Country Music: God & County Swirly

I have spent very little time listening to country music. Growing up, I remember going to Grandpa Waugh’s house and listening to old vinyls of Country Western singers like Marty Robbins, Jim Reeves, Jimmy Dean, Johnny Cash, and Patsy Cline. Whenever I take a long road trip, I make sure I’ve downloaded songs like “Big John,” “Cool Water,” “El Paso,” and “A Boy Named Sue” just in case a country mood hits me. But, it very rarely does.

My first album (which was vinyl), purchased at KMart when I was twelve, was Kenny Rogers Greatest Hits. Or maybe Dire Straits. Kenny was one or two.

Briefly, say 1991-1993 (late high school and early college), I listened to a bit of country, mainly Garth Brooks (along with some Alabama and Little Texas). When I drove away to college, it was in my S10 pickup with a gun rack (rifle and shotgun) and Garth.

I used to like the ‘every-man’ nature of country. But more recently I have been disturbed by the weird blend of God, Country, drinking and debauchery that can all appear on the same album from the same artist. For example, one of my favorite Garth songs is Unanswered Prayers – a song that celebrates God’s wisdom in not giving us what we ask for all the time. But, a few tracks earlier, Garth is singing about his Friends in Low Places (another one of my favorites), “where the whisky drowns and the beer chases my blues away.” Or, the album the Chase that includes a pretty great song called “We Shall be Free” alongside a gross/disturbing song called “That Summer.” Rolling Stone wonders how this works in a 2015 article (similar from the Guardian, see footnote below).

In countrified musical expression, and blue-collar experience more broadly, there’s long been a dynamic balance between Saturday night and Sunday morning; room, and good reason, for downing beers, drowning sorrows and blowing off steam at the honky-tonk, as well as seeking solace in a personalized relationship with God. A God who watches over down-and-out folks, whether or not they’re in the habit of warming church pews.

In truth, it doesn’t work. This is my big problem with country music (and likely a lot of rap/R&B too). In metal/punk, there’s no pretense of faith or religion. In country music there is plenty of pretense. But all you get is Christianity lite, or worse, a syncretistic blend of God, country, small town living, and hedonism.

Is there good in country music? Yes, I think there is. Some.

Country music and July 4

Let me start with a negative comment. I think a good bit patriotism is sinful. It’s soft-core nationalism, jingoism, and statolatry (i.e. Toby Keith’s Courtesy of the Red White and Blue). Please remember as I say this, one of my unfulfilled dreams was to serve as an officer in the US Marine Corps. Billy Sunday famously said, “Christianity and Patriotism are synonymous terms.” Someone should have dragged him out behind the woodshed and beat some Bible, particularly the book of Revelation, into him.We are aliens and strangers in this world and ought to hold all allegiances loosely. All loves are relativized by the primacy of our love for Christ and the church. I have said it often – I have more in common with a Christian from Russia or Nigeria or North Korea than I do a nonbeliever from my hometown.

But not all forms of patriotism are sinful.

As Christians we are not of this world, but we aren’t taken out of this world either. We’re in it – in a particular place as a particular time. It’s our home, even though it’s a temporary home. I’m a homebody. I love being home more than anywhere. So, in that sense, I love being an American. It’s home, my home. If patriotism is simply a love, and affection, for home, that’s healthy.

I think this is behind a lot of “America is the greatest” type language associated with patriotism. A good friend helped me understand this recently. In very few categories would America rank as the best nation – not in justice or equality, not in health or happiness, education or standard of living. Not even individual freedoms. So why do so many insist that America is the best? For the same reason so many men say their wives are the most beautiful women in the world. Not many of them have actually won beauty contest, but they remain, rightly, the apple of their husbands eye.

In Lewis’ Four Loves, he describes storge – a word that describes familial love, the natural and instinctual affection we have for people or places or things close to us. It’s a word for love that doesn’t appear in the Bible, but is interesting nonetheless. John Piper relates storge to patriotism:

Storge is a kind of affection that you feel for a pair of slippers that you have worn way too many years and your wife wants you to throw them out. “No way you are going to throw these slippers out! They fit like a glove.” Or, for Noël it is sweaters that I wear until the elbows are gone because I sit here at my desk, rubbing my elbows all the time — and she wants to toss them out. And I say, “No! I love this sweater.” It has got associations.

This is what he means by storge, a little kid who has a rag doll that is just rags is what it is. They wouldn’t part with it for anything. That is a little kind of patriotism that is probably very, very good, very admissible. At least C.S. Lewis makes a case that it is.

Country music plucks this chord in my heart. It certainly stirs love for home. At times it is aspirational rather than realistic. Take Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” – maybe the most well known patriotic country song of all time. For example, the line “there’s pride in every American heart” is aspirational – we aim for this, but know it’s not quite true yet. Some don’t feel pride, but abandonment or oppression. Or consider the line “the flag still stands for freedom” – well, not for everyone, as witnessed by those who, exercising their rights, don’t stand for the National Anthem. For me, though I know we have a lot to work on to ensure this land is a land of liberty for all, it makes me thankful for those who’ve given so much for my freedom. And, it should spark a commitment to make sure this land is a land of life and liberty for all, not just me.

If you really looks at the lyrics, many country songs with patriotic titles aren’t really about the United States – they’re more about country/small town living, pretty girls, fairs, corn fields, trucks and good friends (i.e. Thomas Rhett, American Spirit). It’s storge. And, it’s sentimental

Country music and the Susquehanna

It’s this sentimental impulse to country music I appreciate more than any other aspect. I am not a country boy. I have been fishing three or four times in my life, and I don’t like it. I did live out in the country for years in Florida, next door to Skinner Dairy Farm and Granny Von (she had a spittoon on her front porch). But we left the country when I was twelve and I’ve never wanted to go back. And yet, country music still makes me sentimental to my times with high school friends. We weren’t country and we didn’t listen to country. But we went to football games, I drove a van with a gun rack, and lawn chairs for passenger seats (before my truck which also had a gun rack). I worked on my car, hung out with friends, went to Greenwood Lake or occasionally water skiing on the Susquehanna River (a bit like Alan Jackson’s Chattahoochee).

In a way, country music makes me appreciative of the small pleasures in this life – mom and apple pie. That’s good. It’s good for me. I can retreat to anger and frustration quite easily. I need to be reminded that there are things that are good…and then my theology will kick in and push me to follow these good things back to the giver of all good things, follow the beams of goodness back to the source.

Footnote (more on blending Christianity and Country music):

But conflating Christianity and country music isn’t just incorrect, it’s unfair. It’s unfair to Christians because it portrays them as hypocrites – something any modern believer will tell you the church doesn’t need help with – who claim to value conservative sexual ethics while adoring vengeful ex-girlfriends ready to kill their exes and married men twerking in skinny jeans who brag about their exploits with young women. (For what it’s worth, many Christian audiences that once loved country music appear to have jumped ship for the Americana category, which plays host to the spiritual angst of bands like Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers.) It’s unfair to country music because it forces the genre’s artists to pander to religious crowds instead of really owning secular beliefs or sexed-up lyrics, and it simultaneously encourages the Nashville establishment to maintain a façade of vague religiosity – whether there’s passion behind it or not. This half-heartedness makes for dull art.

the Guardian article, “Jesus, Take the Whiskey,” 2015.