Holly Meyer Nashville Tennessean
Published 8:52 AM EDT Jun 3, 2019
Country music stars are putting their faith in new songs that focus more on the church pew than the bar stool.
While religion has always been deeply entrenched in the genre, a slate of Christianity-infused tracks are receiving radio play this year, and they’re being belted from award show stages.
At least seven high-profile songs reference God or his son or wade into the spirit of Christianity.
“It is noteworthy,” country music historian Robert K. Oermann said. “It is not common that there’d be this many at the same time.”
In April, Blake Shelton performed his foot-stomping anthem “God’s Country” at the Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas as the new single was shooting up the country airplay chart. The song was one of four sang from the award show stage that leaned into country music’s fondness for Sunday mornings.
“God’s Country,” written by Jordan Schmidt, Michael Hardy and Devin Dawson, weaves together holy imagery with a rural pride and appreciation for the dirt beneath a farmer’s feet.
Shelton drives home those ideas as he circles through a chorus that nods to songs that famously paired country and Christianity well before he became a star:
“I saw the light in the sunrise/ Sittin’ back in the 40 on the muddy riverside/ Gettin’ baptized in holy water and shine/ With the dogs runnin’/ Saved by the sound of the been found/ Dixie whistled in the wind, that’ll get you heaven bound/ The devil went down to Georgia but he didn’t stick around/ This is God’s country.”
From the same stage, Little Big Town debuted its haunting single “The Daughters,” which rolls through the unfair expectations society puts on women and girls. It’s the last lines of the chorus that sound most like a prayer.
“And pose like a trophy on a shelf/ Dream for everyone, but not yourself/ I’ve heard of God the son and God the father/ I’m still looking for a God for the daughters.”
Group member Karen Fairchild, who co-wrote “The Daughters” with Sean McConnell and Ashley Ray, said the song is not questioning God, but pushing listeners to think.
“I believe that God’s love is for everyone, and I don’t think he has an equality problem,” Fairchild said. “So much of our lives are still framed in a masculine way for men, and this was just saying where’s the God for the daughters and why are we still fighting these battles.”
But it’s not just this decade’s consistent chart toppers carrying these tunes; newcomers and country legends are, too.
The largely unknown Matt Stell stormed onto the radio chart this year with his runaway hit “Prayed for You.”
Stell, who passed on Harvard University’s pre-med program to take a music publishing deal in Nashville, wrote the confessional single with Ash Bowers and Allison Veltz. The song is a meditation on praying for a future spouse.
” ‘Cause every single day, before I knew your name/ I couldn’t see your face, but I prayed for you/ Every heartbreak trail when all hope fell/ On the highway to hell, I prayed for you/ I kept my faith like that old King James/ Said I’m supposed to/ It’s hard to imagine, bigger than I could fathom/ I didn’t know you from Adam but I prayed for you.”
Of the songs fueling this revival, it’s “God and Country Music,” a track on George Strait’s new album, that illustrates country and religion’s longstanding relationship best. The industry veteran performed the ode to two staples of pastoral American living at the April 7 award show.
“God and country music are like whiskey and a prayer/ Like Johnny Cash’s arm around Billy Graham … It’s a dance between the sin and the salvation/ Come hell or high water/ There’s two things still worth saving/ God and country music.”
The genesis of the song is its title, said Luke Laird, who wrote it with Lori McKenna and Barry Dean. McKenna threw out the words “God and Country Music” to the group, and Dean immediately started writing what would become the first verse as Laird played through a simple chord progression.
“He sang through those first couple lines, and immediately Lori and I were like, ‘Wow, that’s awesome,’ ” Laird said. “We were drawn in.”
Laird, who co-founded the Nashville music publishing company Creative Nation with his wife, said he believes that without his creator there would be no creativity. He is one of the many Christians working in an industry that continues to make space for songs about faith.
“The great thing about country music is that you can paint a real picture. Yes, you can have this going to church Sunday morning thing, but then also the reality of our lives and the hard parts in life, too,” Laird said. “I feel like God’s there in all of it.”
But whether people believe in God as Laird does or not, religion is a cornerstone of country music.
“It goes back to the very beginning,” Oermann, the Nashville-based music journalist and author, said. “Gospel music has always played an important part in country music.”
Some of what are considered to be the first song recordings of the genre are steeped in religion, said Oermann, citing Tony Russell’s book “Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921-1942.”
In those formative years, Tennessee’s own Vaughan Quartet recorded “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” in 1921, and about five years later, the Georgia-based Smith’s Sacred Singers shocked Columbia Records when their “Picture from Life’s Other Side” and “Where We’ll Never Grow Old” became a best-seller, Oermann said.
“That encouraged Columbia to continue to record rural, Southern artists because they were so surprised that this rustic, backwoods Georgia group sold so many,” Oermann said.
The repertoire of the Carter Family, one of country music’s founding superstar acts, is heavily laced with gospel music, he said. The words and notes of their heaven-inspired “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” wrap around the inside and outside of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s rotunda.
To this day, country stars sing the hymn made famous by Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters on the stages of the Grand Ole Opry House and the Ryman Auditorium, which is known as the Mother Church of Country Music and is actually a former church.
While country artists are no longer expected to cut gospel albums, they continue to pepper religion-inspired songs throughout their discographies. Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” took home the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year award in 1985, and since then at least five more sacred-leaning tracks, including Chris Stapleton’s “Broken Halos,” have earned that honor.
Some artists, like country superstar Carrie Underwood, continue to return to the genre’s religious roots. Her early hit, “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” became a Christian crossover success just like her 2014 baptism-drenched “Something in the Water.”
“Love Wins” is her latest to draw on Christian material. The hopeful, inspirational song written by Underwood, David Garcia and Brett James could read as a nod to eschatology, a biblical view on how the world will end.
“Sometimes it takes a lot of faith/ To keep believing there will come a day/ When the tears and the sadness, the pain and the hate/ The struggle, this madness, will all fade away, yeah/ I believe you and me are sisters and brothers/ And I, I believe we’re made to be here for each other/ And we’ll never fall if we walk hand in hand/ Put a world that seems broken together again/ Yeah I, I believe in the end love wins.”
The single wrapped up 32 weeks on the country airplay chart this year as the other songs drawing from the sacred were gaining traction.
“Why so many right now?” questioned Oermann.
Thomas Rhett and Brad Paisley released singles off their new albums that use religious themes to celebrate their wives.
Rhett co-wrote his upbeat “Look What God Gave Her” with his dad, Rhett Akins, and a couple of his friends:
“Look what God gave her/ How perfect he made her/ She walks in the room/ It’s like he answered my prayers/ The way that she moves/ How could anybody blame her?/ I know she’s got haters/ But it ain’t her fault, nah/ Look what God gave her.”
Paisley and his co-writer Gary Nicholson went more biblical in his swaying “My Miracle.”
“This is the gospel according to me/ A tale of whiskey turned to wine/ Ain’t no moving of a mountain/ Ain’t no parting of the sea/ But I stand here witness to something just as divine.”
While country stars embrace religious material, the songs tend to skim the surface theologically, David Dark, a Belmont University professor of religion and the arts, said.
He suspects that not delving too deeply into religion allows a song to resonate with the largest possible audience and boosts the bottom line for all who are trying to make a living off it.
“Vague love of God is part of the deal,” Dark said. “You do have to at least pretend to believe in God.”
Dark, who studied the lyrics of all seven songs at The Tennessean’s request, found Little Big Town’s “The Daughters” to be the most compelling. He called it an evocative song of lamentation.
“The song longs, asks for, demands a conception of God that is in sync with deep female thriving, and it’s pretty powerful in that regard,” Dark said.
Dark doesn’t think the song is saying that such a God doesn’t exist, but he recognized that “The Daughters” could be challenging to some worldviews even though feminist sentiment and ethic is plentiful in Scripture.
“It seems to me that the Little Big Town song is sort of arguing for, forecasting and operating in line with the best parts of the biblical tradition,” Dark said. “It’s beautiful because that’s how pop culture can get through in a way that preachers and politicians can’t.”
Little Big Town has received some pushback for the song, said Fairchild, a Christian who sang gospel music before becoming a country star. But she thought most listeners did not hear “The Daughters” as a critique of God’s love for women and girls, but as commentary on today’s society.
“It feels very needed right now. Maybe it was what I needed,” Fairchild said. “The band also when I played it for them, they just lit up and were like, ‘Wow, what a powerful thing to say right now. Little girls need to hear it, and mothers and fathers need to hear it.’ “
Country music is in the midst of its own gender equality problem. More women should be played on country radio, Fairchild said.
But she also thinks the uptick in songs that touch on religion could be symptomatic of this divisive time in America. People’s struggles, stress and anxiety may be drawing them to these lighthearted and serious songs about faith.
“I think people are looking for substance and things to hold on to, and faith gives us that foundation for our lives,” Fairchild said.
Country music has vividly held up a mirror to what is happening in American culture throughout its history, Oermann said.
“It’s either a coincidence or it’s reflective of how troubled the nation is and how much it’s looking for some kind of solace,” Oermann said.
“I don’t think we’ll know that until we look back 20 years from now and say, ‘Oh look, look at that blip, look at that bump in popular God songs.’ “
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