Jesus, take the radio dial: Country music's evolving relationship with religion
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Grady Smith wants modern country music artists to go to confession.
Raised on singers like Johnny Cash, who weren't afraid to express their salvation through God and their sinful slip-ups, he's had enough of contemporary songs that present Jesus as someone you only need to worry about on Sunday morning.
"Lately, mainstream country music's treatment of faith ignores any of the interesting tension of religious angst and replaces it with bland, self-assured, vaguely spiritual tokenism," wrote Smith, a country music columnist for The Guardian.
According to Smith, the country music genre no longer rewards singers for sharing authentic stories about their faith. It's now routine for the same song to contain lurid tales of drunken debauchery and casual references to prayer and church.
Other country fans are more forgiving, noting that the musical genre has had to adapt to an evolving fan base and industry. It's naive to think that country singers are going to shape their career around theologically sophisticated lyrics, so the impetus should be on listeners to find the music that will enrich their faith, they said.
"There was a seriousness about life, a gravitas in older country music that seems less apparent in the stuff on the radio today," said John Hayes, who studies Southern culture and religion. "But whether one style is more authentic than the other? That's a loaded question."
Country's religious roots
The country music genre is rooted in folk music, which began to be recorded in the 1920s. At the time, music studio executives referred to the genre as "Hillbilly music," said Hayes, an assistant professor of history at Augusta University in Augusta, Georgia.
Because performers came out of America's Bible Belt, hillbilly songs often dealt with religious themes, but faith wasn't the core concern of early singers.
"Certainly there were religious songs, but there are plenty of songs that you wouldn't classify that way. It was a mix, like modern country music," Hayes said.
It wasn't until the late 1960s and early 1970s that religion and country music became inseparable in the minds of many Americans, he noted. Country songs, with their reflections on patriotism, faith, family and life in rural America, were linked to the more conservative side of the culture wars of that era, growing into a kind of soundtrack of the so-called moral majority.
What Smith says he misses in today's country music is the authenticity with which country singers from four or five decades ago approached songs about faith.
"Historically, country music expressed its relationship with Christianity either with reverence or with angst," he said. Singers were never perfect Christians, but they were open about their struggles to lead faithful lives.
"On a Sunday morning sidewalk, I'm wishing, Lord, I was stoned. 'Cause there's something in a Sunday that makes a body feel alone," sang Johnny Cash in his 1970 hit, "Sunday Morning Coming Down."
Today's artists may regularly name-drop Jesus and sing about sitting in church on Sunday morning, but they seem frustratingly content with lukewarm faith, Smith said. In place of reverence and angst, country music has chosen comfortable spirituality.
"I prefer music that costs the artist something to sing, that has some weight in it," he said. "Give me sex, drugs and rock and roll or the road to salvation."
This week's list of the hottest country songs in the U.S., produced by Billboard, is relatively religion free. The lyrics of the top 10 songs only include one reference to faith.
"I love that little white church, out on 109. It's where I hit my knees and thank the Lord for this life of mine," LoCash sing in their song "I Love This Life."
Religion's lower status in contemporary country music is puzzling if you assume the population of listeners continues to be predominately Southern and religious, Hayes noted.
Southern states like Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia fill nine of the 10 spots on Gallup's 2015 list of states with the highest weekly church attendance. Utah, which is No. 1 on the list, is the only state located in a different region.
However, the evolution away from the themes of repentance or gratitude to God makes more sense when you recognize that country music's core audience has also changed, Hayes said. Listeners are found across the country and likely relate to the more casual religious practices described in modern songs.
"We cuss on them Mondays, and pray on them Sundays," sings Florida Georgia Line in their 2012 single, "This is How We Roll."
A 2011 analysis of country music fans found that the average listener is just as educated and economically well-off as the average American, as Billboard reported at the time.
Country music fans need to correct their assumptions about the genre's relationship to religion and be more realistic about songs in the past, said Joe Carter, an editor and writer at The Gospel Coalition.
"People cherry pick songs from the past to prove their point. Sure, Johnny Cash sang about religion, but he also talked about cheating on his wife," he said. "Almost every country artist has family songs and drinking songs. It makes it hard to recommend the genre as a whole to (religious audiences), but it keeps (country music) interesting."
Smith, who is Christian, said he isn't trying to shame modern country singers or warn people of faith from tuning their radio to a country station. Instead, he hopes that his commentary on the relationship between religion and country music will help his readers become more active listeners.
"I want people to ask deep questions about what this music is actually saying," he said.
Although Carter agreed that the vision of Christianity offered by contemporary country songs is overly simplistic, he said the genre is always evolving, noting that just a few years ago, the top songs were very spiritual, like Carrie Underwood's "Jesus, Take the Wheel."
In other words, people who want country songs to inform their spiritual lives may need to dig a little deeper into the genre to make their playlist, said Carter, a lifelong country fan. Christians shouldn't be afraid if music presents Jesus or religion in problematic ways and, instead, reflect on it through the lens of faith.
"We can listen to songs about sin as long as we know they're about sin," he said.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @kelsey_dallas
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