That Old Time Religion: Things Ain’t Like They Used To Be

Jewly Hight | November 25th, 2009

There is nothing subtle about a couple of guys in white linen suits urgently beckoning in front of a twelve-foot, candy-apple red, plywood devil and a hellfire-and-brimstony rock pile. That jarring scene graced the cover of the Louvin Brothers’ 1959 album em>Satan Is Real, and its twelve songs were hardly any more subtle in their warnings about the possibility of eternal damnation—which was precisely the point. That this was the work of a popular, charting country and gospel act, released on a sizable mainstream label (Capitol Nashville) drives home what a far removed world this was; religion occupied a different place in country music then, and it was a different sort of religion at that.

Evangelical protestant Christianity has always served as the general foundation for religious expression in country music. It was, after all, a dominant presence in the American South when the music emerged. Bill Malone—the first to put forth the crazy notion that country music was a thing to seriously study—devotes a strong chapter in his book, Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’: Country Music and the Southern Working Class, to charting the religion-and-country story from hillbilly origins up through the sixties, and a little ways beyond. And it’s to his important work that I initially turn.

There was plenty material of a religious nature in the familiar songs hillbilly musicians drew on early in the twentieth century; spirited Methodist camp meeting songs; composed hymns; published shape-note harmony pieces, which were associated especially with Holiness and Pentecostal traditions and planted the seeds for what we now know as southern gospel. The Carter Family—first recorded by Ralph Peer just a couple short years before the Depression hit—pioneered a model for mixing gospel, moral and sentimental material into one wholesome presentation.

A song like “There’s No Depression In Heaven”—not, actually, written by A.P. Carter but by shape-note publisher James D. Vaughan, and recorded by the Carters in the mid-thirties—provided exactly what people struggling to survive most wanted to hear; a description of relief from suffering in the next life. That the song has been mistakenly attributed to Carter so often says something both about his knack for absorbing songwriting credits by osmosis and about the lives of religious songs themselves; their sectarian sources almost ceased to matter—learning and singing them felt like sharing in ownership.

Albert E. Brumley’s “I’ll Fly Away,” which also issued from a shape-note publishing house, offered similar comfort in its sure declaration that one could look forward to escape from hardship and reunion with loved ones—someday. And nostalgia was just as potent a consolation, as economic disaster, World War II and social change upended familiar, once-secure ways of life. The Carters were more intent on meeting those emotional-spiritual needs—longing for stability, mother and the beloved old home—than they were on evangelizing when they recorded songs like “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?” Burdened folks listening to Carter Family sides needed reassurance that the answer was “yes.”

Sharp-edged, apocalyptic zeal like the Louvins’ may have looked toward the afterlife too, but it was driven by a very different impulse. After the war—and after the Carters had ended their recording and performing days—there were powerfully unsettling new sources of fear; the Cold War; the knowledge that the atomic bomb not only existed, but had been used, and could be employed to obliterate again; urban migration; modernization.

It was in this atmosphere—one in which, I would point out, fundamentalist Christians interpreted the Bible literally, disagreed with the mainline protestant notion that social reform could make the world a better place and saw in world events the potential fulfillment of end times prophecies—that the Louvin Brothers (raised Baptist) were making music. Their message, when they sang religious material, was meant to stir, to alarm and ultimately to sway minds and hearts. It was that timely; that important. Their song “The Great Atomic Power” took the possibility of nuclear holocaust as a sign not to delay in considering one’s eternal destination.

The Louvins, of course, weren’t the only ones sounding the moral and spiritual alarm. Their brotherly harmony contemporaries, the Bailes Brothers, appealed to people to save themselves from moral decay by reading and heeding their Bibles in “Dust On the Bible.” Hank Williams sang that one, too.

The sense of crisis faded somewhat when no more bombs were dropped and middle-class families—more and more of them—prospered in the suburbs. There was good reason for optimism. Red Foley and others recorded songs that fit that mood; songs that didn’t belong to any one denominational tradition and weren’t particularly confrontational. In the fifties, he scored sizable hits with the pleasant, nostalgic hymns “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Peace In the Valley.” And that is just about where Malone ends his chronology, except to say that country music has seen dramatically fewer religious songs since the 1970s, and clearly sectarian songs, of the Louvin Brothers’ sort, have disappeared altogether (not so in the bluegrass world), casualties, in part, of the industry’s mainstream aspirations.

Malone suggests that whatever else we hear in religious country material, performing it has also been about paying homage to strong cultural-religious roots, to country music’s origins in the evangelical protestant Christian South—not to be confused with looks and sounds that came to the music from points further West. The pattern of country performers periodically departing from their primary material to record a gospel or hymns or inspirational album between the late fifties and the mid-seventies sure seems like a sort of homage; a very natural, even expected, thing to do, but also, by then, separate from their main thing. Faron Young, Ferlin Husky, Jim Reeves, Ray Price, Connie Smith, Porter Wagoner, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Skeeter Davis, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn and a whole host of others offered albums’ worth of religious songs that stroked (and took for granted) shared memories of church singing, familial closeness and a familial God. Those soothing images jibed with the aims of the smooth Nashville Sound: broad pop appeal and respectability. Churchgoing, if not religious zeal, was an integral part of middle-class, suburban life. And pop crooners—Perry Como, for one—were doing inspirational sets, too.

After the 1970s, country performers all but abandoned hymns albums and shifted to the occasional Christmas (or holiday, depending on the desired level of generality) album. Perhaps becoming a mainstream music—and, make no mistake, country has succeeded in becoming just as middle-class as it is working-class, a destination for a geographically diverse, just as often suburban, adult audience weaned on seventies and eighties soft rock—works against any religious expression that would seem overly specific (or worse yet, extreme) or old-timey.

When a popular country performer records an album of hymns now, it’s noteworthy. A project like that is most likely to come from a neo-traditionalist; Randy Travis devoted most of this decade to recording religious material, and Alan Jackson’s 2006 album, Precious Memories, was, in title and song selection, a nostalgic nod to church music of his childhood.

That’s not to say that nobody else in country music is recording songs containing religious sentiment or references. Recall Ms. Underwood’s entrée to country stardom—a little ballad called “Jesus Take the Wheel.” It was, essentially, a narrative of spiritual surrender to Jesus, meant to be a heart-grabber and a tearjerker. Hillary Lindsey, one of the songwriters, told me she’d worried that its references to Jesus might be too explicit for country radio. The fear was unnecessary in this case, as the song topped the country charts and won a GRAMMY; but it’s no insignificant thing that a less-than-warm reception of a sentimental, religious song in country music seemed possible, even probable.

This year, Tim McGraw sang about Jesus, too, in his anthemic single “Southern Voice.” Midway through a litany of southern cultural references, spanning Charlie Daniels to “Will” Faulkner, he mentions that Jesus is his friend. That list—and a list is really all the lyrics amount to—is meant to stir feelings of pride, of belonging, of shared heritage; the implication is that contemporary southern (and, by extension, mainstream American) identity boils down to knowing, loving, doing and embodying these things. Here, Jesus is not only the object of a very general, very personal faith, but also a cultural signifier.

Last year, Kenny Chesney had a country number one with the breezy, reggae-tinged single “Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven” (not to be confused with the more somber song of that title Loretta Lynn wrote and recorded in the mid-sixties). In Chesney’s song and video, he’s having such a laid-back, tropical good time that he’s in no hurry to go anywhere; religion is a given and heaven a far-off thought, but neither a terribly pressing concern. It’s a form of contemporary country expression with commercial impact; so was the Louvin’ Brothers’ passionately evangelistic output in it’s time. But the two are worlds apart.

  1. Jon
    November 25, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    That’s a good, thoughtful piece, Jewly. I would add that while there have been, broadly speaking, some notable shifts in emphasis over the years, the preponderance of country gospel has pretty much focused more on redemption than damnation; Ira Louvin was, if not quite an exception, certainly a bit unusual in that respect, and even he wrote a fair number of “positive” gospel songs.

  2. Filipino Kid
    November 25, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    all you need to do is look at modern country’s countless references on Jesus from Blackhawk to Rascal Flatts to Richie McDonalds.

    the only thing i don’t understand is why Diamond Rio have to change their sound when making a gospel rock record.

    They could have remain the country instrumentation but instead they sounded more like SONICFLOOd.

    I also wonder if country is receptive of the gospel message in songs, why is it that CCM artists with country flavor like Lenny LeBlanc and Paul Baloche don’t get airplay on country radio?

  3. KathyP
    November 26, 2009 at 8:05 am

    Macy’s T-day parade headliner announced as “country music superstar, Billy Currington.” right up there with Santa Claus.

  4. Thomas
    November 26, 2009 at 9:39 am

    …was it perhaps the atmosphere of the bush years that made “jesus take the wheel” such a big hit? nice essay, ms. hight.

  5. corey
    November 26, 2009 at 11:45 am

    No President does or should have the influence for the atmosphere they create to make songs a hit or not. If this were the case, should we expect a lack of religious songs and more secular tones during the Obama administration? Do we as a nation blindly follow the beliefs of our President? I’d say not especially considering that Bush’s approval ratings had already fallen significantly by the time “Jesus Take The Wheel” was becoming a hit. I’d argue the fact that 86% or more of the country believes in a higher being and therefore can relate to having the “Jesus Take The Wheel” feeling.

  6. Steve Harvey
    November 26, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    should we expect a lack of religious songs and more secular tones during the Obama administration?
    Well, he’s a Christian, so I’d doubt it. Maybe more optimistic songs, although frankly, we’ve got quite enough of those on country radio as is.

    *Waits for Rick to arrive*

  7. JCH
    November 27, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    A very nice piece. Thanks for that.

  8. Filipino Kid
    November 28, 2009 at 10:33 am

    Steven Curtis Chapman’s new album is being reviewed by some country music website. It’s even played on a country station here in the Philippines. What i love about the country FM here is that thy don’t seem to get the memo that there is a dividing line between Nashville Mainstream and Americana/Red Dirt/etc…

    Here you can hear Carrie Underwood next to Avett Brothers next to Mike McClure next to Cherryholmes then jumped into a classic Eddy Arnold then David Alan Coe then Anne Murray…

  9. Mojo Bone
    November 28, 2009 at 10:59 am

    I’d like to see faith paid more than lip service at awards shows in modern country music (whatever that is) I think this is what Kathy Griffin was trying to point out with that whole, “Jesus can suck it!” routine. Excellent post, and I’m gonna write a ‘you’re going to hell’ song, first thing tomorrow morning.

  10. Jewly
    November 28, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    Back to Jon’s comment (thanks for that, by the way): You’re right that the dominant tone of religious material in country music hasn’t necessarily been confrontational and focused on human depravity and fear of judgment. But I do find it striking that some of that—or even a different sort of pointed theological statement, like Loretta Lynn’s 1968 rebuttal song, Who Says God Is Dead!—was in the mix, and during the rock and roll era. And it wasn’t exactly the work of inconsequential performers out on the fringes either.

    It’s interesting, but not terribly surprising, that an adult contemporary CCM singer-songwriter act could get a reception in mainstream country circles; They write positive, family-friendly fare with ‘70s soft-rock sensibilities. Which, when you think about it, comes awfully close to describing a lot of contemporary country music.

  11. Filipino Kid
    November 29, 2009 at 5:09 am

    @ Jewly: Just add a pedal steel guitar and mandolin or fiddle texture to the music and suddenly it becomes country. :-)

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