This month was the one year anniversary of my dad’s death. In memorial of this time, I have been catching up on my country music. I had not been able to listen to any country since my dad died. My dad loved country music. I was raised on it. And (even though I know I may lose a lot of readers saying this), I love country music. Hank Jr, George Strait, Tim McGraw, George Jones, Blake Sheldon, and Toby Keith are all good friends who minister to me through this genre of tunes that often baffles me.
Last month (from what I understand) marks the first time that a country music album entered the Billboard 100 at number 1. In fact, from what I saw, this happened twice last month. Country music is not limited to a fringe few of us in the south, but seems to be progressively catching on.
What is Country Music?
Asking the question What is country music? is a bit more debated than you might think. It is not that “I know it when I see it” is the best answer, but there are people who would disagree about what makes a song a country song. One definition I saw was that country music is the blues sung by a white guy. Conversely they said that the blues is country music sung by a black guy. While an emphasis can be placed on the lyrics containing somber blues, I am not sure that this is a sine quo non of country.
There is an old definition of country music though a joke:
What do you get when you play a country song backwards?
You get your dog back, your wife back, your truck back, and you sober up.
As I have thought about it over the years, I think there are four main elements that contribute greatly to a good country song (and none of these are a fiddle and steel guitar):
1. You can hear the southern accent (most other music causes accents to be lost)
2. The song leads to a simple catchy chorus (usually by the end of the song you know it)
3. The lyrics tell a story that can be easily followed and, more often than not, are tragic
4. There is this definite affinity toward the southern contradiction of trust in God while being overwhelmed with sin, confusion, and pain (with lots of drinking at bars)
Why is Country Music So Popular?
The first two elements listed above are enough to make country music popular, but I think that it is the third and especially the fourth that are responsible for the difference in someone knowing and liking country and those who love country. For better or worse, people want to get caught up in the stories of others, especially the sad ones. With all the suffering in their own lives, it helps to find some very tangible illustrations that don’t hold back and don’t seek to bookend their sadness with “victory.” I think of Alan Jackson’s “Someday” where we see one man’s in ability to change his life (even though he knows he should) causing his wife/gal to finally give up and leave. In Brad Paisley’s “Whiskey Lullaby” we find a guy and a girl who break up and then drink themselves to death due to the sadness (watch the video of this song to quickly get quickly up in its beauty and tragedy). Earl Thomas Conley’s classic “Holding Her and Loving You” speaks to the trouble one man has in loving someone else while being married.
But the identity people find goes deeper. Not only is the story explicit, touching and transparent, but there is this crazy juxtaposition between the control sinful behavior often has with a deep belief in God. In country music, God is not represented by some generic big man in the sky, but by a definite expression of Christianity (even if at times somewhat unorthodox). The blood of Jesus, the Bible, and the cross are often seen sitting across from us at the honky-tonk bar. And, more often than not, there is no contradiction that would cause the singer to blush. The existence of sin and God together in the same world is not found only in a break-out country, but it is somewhat staple to the genre.
What the Church Can Learn From Country Music
People listen to music for a variety of reasons. My mood and temperament may be the catalyst that helps me decide between listening to U2 or Eric Church. But when it comes down to it, I am really comforted by the stories, especially the ones that have a God/sin contradiction. It is as if I finally have found a place where people are like me. Now, I don’t have problems with bars, alcohol, or being in love with someone other than my wife, but I do have problems that are just as serious to me. I live the same contradiction that country musicians are not afraid to write about.
I remember the old sitcom Cheers. It was a widely popular show that centered around life in a local bar in Boston. The theme song cried, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.” It is not as if someone knowing the handle that you go by is the important thing. When it says we want to go where someone knows our name, it really means that we want to go to a place where we can reveal who we really are, warts, scars, blood and all. It is not so much that we just want to be somewhere where we can “be ourselves” and sin without anyone caring, its that we want to find a place where we are comfortable enough to let people see the ugly side of us. We don’t really want to be hypocrites. It takes a lot of energy and stress to hide the dark side of our lives. It is a relief to find a place where we are not thought of as weird for having such a blatant contradiction in our living.
Often times, when we go to church, we have to put up a veneer of righteousness, hoping that others don’t see the real us. We fear rejection and judgement. We feel different than everyone there who seems to have it all together. So we put our method of escapism, depression, doubt, and all our other sins in our back pocket, only revealing these to a select few. We hold our hand over our breath, as it were, in attempts to fit in. And we get really good at it. So good, we often fool ourselves.
To be sure there are some, but I don’t see many churches that are like country music in this way. Churches have grown so accustomed to facilitating the denial of our current warts that it is not even part of their mission to foster an environment representing this difficult contradiction. If most church members knew your name—your full name—the gasps of disgust and hammers of judgement will come down quickly so that you know better than to reveal it next time. If sin is talked about, it is in a very general sense with no tangible stories. Saying, “we are all sinful” is much better than detailing the specific sins that plague you. And if you do talk about sin, it is in the past tense. My mom used to train people to give their testimonies for Christian Women’s Club. The three main elements were 1) describe who you were without Christ (insert sin here), 2) talk about when you accepted Christ, 3) tell people how, in Christ, you overcame these sins and how great you life is now. The problem is that this is not normally the case. While our last name is now permanently changed (in Christ), our first name is still Sin.
This is the reason so many of us love Romans chapter 7. The contradiction that is so transparently illustrated in the life of Paul is the country song of our lives. And we do want to find a place where everyone knows our FULL name.
I am not saying that country music is redemptive. I am not encouraging people to sing “Digging Up Bones” during worship. And I am certainly not saying that country music gets everything right and the church gets it all wrong in the area of transparency. But, unlike it is many times in the church, these southern ballads don’t feel the pressure to shy away from revealing a troubling contradiction that we all live with everyday. I said at the beginning that country music baffles me. But, when I am honest, I baffle myself more. That is why I love country music.