.

"If you judge contemporary music by this genre, you might soundly conclude that contemporary adult life has no place for such trivialities," Carter writes with obvious sarcasm.

There is one chart, however, where such themes are prevalent. Carter notes that among the top 60 country songs, 23 include at least one theme of family, faith and God.

"And yet, the music world still considers it peculiar," Carter writes. "The willingness of country musicians to talk about God, family and other topics counted among the most important in people's lives is considered aberrant. Compared to other pop music genres, this strain of country is definitely eccentric."

But beyond the "music world," is country music more in step with traditional American values?

It's certainly not a holy genre. There is plenty of debauchery to be found, and the stereotypes about drinking and cheating are all too often accurate. But as Carter's analysis of the charts indicates, country musicians and fans are at ease with themes of family and faith. In fact, some consider that one of the genre's strongest pulls — especially in a society where there is a disconnect between popular culture and traditional values.

"What's interesting, a lot of people listen to country music but aren't a real country music fan, but it's so big in urban areas because it deals with issues," Carter said in an interview with the Deseret News. "I think they are attracted to that kind of music because it reflects their values, reflecting what's in the streets and in people's lives. But they see a different message in the media every day."

"Sing a song about the heartland. Sing a song about my life." — George Strait, "Heartland"

Salt Lake City native Anna Kaelin, who is living in Nashville and pursuing a country music career, appreciates the genuine nature of the genre.

"The thing I like about country is that it's people's music," Kaelin said. "As a part of people's lives, I feel it views life in a real way."

It can also be very raw. With all the realities of everyday life, it's hard to expect the genre to be clean across the charts, Kaelin says.

Alcohol use and sex are common themes. Luke Bryan's song "Rain is a Good Thing," which came in at No. 2 on the 2010 chart Carter analyzed, is one particular example.

But for country musicians and listeners, God is often a part of life, too.

"Country music often has that play-hard, pray-hard sort of mentality," said Carmen Rasmusen Herbert, a former "American Idol" contestant, Utah resident and columnist for the Deseret News. "It's about partying on Friday and Saturday night, drinking or looking at girls in tight jeans, all the honky-tonk, but still going to church on Sunday and pounding the Bible. They'll still acknowledge God and providence."

Mark Wills, a country artist with 16 top-40 hits, says the real-life focus of country music provides ground for spiritual themes.

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