I preached the need for a “theology of reality” for years. We need the same kind of revolution in country music.
My first musical love was the drums, but when I got to the middle school band my dad wanted me to learn a “church instrument” so I gave up all that rhythmic mischief for the trumpet. Along the way, I picked up a few other instruments, and with it all came an appreciation for a wide variety of musical styles. My truck’s radio has presets – left to right – for Classic, NPR, Pop, Classic Rock, Country.
I don’t know when I first started leaning into this latest preset, but if I’m not listening to NPR, and especially all my hours in the wood shop, there’s usually a little twang in the air . I’m not so much drawn to the three chords and hollow pitches that stereotype some country music as I am to the stories the music tells.
Narrative is important to country music, and they weren’t kidding when they said most country songs had something to do with a woman, a dog, or a truck! The plotlines wind up the listener, and the double meaning that characterizes modern country music is wickedly clever.
The use of narrative, however, can tell a deeper story, with unsettling implications for a divided nation.
Listen to country music, two themes quickly emerge. You can’t miss them. First, much of the music is overtly religious – and that means exclusively Christian and specifically traditional in theological language and imagery. The website “theboot.comsays, “Everyone from Hank Williams to Carrie Underwood has mentioned God and faith in a song; in fact, religion and country music are so intertwined that the Inspirational Country Music Awards are held every year.
Vince Gill made “Go Rest High on the Mountain” famous and Carrie Underwood sings “Jesus Take the Wheel.” There are other entirely religious messages but without specific biblical references.
Matt Stell sings about meeting the girl he’s been praying for all his life:
I’m not used to the pews twice on Sundays, I quote you the kind of scriptures…
[but] Every day before I know your name
I couldn’t see your face, but I prayed for you….
A few Baptist hymns, remixed for dobro and banjo, have become hits, but the pervasive imagery that appears in otherwise “secular” songs is more prevalent. The mentions of heaven and prayer, a version of divine intervention and the Bible are too numerous to count.
Chris Lane sings about the girl with the Bud Lite next to him at the bar:
What’s your name? What is your sign? What’s your birthday?
What Does Your Wrist Tattoo Bible Verse Say?…
You would think that a Baptist pastor would celebrate any Christian witness, but I wonder if there is more at stake here. The nation is becoming decidedly more secular, but the predominance of Christian themes, for this audience, persists.
The question is, how many people – in love with these songs about prayer and worship – actually pray and worship?
Is someone trying to convince us? Trying to tell us something we don’t really believe? Is nostalgia meant to take us back to a simpler day when people actually went to church on Sundays and children started each school day with the promise and a Christian prayer? The question is, how many people – in love with these songs about prayer and worship – actually pray and worship?
The other dominant theme is the glorification of rural life. Like many other listeners, I love “She Thinks My Tractor Is Sexy…” by Kenny Chesney. But how many Chesney fans have ever sat on a Farmall or a John Deere, let alone planted an actual field or harvested any crop? A growing number of Americans don’t even cut their own grass.
A clever Billy Currington love song pushes all the country buttons:
I was sitting there selling turnips off a flatbed truck,
biting into a pork rind when it stopped….
I have to admit I enjoy a good pork rind, but how much can actually relate to someone selling turnips out of a truck? Before the song ends, we experience dusty country roads, Georgia heat, Miss Bell and her sweet tea. Sounds like the average experience for the average American, doesn’t it?
Blake Shelton pretty much puts it all together when he sings:
Just outside this one church town” (It’s not a one fire town.)
there’s a golden dirt road to a whole lot of nothing.
We turned over the earth and worked until the end of the week,
we take a break and break bread on Sunday.
And then start all over again, because we are proud to be from God’s country….
In 2019, report for “Markets Insider”, Sara Lepley said“…farmers and ranchers themselves make up only 1.3% of the employed US population. …Meanwhile, in 1840, workers in the agricultural industry made up 70% of the American workforce. The website www.census.gov reports on the distribution of Americans living in cities and in “the country”: “Urban areas represent only 3% of the total area of the country but are home to more than 80% of the population. …”
I drive a van, I prefer jeans, and I love country music, so I can be as nostalgic as any other Southern redneck. But I’m afraid we’re being sold a dangerous narrative, presented so subtly that few would suspect it of racist propaganda. But maybe that’s just it.
When I listen and sing, as Robert Browning would say, “God is in his sky / All is well in the world”. In this story, we are all people of the land, hardworking, waving flags, wielding weapons, fearing God, going to church, paying tithes, white, Christians. It’s America!
Only, that is not the case.
I fear we are being sold a dangerous narrative, presented so subtly that few would suspect it of racist propaganda. But maybe that’s just it.
The bill for the goods, I’m afraid we’re sold is the silent longing for a predominantly white, predominantly Christian culture that exists, in truth, only in a naïve, utopian version of the good old days.
America has always been more than that, and the data shows ever more clearly that this “land of the free and home of the brave” is fast becoming what our ancestors intended. In a daring experiment called democracy, they have dared to open the borders to those “weary…poor…huddled masses who yearn to breathe freely”. Well, here we are. (And still to come!)
As the U.S. population grew by 20 million over the last census decade, the white/non-Hispanic portion decreased by 4%. Ten years ago, CBS News reported: “For the first time in its history, the United States does not have a Protestant majority ….”
And what about this urban/rural, city/country divide? In 2018, whites made up 78% of the rural population, while racial and ethnic minorities made up 44% of urban centers. And in the United States, as everywhere in the world, urbanization is increasing. The estimated urban population in 2018 was 55% globally and is expected to reach 68% by 2050.
This means that this Christian and rural utopian world is becoming smaller and more concentrated in its whiteness – and less representative of the world. Yet in all those smart country songs, it’s “God’s Country,” and all is well with the world.
If it is the nation that you are “shown” seeping into your unconscious brain, you will experience cognitive dissonance as you experience the real world. This world, the real world, is less Christian and much more diverse – religiously, ethnically and culturally. It can’t bode well for our future when narrative becomes more powerful than reality.
Increasingly, our “bubbles”, which include our music presets, are selling us the narrative, so kudos to Thomas Rhett for his “Life Changes”:
I remember the day I told my mom and dad,
‘You’re having a grandchild, yeah
From Uganda! It’s true, we adopt,
And she’s the cutest little girl you’ve ever seen…”
Isn’t it funny how life changes?
You wake up, nothing is the same, and life changes.
You can’t stop it, just hop on the train, and
You never know what will happen.
You make your plans and you hear God laugh.
Life changes, and I wouldn’t change that for the world.
And I wouldn’t change that for the world.
Life changes. Maybe country music can too.
russ dean is co-pastor of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is a graduate of Furman University, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Beeson Divinity School. He and his wife, Amy, have co-pastored Park Road since 2000. They are parents to two sons. Russ is active in social justice ministries and interfaith dialogue. He is the author of the new book find a new path.
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