This is the last in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.
Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).
Protestant Christian Values in Country Music
By Zachary LeCompte
When you listen to country music what do you hear? Or more importantly what don’t you hear? While you may say, “I hear songs about trucks, girls and farms”, would you believe me if I said one could also include “I hear a Christian parable”? Would you believe me if I said that in country music, we can see Christian themes and ideas reflected in both the lyrics of the songs and the music videos released by popular country artists? Do you believe that this would be possible in a culture where you seem to be encouraged to suppress religious expressions in order to achieve mainstream success?
Religion In Mainstream Music
As detailed in William Romanowski’s article “Evangelicals and Popular Music”, located in the publication Religion and Popular Culture in America, if popular artists want to achieve mainstream success they have to be willing to suppress or minimize the religious influence of the songs. That is to avoid using overtly religious lyrics that may go against the general population’s idea of what popular music should sound like. This can be credited to our cultures increasing secularization, as well as the increasing tendency to avoid explicitly religious expressions to avoid offending those of different beliefs.
And according to Campbell et al. in Media and Culture, country music is the most popular radio format in the United States. That is there are more country music radio stations than any other music format and only talk radio has more across all formats.
So on one had we see Romanowski say that popular music has to be secularized and on the other hand we see Campbell et al. say that country is the most popular music form, and yet we see Christian themes in country music. Themes such as individualism and pre-millennialism; Individualism being the focus of the individual’s personal relationship with God and pre-millennialism being the idea that Jesus will return to earth and bring a period of peace and the return of the kingdom of God.
Protestant Themes In Country Music Lyrics
Rich Tiner states in his article “Positively Country” from the periodical Christianity Today, “Non-Christian listeners are getting tired of some of the messages in mainstream country”, showing that many have begun to notice this trend. Tiner goes on to define two kinds of country music that contain theses messages or themes. The first is “positive country” or “implicitly Christian, conveying Biblical values but not necessarily a gospel message” which tends to find its way to mainstream more often. The second is “Christian country” or “overtly Christian with an explicit gospel message” which is often less welcomed on the mainstream stations but enjoys great success on its own.
One perfect example of individualism is the radio single from artist Thomas Rhett named “Beer With Jesus”. This song received ample airtime and peaked at number 19 on Billboard’s US Country Airplay. The song paints of picture of what Rhett would ask if he were to garner some alone time with Jesus. In the chorus Rhett sings, “Do you hear the prayers I send, what happens when life ends? And when you think you’re comin’ back again?” Within these words we can see distinctly Christian messages like praying to Jesus, the idea of an after life and the return of Jesus to earth.
Later he asks, “What’s on the other side? Is mom and daddy alright? And if it ain’t no trouble tell them I said hi.” Again we see the idea of an after life. However, now we also see the idea that if you believe in God, you will go to heaven to be with Jesus when you die. This is portrayed when Rhett asks if Jesus could tell his deceased parents that he said hello, implying that Jesus would see them upon his return to heaven.
Another example of individualism is Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel”. This song enjoyed success across the board, peaking at number 1 on Billboards US Hot Country Songs and number 4 on Billboards US Christian Songs. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Country song as well as and Academy of Country Music Award for Single of the Year and a Gospel Music Association Award for Country Recorded Song of the Year.
The song tells the story of a young woman driving to visit her parents in Cincinnati when she loses control of her car. After it comes to a stop she decides to pray and to devote herself to Jesus, asking him to “take the wheel” of her life. We see here the Christian message of prayer as well as the idea that one should devote their lives to Jesus and leave their lives at his mercy.
Another song that carries a Christian theme of individualism is the 1948 Hank Williams song “I Saw the Light”. This song was discussed in the article “Preaching and Country Music” by Lamar Potts from the publication Journal for Preachers. In the song Williams talks of how he lived a life of sin, unwilling to accept change until one day he let Jesus in and it changed his life. We see this in the opening verse:
I wandered so aimless life filed with sin, I wouldn’t let my dear savior in, Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night, Praise the lord I saw the light.
The song also presents the idea of good vs. evil, which is very prevalent in Protestantism in several ways. The first is the more conservative view of the battle of living life morally and spiritually holy and avoiding a life filled with sin. The second view of good vs. evil is more of a liberal view of society trying to combat the evils that plague the community as a whole and trying to eliminate evils such as poverty, oppression and injustice.
In this case the view is more conservative, and focuses mainly on the narrators life and experiences. It is for this reason that the song is a good example of individualism.
Ted Olsen of Christianity Today points out in the article “Johnny Cash’s Song of Redemption” that the country legend had more that one hit that carried a Christian message. Perhaps the best example of this is his song “The Man Comes Around”. It was one of the most successful songs from the back half of his career, selling 500,000 copies before his death.
The songs centers around a main theme of the end of the world, and more specifically the apocalypse as described in the book of revelation. The song opens and closes with two spoken verses from the book of Revelation, one introducing the first horseman of the apocalypse and the other introducing the last horseman.
Open: “And I heard as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying come and see and I saw, and behold a white horse” – Revelation 6:1-2
Close: “And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts, and I looked and behold, a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” – Revelation 6: 7-8
We also see many other allusions to the Bible in the lyrics of these songs such as “Then the father hen will call his chickens home” as well as “It’s Alpha and Omega’s kingdom come”. Both of these lines stick to the songs pattern of using biblical references to illustrate its story. And it is the use of these references we see not only a Christian influence, but also more specifically a pre-millennialist Protestant influence.
Christian Images In Country Music Videos
We also see Christian messages portrayed in music videos for songs. One music video we see a Christian messages in is Carrie Underwood’s “See You Again” video. Throughout the video we see crosses on the screen in a variety of places. One in an elderly widows living room, and another at a cemetery. We also see make shift crosses left made from debris left after a deadly tornado.
We also see messages written near sites of tragedies. One shot shows a wall that is spray-painted with, “God Bless Sandy Hook”, referring to the school shooting. Another shows a heart with the message, “keep faith Moore, OK” in response to the deadly outbreak of Tornadoes. We also see a tombstone flash on the screen with the inscription “God heals all wounds”. In addition, we also see people raise their hands towards the sky, as you would see one doing in church or in prayer on multiple occasions.
Perhaps the strongest Christian image we see is a video clip of a father and a son being baptized together during a church service. By placing this clip in the video for the song, “See You Again”, it is implied that the father and the son will eventually meet again in heaven now that they have accepted the Lord as their savior.
Another example of a country song having Christian messages portrayed in its music video is the video for “Hurt” by Johnny Cash. This video actually contains clips of a reenactment of the crucifixion of Jesus as well as other images. Some of the other images include a portrait of Jesus and an arch with a golden cross on top.
Other music videos we see Christian messages in include the video for Toby Keith’s “American Soldier” and Eric Church’s “Give Me Back My Hometown”. In Keith’s video we see a soldier praying and kissing a crucifix necklace as he prepares to go into battle, showing the importance of prayer and faith in God to protect you from your enemies.
In Church’s video we see many of the scenes at a cemetery where we see many crosses throughout. We then see the burial plot the main character is visiting, which has a cross placed at the head of the plot and a minister standing and reading from a Bible. The minister is praying for the soul of the deceased to be accepted to heaven.
What’s the Explanation?
In a culture that is increasingly secularized, and promotes silenced religious expressions in mainstream music, how is it that we can see such distinct messages make it into mainstream airplay? It may have to do with the fact that despite the increasing secularization, we are still a nation with a strong heritage of Christianity in our culture as well as a strong Protestant influence in today’s culture. And due to this influence, many Americans are still accepting of Christian expressions.
Another reason could be that Christian culture had a large influence in the southern United States, a region also known as the “Bible Belt”.
The Christian influence in the “Bible Belt” is important because the region is the “home of country music” (Nashville, Tennessee) and also produces a large number of country musicians, especially from Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Therefore, the personal beliefs of country musicians, and listeners may also contribute to the tolerance of Christian messages in the music.
But regardless of the reason, country music shows us that the American culture may not be as opposed to religious expression as it seems. It shows that the culture is still tolerant of Christianity. Not much unlike “moments of silence” replacing moments of prayer. We see the secularized context, but we still understand the original Christian concept. And while many still view it as a moment to pray, or exercise their faith, we allow it because it isn’t demanding our participation nor forcing us to alter our beliefs. This is similar to Christian themes being shown in country music, because while they are there, they don’t dominate the landscape. There are plenty of secular country songs to balance out the tone of the music.
In fact we even see this balancing demonstrated inside the genre of country music. Positive country, as described by Tiner, serves as the more toned down, or modest version for mainstream stations, whereas Christian country tends to be more vocal and dominating, therefore being marginalized for niche audiences.
So while religious messages may not be supported in mass, from time to time, they are still welcome in moderation. And this shows us that Protestantism has shaped American culture to be tolerant of religious expressions in mainstream culture, as long as they don’t dominate the landscape.