Beginning from the pioneers of Country music, The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, songs about family and faith were an integral part of the genre’s development. Again, for evidence’ sake, here’s a summary of the gospel chart-toppers throughout country music’s history.
- Can the Circle Be Unbroken (1927) – Carter Family
Peace in the Valley (1951) – Red Folley
Wings of a Dove (1960) – Ferlin Husky
Family Bible (1960) – George Jones
Why Me Lord (1973) –Kris Kristofferson
The Old Rugged Cross (1975) – Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash
Angels Among Us (1993)- Alabama
Go Rest High on That Mountain (1995) – Vince Gill
Holes in the Floor of Heaven (1998) -Steve Wariner
The Little Girl (2000)- John Michael Montgomery
Three Wooden Crosses (2003) – Randy Travis
Long Black Train (2003- Josh Turner
Believe (2005)- Brooks & Dunn
Jesus, Take the Wheel (2005)- Carrie Underwood
When I Get Where I’m Going (2005)-Brad Paisley and Dolly Parton
Bless the Broken Road (2005) – Rascal Flatts
I Saw God Today (2007)-George Strait
Emboldened perhaps by the repetitive success of their predecessors, not a few contemporary country singers risk their musical career by occasionally recording gospel materials. To be fair, many might have been like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Sr. who took the first kind of music they’ve learned (spiritual) and applied them to their respective specialties (honky-tonk and outlaw).
Sharing Secular Platform
For being indispensable, associations were organized to cater to the needs of Christian folks and amplified by their favorite artists.
In 1989, the Christian Country Music Association was organized followed by the Inspirational Country Music Awards in 1992. This ICMA is responsible for dispensing honors to gospel singers and songwriters alike. Some awards yearly given were Songwriter of the Year, Group of the Year, Christian Country Song of the Year, Female Vocalist of the Year, and Male Vocalist of the Year. They even give special recognition to Christian Country Music Pioneers. The Gospel Music Awards (GMA) would be an exception as its scope is wider encompassing all genres from Southern gospel to Contemporary Christian songs.
Going international, there’s also the oldest association called International Country Gospel Music Association established in 1957. Though based in Texas, ICGMA, likewise, aims to spread faith-themed songs by partnering with Christian country artists. Their vision, however, is on a global scale.
To date, sub-genres recognized as Christian Country include bluegrass gospel, southern gospel and of course, countrified spins of ancient hymns.
For bluegrass gospel, we have Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Mount Zion Band and Rhonda Vincent. Of course, we’re not forgetting the works of the older musicians like Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys, Ralph Stanley, Mac Wiseman and Doc Watson.
Next would be Southern Gospel which had been going strong for decades. Representative artists would be The Crabb Family, The Hinsons, The Hoppers, The Isaacs, Jeff and Sheri Easter, The Martins, The Gaither Vocal Band, and The Oakridge Boys. Pioneer groups include the Chuck Wagon Gang, The Blackwood Brothers, J.D Sumner and The Stamps, The Cathedral, and The Bill Gaither Trio.
As for the gospel albums by country artists, they’ve merged original compositions with old-time hymns. Among them were Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Charlie Daniels, Larry Gatlin, Alan Jackson, Loretta Lynn, The Louvin Brothers, Reba McEntire, Willie Nelson, Brad Paisley, Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Marty Stuart, Randy Travis, Carrie Underwood, Diamond Rio, and of course, Hank Williams Sr.
A Few Considerations
Success always comes with controversies.
Purists from both sides of the entertainment and religion have their own sets of opinion. For the “country music is for entertainment only,” they want to do away with anything that has to do with religion. But Country, as a music genre, is a mixed bag of themes. An artist may sing about faith, God, and Christian values, and on the next breath sing of womanizing, alcohol, and endless partying. That, exactly, is the hang-up of the religious. In their zeal to protect the Lord’s reputation, an entertainer, to them, cannot genuinely promote faith.
Regardless of their reasons, both parties agree that there shouldn’t be a mixture of the sacred and the secular. Yet when profit is added into the equation, there is no objection. And by profit, it does not only mean the money-making schemes of the producers but it also pertains to that timeless Christian agenda of getting the Lord’s Word out.
From a broad and permissive Christian worldview, as long as the gospel song points people to see God, then support for its album and singer is for sure. One gospel song by a renowned singer can efficiently reach a wide variety of listeners. Hence, it’s still a win for us in the same way that the music industry benefits through album sales.
On Naivety and Superficiality
Seeing that we’re always a ready consumer for anything ‘gospel,’ today’s artists and record labels cater to our sentiments. Needless to say, Christians, again, are not as naïve as they may have assumed. We’re aware that just because it’s labeled ‘gospel’ or ‘sang by a certain Christian artist’ and the like, does not mean ‘good.’ We know how to separate the “weeds” from the “wheat.” Hence, it’s not really just about the emotional appeal or the memories they bring us that we care to listen to them.
Furthermore, we’re also concerned about how Christianity is being portrayed. The contradiction between the artist’s lifestyle and the pious songs he or she sings is bothersome. However, throwing the dirty water out with the baby will also be problematic. So yes, in this case, we have to compromise by trading our scanty, religious reputation with that of the furthering of the knowledge about God’s existence and his active involvement in our lives.
Still, we’re faced with a dilemma. While many of the oldies are safe for recommendations, modern country songs tagged as ‘Christian’ present a great challenge. To be fair, loads of them are inspirational and are appropriate for promotion. But, how we wish there’ll be new songs with more theological depth! Without dismissing the sincerity of the emotions invested on contemporary songs, a singer with real conviction can do better than settle with shallow wordings.
Publishing the “Good News” through Unorthodox Means
Regardless of the style, music has always been a powerful tool to shape how people think and feel. Recognizing this, progressive Christians opt not to demonize the secularism of today’s gospel songs. Like that optimistic boy from one story, they believe that there has to be a pony somewhere. And they were right.
There had been many positive responses and shared testimonies online on how a certain song led them to look and to cry out to God for help. Thus, with that purpose in mind, Christian country songs (regardless of the singer) aren’t really doomed. We just have to learn where to look. Soon, we can figure a way (as we always did) on how to make current trends work in our favor.
That said, here’s a simple guideline we wish artists or their songwriters knew about what makes a great gospel song. We’ve also added corresponding examples for reference.
A great gospel song can just be summarized in two words: exemplary content. Following are what constitutes an exemplary content.
Songs that can evoke strong emotions or can associate with past memories are highly marketable. Still, it isn’t impossible to include a message that can engage the mind. Religious lingo calls it “theology” –what we think about God. Christians love to think about God more than how they feel about him. For that, songs with good theology will last long.
This is the strength of most ancient hymns like “How Great Thou Art” and “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.” So if a singer aspires that his or her song becomes a classic, then magnifying God’s attributes, character, and nature will go a long way.
2. Borrow from the Bible
This is how Christians weed out their list of gospel songs. Just substituting Jesus’s name to a song that clearly speaks of a relationship between a man and a woman won’t amount much. It may appeal to the younger folks, but even that will just be for a time. However, when listeners from the Christian circle recognize an account or an event from Bible passages, then they will all be ears. Gospel albums by country legends like Hank Williams Sr. and Johnny Cash are full of such songs.
“Great Judgement Morning” and “When the Fire Comes Down from Heaven” by Hank Williams Sr.
“I Corinthians 15:55” by Johnny Cash from the album, American VI: Ain’t No Grave
Songs don’t have to be always strictly peppered with Bible images though. Principles consistent with the writings in the Bible will also gain an audience. Of course, the usage has to be in context. Our sweet Dolly Parton knows well how to that in “The Seeker.”
This does not need much explanation. Be it written in the first person or just a description of another person’s salvation experience, such songs will always hold a special place in our hearts. Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me Lord” and Randy Travis’ “Three Wooden Crosses” are two great examples. For something recent, Blake Shelton’s “Standing in My Savior’s Shadow” has the potential to weather many years.
4. Write your Prayers
If you have something you want to tell God, why not write it and later add melody? Most of the hymns that stuck for decades were initially prayers. There are numerous examples but suffice to pick something that’s closer to our era like Dolly Parton’s “Hello God”
With all that said, let’s then answer the question posed in this article’s title.
Culture will always be at odds with Christianity but instead of isolating ourselves, why not support the promotion of CCM (Christian Country Music)? Why allow pop-culture to displace the message of the gospel which had long been at the heart of country music?
Furthermore, not leaving incoming but well-meaning singers at the mercy of their producers will give us a chance to redeem “music” back to its glorious purpose. Besides, they’re far healthier and wholesome alternatives compared to the sexualized lyrics that have slowly infiltrated country music today.
Back to the “purpose,” music was intended to be a platform for “worship.” For years, we’ve allowed it to be corrupted by ungodly influences. With the exemptions of those random times when conscientious artists snuck in some songs about religion, of course. Music, then, becomes a platform for “evangelism.” Just look at what happened to Connie Smith and Kris Kristofferson.
Still, the lingering question, “what’s next?” Like the other genres, CCM has to be defined by its lyrical value. Its longevity will depend on the reception of consumers, particularly, the Bible belt. As we generously support full-time gospel singers, let’s not be stingy with our acknowledgments of other inspirational songs. Even if they’re the product of selfish schemes and have the packaging of Hollywood, that will not limit God’s inner working.
In other words, this should no longer be an issue of “separation from the world” but the daunting task of “setting-apart” what’s left in music for God’s honor. From a non-Christian’s perspective, we’ve been outsmarted and manipulated by the music industry. On the surface, that’s what it looks like but for keen and observant believers, there’s a bigger fish to fry.
Are we going to participate?
There’s no better way to emphasize a point than repetition. Again, Christians, who want to be in sync with God’s agenda of reconciling the earth to himself must not leave the music world behind. Now that we are the “next craze for country music,” that’s like being given an access to contribute to its development.
But there’s this big, gnawing objection. That if we give the industry free reign to make us their market, they might ruin the essence of Christian’s values and core beliefs. That’s a valid point and it has already happened, but only because we did nothing. Please do not misunderstand. We’re not advocating a reliance to Hollywood and producers to shape our sacred music. Rather, it’s the opposite. Let them take what we have so there’ll be hope of bringing positive changes not just to the secular music, but even in the lives of the entertainers.
Joining the “hate culture,” against singers or producers using “gospel” to make bucks will also be counterproductive. Why don’t we, instead, create a demand for legit Christian songwriters for artists who intend to release Gospel albums? (Wish that will come sooner to counter pathetic lyrical lines applied on many of today’s songs. If you’ve heard of Florida Georgia Line’s H.O.L.Y, you’ll know what I mean.)
And instead of insisting the divisive view of sacred versus secular, why not see this as a challenge to make all things sacred? Impossible you think? Look back at history and count how many times this had been made possible. Think of Ferlin Husky and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Remember the TV and radio programs that always featured gospel songs. We reminisce and long for those good old days. Will they just remain as a thing of the past? Again, only if we’re content to isolate ourselves instead of exercising our influence. Of course, it won’t be easy but it’s doable.
Another potential benefit for the Christendom is the bridge that CCM can build. It’s understandable when older folks bewail young people’s lack of appreciation to hymns. That’s where we’ll need established singers. Likewise, they and their labels would need help in tailoring their songs for the Christian mass. Let’s then use our voices to define what makes an effective gospel song. From their vantage point, they want sales, so they’ll do it. But to us, it’s for a greater gain – to win the younger generation to Christ.
To end, it won’t just be “Forever Country.” We can also make another claim, “Forever Gospel.”
We would love to hear your personal thoughts about this issue folks! Feel free to state them in the comment section below. For similar readings, click one of the tags below.
Carter Family, Dolly Parton, Editorial, gospel, Gospel Music Pioneers, jimmie rodgers, Johnny Cash, kris kristofferson
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