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The Christian Tradition in Country Music
from Honky Tonk Gospel
by Gene Edward Veith and Thomas L. Wilmeth
One style of country music, more than any other; has self-consciously kept alive the old country traditions - both musically and ideologically. Bluegrass, a relatively new creation, was founded by Bill Monroe. Monroe took the strains of mountain music, established a fixed mode of acoustic instrumentation (fiddle, mandolin, guitar, bass, and banjo), all set at breakneck speed in an improvisational style that owes more to jazz than the one-melody unison approach of the old string bands. But Monroe loved what he called "the ancient tones," and the art form he founded preserves both the old tunes and the old ideas. In bluegrass, it is evident how the sacred and the secular not only exist side by side musically; but how they interpenetrate each other, constituting a total worldview in which Christian faith is a part of everyday life in all of its joys, sorrows, and travails.

Ralph Stanley, one of the great pioneers of bluegrass, says, "Of the 170 albums I've played on, about 40 percent are gospel." A similar mixture of sacred and secular numbers can be found on nearly every bluegrass album by nearly every performer Contemporary bluegrass virtuoso-and country music crossover Alison Krauss told a reporter, "I'm trying to remember a [blue-grass] band that doesn't play gospel. I just can't think of any." Even the popularizing 1972 bluegrass anthology Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which featured the folk-rock Nitty Gritty Dirt Band playing with legends such as Maybelle Carter and Earl Scruggs, has a good half-dozen religious songs. On the 1993 anthology album from Rounder Records, Blue Ribbon Bluegrass, "River of Jordan" and "When God Dips His Love in My Heart" take their place next to "Girl at the Roadside inn" and "Lonesome River" The album also Features songs like "Lost and I'll Never Find the Way" and "Here Today and Gone Tomorrow," where the sacred and the secular cannot be separated from each other.

Though not in such pure strains as in bluegrass, the spiritual and the earthy continue to coexist in mainstream country music as well. As country music has become part of the popular music industry reaching a larger and more diverse mass audience, some of the Christianity has lost its edge or has become nearly unrecognizable. Nevertheless, the place of Christianity in American culture, particularly in American rural and working-class cultures, runs deep. Even in contemporary country music the Christian tradition continues to leave its mark.

The whole array of songs about breakups and alcoholism, guilt and remorse (which will be discussed in chapters 7 and 8) can be seen in terms of the old revival testimonies, exemplifying the sinner's confession. Today, however, the grace that was the substance of the gospel songs-the Forgiveness of sin through Christ-is often conspicuously absent.

Exhortations also continue to be a common theme in country music. Straightforward advice about how the listener ought to live is a staple of the genre, from the Carter Family's "Keep on the Sunny Side" to the Louvin Brothers' "Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself" to Clint Black's "Wherever You Go (There You Are)" (with Hayden Nicholas). Even modern country superstar Garth Brooks is fond of exhorting his legions of listeners as to how they should live their lives. These exhortations include the faintly Christian "The River" (with Victoria Shaw) ("with the good Lord as my captain" he can sail his vessel through the rough waters); the call for bold action in "Standing Outside the Fire" (with Jenny Yates) ("Life is not tried, it is merely survived/lf you're standing outside the fire"); and the rather relativistic "Do What You Gotta Do" (Pat Flynn).

Country music historian Ronnie Pugh classifies several motifs of the old country gospel songs, a large number of which continue to appear in the bluegrass repertoire. They include the Bible, religious experience, personal morality, eternity, the country church, and life as a pilgrimage. Many of these motifs still manifest themselves in country music also-sometimes intact and sometimes in altered or oddly displaced variations.

The Bible
The Bible is a motif that looms large in country gospel, befitting the centrality of the Word of God in Southern Protestant churches. Examples include old songs such as "I'm Using My Bible for a Road map," the Blue Sky Boys' "B-I-B-L-E, and the Bailes Brothers' "Dust on the Bible," recorded by Kitty Wells and others. And, of course, the previously discussed "Little Log Cabin by the Sea" by the Carter Family; with its "precious, precious Bible."

The Bible remains a potent image in contemporary country music. Willie Nelson wrote a moving song called "Family Bible" (before he sold the songwriting rights). George Jones recorded a tune called "Mama's Family Bible" (L. Kingston), and more recently, Randy Travis recorded "The Family Bible and the Farmer's Almanac" (Lee Thomas Miller; Bob Regan). In Travis' hit "The Box" (with Buck Moore), a family goes through a collection of memorabilia that had been treasured by the father who recently died, revealing depths of feeling and character they had never known, because of his strong, taciturn, rocklike exterior. Among his possessions in the box was "the faded Bible he had got when he was baptized," leading to the conclusion, "I guess nobody understood him but the Lord."

In Mark Chesnutt's "Thank God for Believers" (Mark Alan Springer; Roger Springer; Tim Johnson) an alcoholic husband, off the wagon again, staggers home to his hurt, worried, but constant wife, who has been praying for him, crying, and seeking strength in the Scriptures. He sees "the hurt in her eyes" and "the Bible on the table where she prayed." The Bible is a poignant sign of the wife's piety and faith-not only in God but in her backsliding husband as well. The "believers" of the song title refers to the way his wife unaccountably believes in him, which inspires him to battle his drinking problem. The love and forgiveness of the wife is a secular counterpart to the grace of God, who likewise offers sinners forgiveness that can change them from the inside. Although the song is about human love, the title, "Thank God for Believers," and the image of the Bible places this family drama in the context of evangelical theology.

Religious Experience
Religious experience-that is, conversion, prayer, and praise-is another, rather obvious, motif of country gospel cited by Pugh. Examples of this motif include nearly all of the old revival songs as well as the works of country gospel groups such as the Bailes Brother's ("One Way Ticket to the Sky," You Can Go Half Way [and Get ln]"). The pious effusions of songwriters such as Odell McLeod ("From the Manger to the Cross") and Red Foley ("Steal Away," "Just a Closer Walk with Thee") became staples of the Grand Ole Opry.

Perhaps the greatest country artist in both singing and writing songs explicitly about religious experience was Hank Williams, his most famous example being "I Saw the Light." (He deserves a chapter unto himself, chapter 9.)

More recently Johnny Cash has been singing songs of conversion, such as "Unchained" (Jude Johnstone). The singer recounts how he has been ungrateful, unwise, and restless. On his knees, he confesses his weakness and vanity and asks God to "take this weight from me/Let my spirit be unchained."

Cash's album of the same title mingles the regular array of crime songs and traveling songs with numerous songs of religious experience. These include the wrenching and desperate "Spiritual" (Josh Haden):

Jesus, I don't wanna die alone;
Jesus, oh Jesus, I don't wanna die alone.
My love wasn't true
Now all I have is you.
Jesus, oh Jesus, I don't want to die alone.
Jesus, if you hear my last breath,
Don't leave me here,
Left to die a lonely death.
I know I have sinned,
But Lord I'm suffering.

The album also includes songs of spiritual peace ("Memories Are Made of This" [Frank Miller; Richard Dehr; Terry Gilkyson]) and ecstasy (Cash's own "Meet Me in Heaven").

Praise is a subcategory of religious experience, often appearing in contemporary country music in the context of a song celebrating ordinary life. Songs that thank the good Lord for love or marriage or family are fairly common. These range from Tennessee Ernie Ford's classic rendition of "Count Your Many Blessings" (John Oatman Jr, Edwin O. Excell) to Alison Krauss' lovely "In the Palm of Your Hand" (Ron Block), with its clear christological assurance. "If I trust the one who died for me,/Who shed His blood to set me free" she sings, she can have confidence that for her physical needs His grace will provide.

A particularly charming example of praise is Tracy Byrd's hit "The Keeper of the Stars" (Dickey Lee, Danny Bear Mayo, Karen Ruth Staley). It couldn't have been an accident finding the woman he married, he reflects. It was God's providence. He just can't believe she is in his life. "I tip my hat to the keeper of the stars/He sure knew what he was doin" when He joined them together. The singer is so overwhelmed with love for his wife and awe at how their lives have come together that he is filled with praise for God, expressed in the cowboy gesture of "tipping his hat" to the Lord.

The religious experience of prayer is also common in country music, generally in the context of anguish and trouble. An example notable for its direct Christian and biblical imagery and for being a hit record by the teen heartthrob Bryan White is "One Small Miracle" (Bill Anderson, Steve Wariner). In this song, a man desperately asks Jesus to perform a miracle to keep his wife from leaving him:

She's standing at the front door
With her suitcase in her hand
I'm starin' down the hallway
Frozen where I stand.

She says she doesn't love me anymore
Oh, Lord, what can I do
it's gonna take a miracle to make her stay
That's why I'm askin' You.

I know I haven't been a Saint
And asking You for anything takes nerve
'Cause You've already blessed me
With so much more in life than I deserve.

But if You can make a blind man see
And change the water into wine
Surely You can keep her from
Tearin' out this old heart of mine.

in a more upbeat mood, another contemporary artist, Pam Tillis, sings about praying to meet the right man in "I Said a Prayer" (Leslie Satcher), a prayer; she sings exuberantly, that was answered.

And then there is Garth Brooks and "Unanswered Prayers." Brooks wrote the song, he says, based on an incident that actually occurred. The song tells of a man and his wife who attend a high school football game while visiting his hometown. Here, he runs into an old girlfriend whom he had such a crush on in high school that he had prayed for God to bring them together. He introduces her to his wife, and they chat awkwardly, without rnuch to say. His old girlfriend isn't quite the angel he had remembered; time has changed them both. As she walks away, he turns and looks at his wife and is filled with gratitude that God did not grant his adolescent prayer. God's plan is better than our own. Since "the Lord knows what He's doin' after all," the singer reflects that "some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers." The song, from his first album, is one of Brooks' most endearing and combines both prayer and praise.

Although religious experience is an acceptable subject for country music, some country songs today retain religious language and imagery but use it in a very different way. The biblical language is there, but it is displaced away from God, referring instead to human and even sexual love. This is not a totally new thing-seventeenth-century English poet John Donne did something similar; using erotic imagery in his religious poems to God, and religious imagery in his love poems. But the country way of transposing such imagery falls somewhat short of the metaphysical.

Thus, in "Amen Kind of Love" (Trey Bruce, Wayne Tester), Daryle Singletary uses evangelical imagery to describe the effect of a new girlfriend. For the first time he sees the light (alluding to Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light"). Now the Spirit moves him to testify about a love that brings him to his knees. The love affair is described with images from a Pentecostal revival the Holy Spirit, testifying, getting slain in the Spirit, and shouting "Amen!" The song goes on to allude to traditional hymns and gospel songs: "Safe in your faithful arms I am leaning" ("Leaning on the Everlasting Arms") and "Once I was lost but now I am found for ever more" ("Amazing Grace").

The profanation is taken even farther in "Brand New Man" written and performed by Brooks and Dunn. "I saw the light," the singer testifies. Not only that, "I've been baptized." Not by water and the Word, not even by the Holy Spirit's fire as Pentecostalists like to think of it. Rather, he was baptized "by the fire in your touch/and the flame in your eyes." This experience makes him "born to love again," transforming him into a "brand new man." Here, in the very first line, Hank Williams' classic song is directly appropriated, wrenched away from God, and applied to the way a woman makes him feel. The song then proceeds to do the same thing with baptism, the fire of the Holy Spirit, and the phrase "born again." As the song continues, it is evident that these are not mere figures of speech; rather; it is, in fact, a conversion song. But it is not conversion through Christ; it is conversion through the love of a good woman. He "used to have a wild side" and would "burn those beer joints down." But now he is walking the line. "You turned my life around." The secularization of the gospel tradition is here complete. The religious imagery, however, is retained and remains potent; only its object has been changed.

To his credit, George Strait pulls off the reverse, moving from human love to divine love. In "Love without End, Amen" (Aaron Barker), he sings about getting in trouble for fighting and being afraid to face his father. "Let me tell you a secret about a father's love," he is told. "Daddies don't just love their children every now and then/It's a love without end, Amen." Then, in the familiar country narrative pattern, the next stanza has the singer with his own son. "That stubborn boy was just like my father's son." In response to his own son now getting into trouble, the message about the unconditional quality of a father's love is passed on to the next generation. In the final stanza, the singer dreams he has died and is standing outside the pearly gates. "If they know half the things I've done, they'll never let me in." But then he hears those same words from his heavenly Father, who has "a love without end, Amen." The religious, even liturgical, language of the chorus is returned to its original theological context. Salvation is by grace, not works. The divine truth is indeed manifested in human and family relationships, which point to a reality beyond themselves. Yes, the song is sentimental, and yes, its theology leaves out the role of the "father's son," namely, Christ. But Strait pulls off this little emblem of grace amazingly well.

Personal Morality
Personal morality, construed in terms of private charity and concern for one's neighbor, is another theme of country gospel cited by Ronnie Pugh. Pugh emphasizes that in the old country gospel songs, the way to a better society is through personal action, not through any kind of political activism or collectivist schemes.

To the consternation of liberal activists and Marxist academics, America's working class-particularly in the South- tends to be conservative. To be sure, as the group Alabama sings in "Song of the South," the region has been dominated by the "Southern Democrat," who, stung by the Depression, believes that "Mr. Roosevelt is gonna save us all" through public works programs such as the TVA. And yet, though poor whites, farmers, and blue-collar workers might be expected to have financial interests that would push them in the direction of political radicalism-as in the case of the Socialist parties of Europe- they have a cultural conservatism that confounds "progressive" politicians.

A major reason for Southern conservatism may be the theology and the history of the Southern church. As Pugh points out, the old gospel songs have nothing to do with the "social gospel" that had taken hold in mainline Northern denominations as early as the nineteenth century, accelerating into the twentieth. According to the social gospel, which attempts to accommodate the modernist claims of progress and its rejection of the supernatural in favor of the scientific, the old personal gospel of individual salvation is outmoded. The church needs instead to be involved in saving society The great social reform movements of the nineteenth century-Abolition, Prohibition, Women's Suffrage-as well as programs to ban child labor, clean up the slums, and otherwise address issues of economic justice in an industrial economy, were in large measure fueled by Christians trying to carry out the social gospel.

For conservative churches, including the vast number of those in the South, the social gospel was heresy, a blatant rejection of the Word of God. Individual salvation is at the essence of Christianity, which is about saving the souls of sinners for eternal life. To replace the saving gospel of Christ with do-good schemes that promise a utopia on earth through political action is a satanic distortion. That the modernist theologians sided with the evolutionists in the aftermath of the Scopes Trial in Tennessee intensified the issue. Much later, the Southern churches became politically active, motivated by issues such as legalized abortion, but the battles fought by the so-called Christian Right were moral and cultural rather than economic.

It might be said that theological liberals tend to be tolerant of personal moral failings, pushing their moral concerns out to the periphery of vast social causes. Voting responsibly and holding the correct positions on global peace and the environment are of greater moral significance than, for example, their own sexual behavior. Conservative Christians, on the other hand, focus on the moral responsibility of the individual, as expressed tangibly in his or her own actions and relationships with others. The big social issues are too distant, too far removed, to have much moral significance. At least this is the stance in country gospel and, for the most part, in country music.

Early songs about concern for one's neighbor include "Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself," "The Gospel Way," "The Sons and Daughters of God," "Pray for Me," and "That's All That He's Asking of Me"-from the Louvin Brothers' repertoire alone. The emphasis in all of these songs is helping your neighbor down the road, not any vast social reform.

Even in contemporary country music, songs of social responsibility tend to be songs of individuals helping individuals. These range from George Jones' tearjerker about the homeless ("Wild Irish Rose") to Shania Twain's plea for suffering children ("God Bless the Child," whose Christian warrant is further established by the refrain of "Hallelujah").

A hit by Mark Wills, "Don't Laugh at Me," enjoins listeners not to make fun of geeks, children who are chosen last, fat people, crippled beggars, or the down-and-out who hold up cardboard signs asking for work. The basis for this request for benevolence is theological: everyone is equal before God, and everyone is an immortal soul designed for eternal life, when "we'll all have perfect wings."

Then there is Martina McBride's odd country rap, "Love's the Only House" (Tom Douglas, Buzz Cason), which surveys the pain in the world, from the grocery store line to the sights from a car window. After rehearsing a variety of encounters, the song is resolved back in the grocery store when a single mother doesn't have enough money to cover the cost of milk for her baby. The singer pays for the carton of milk and invites her home. The refrain is the quasi-theological "Love's the only house big enough for all the pain in the world," and the answer is to "come down and get my hands dirty and together we'll make a stand." Again, the answer is not vast social reform but individuals helping individuals in concrete ways.

Collin Raye had two big hits with more complex moral exhortations. In "I Think About You" (Don Schlitz, Steve Seskin), the singer surveys the way women are used and abused, thinking all along of his eight-year-old daughter. Sex objects suddenly become humanized. When a movie actress "plays Lolita in some old man's dreams," he thinks about his daughter. When he sees men leering at a pretty woman, "like she's some kind of treat," he thinks about her He becomes sensitive to all mistreatment of women. When he hears about a woman who has been "abandoned or abused/it doesn't matter who she is/I think about you." This moral meditation amounts to an application of the Golden Rule: he would not like his own daughter treated in these ways. It also brings the treatment of women, in a way characteristic of many country songs, into the realm of family values. He realizes "That every woman used to be/Somebody's little girl." Every woman used to be a little girl like his eight-year-old, with a father who probably felt about her the way he feels about his daughter. The protectiveness he feels for his daughter is projected onto all women.

In Raye's other exhortation, "What If Jesus Comes Back Like That?" (Pat Bunch, Doug Johnson), social and moral issues are portrayed in an explicitly Christocentric way. The singer gives a vivid description of a hobo-"low-down no-account white trash"-and a crack baby, "born with a habit of drug abuse/she couldn't help what her mama used." After each description, he raises the shocking question: What if this despised and rejected human being turns out to be Jesus?

What if Jesus comes back like that,
Two months early and hooked on crack?
Will we let him in or turn our backs?
What if Jesus comes back like that?
Oh what if Jesus comes back like that?

After all, no one would let Jesus in the first time, when "he came to town on a cold dark night. . . a manger for his bed." This is not just a matter of benevolence, as one might find with a more liberal theology; judgment is at stake. As the New Testament warns, the way we receive others may reflect the way Jesus receives us:
What if Jesus comes back like that?
Will he cry when he sees where our hearts are at?
Will he let us in or turn his back?

Raye invokes Christ's sorrow, but also His judgment. What if He turns His back on us? What if He doesn't let us in? The song may be confused in its eschatology, but its biblical text is Matthew 25:40: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." The song is a remarkable meditation on how Christ is hidden in weakness, suffering, and those the world despises-what Luther explored as "the theology of the cross." In fact, the song applies the lesson of the cross-His and ours, and the relationship between them-in so many words:
Nobody said life is fair
We've all got a cross to bear
When it gets a little hard to care
Just think of Him hanging there.

Eternal Punishment and Eternal Life
Another common motif in early country gospel is eternity- what happens after death. Actually, Pugh focuses on eternal punishment, the image of the hellfire of God's judgment that awaits those who reject salvation. We extend this category somewhat to include the evocations of heaven that await the saved. Images of heaven and hell were staples of early gospel, and both continue-sometimes in oddly distorted forms-in country music today.

The old-time country churches were famous for their hell-fire-and-brimstone preaching, and this imagery is indeed reflected in many gospel songs. But, these were gospel songs, so the lurid spectacle of damnation was nearly always employed for the purpose of urging sinners to escape such a fate by embracing the free salvation offered by Christ.

Thus we have songs such as "Satan Is Real" and "Satan's Jeweled Crown" by the Louvin Brothers. Then there are songs that vividly describe the wrath of God in terms drawn from every-day life, such as Bill Monroe's "He Will Set Your Fields on Fire" (C. M. Ballew, L. L. Brackett). Sometimes such lyrics go beyond mere scary imagery to describe the misery of a lost soul in earthly life as well, the inner spiritual state that is fixed forever apart from grace, as in "The Lost Highway" (Leon Payne) and "The Devil Train" (Hank Williams). Many of these songs of judgment are cast in apocalyptic terms, fitting with the premillennial anticipations of Christ's return that preoccupied many Southern churches.

Again, these songs were not designed to scare the listener. They were evangelistic. The terror that awaits those who have broken God's law is presented as a reason to embrace the free gift of salvation. For example, in the Bailes Brothers' song "The Pale Horse and His Rider" (recorded by Hank Williams), the vividly eerie figures from the Book of Revelation (6:8), embodiments of death and hell, are merely part of a plea for the sinner to turn to Christ: "If you're not saved; you'll be lost in the night/When the Pale Horse and his rider goes by."

In "Wait a Little Longer Please Jesus" (Chester Smith, Hazel Houser)-an old tune later recorded by Merle Haggard-the singer actually asks Jesus to wait a while before coming back so that there will be more time to evangelize the lost, including (poignant touch) the members of his own family who do not know Christ: "Just a little longer, please Jesus,/A few more days to get our loved ones in."

Contrary to what one might expect, these evangelistic songs are not self-righteous or moralistic, nor are they directed at specific transgressors. Everyone stands under God's judgment, apart from Christ. Often a "friend" or "poor soul" is addressed, and the tone, though harrowing, is one of earnest caring.

But even images of the apocalypse can be secularized. In "The Great Atomic Power," the Louvin Brothers, writing in the shadow of the Cold War; conflate the coming of Christ with the atomic bomb. Meeting the Savior in the air is described in terms of vaporized bodies. The Louvins cut both ways with their brand of gospel, simultaneously dramatizing God's wrath by comparing heavenly power to an atomic weapon, and yet portraying Christ as someone you'll be glad to meet "in the clouds."

Another kind of infernal imagery is that of the devil roaming the earth, leading people into temptation. Sometimes he is just a colorful opponent, as in Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," about a fiddle contest between the devil and a Georgia farmboy. Contests with the devil are an old folk motif. A cowboy song called "Tying Knots in the Devil's Tale" has two cowhands bulldogging the devil, like any other horned animal.

The devil as tempter appears in many songs, including songs that are quite contemporary. In "From Hillbilly Heaven, to Honky Tonk Hell" (Michael Huffman, Woody Mullis, Mike Geiger), singers George Jones and Tracie Lawrence describe how a man lost his paradise-his country girl bride, living in a double-wide trailer out in the country. This country music Eden is lost when he falls because of the allure of the city. At the honky-tonk, he finds temptation and takes the forbidden fruit of another woman. He goes "from a warm home fire burning/To a cold, cheap motel." His wife, described as an "angel," is left hurt and crying, while the unfaithful husband loses his marriage and home-and will presumably be bewailing his lonesomeness and his wrecked life, along with the other characters in honky-tonk songs.

The devil also figures in songs about alcoholism, such as Kenny Chesney's plaintive "That's Why I'm Here" (Shaye Smith, Mark Alan Springer), which combines descriptions of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and twelve-step talk with recognition of the devil, who had a hand in his fall and his loss.

In Alan Jackson's hit, "Between the Devil and Me" (Harley Allen, Carson Chamberlain), the only thing between the singer and the fires of hell is the love of a good woman. The world is tempting. There is a right road and a wrong road. His own flesh is weak. "The gates of hell swing open wide, invitin' me to step inside." The devil himself is beckoning. But through the flames and smoke of hell, he sees the one he loves. "She's all I see between the devil and me."

This is the time-honored motif, particularly common in American literature, of the domesticating woman who saves the man from his worst impulses. But in this song, it is not Jesus who saves the man from the world, the flesh, and the devil; it is the man's wife. The biblical imagery of temptation, damnation, and hell is very alive and has lost none of its potency. But to a large degree it has become secularized.

As with songs of religious experience, songs of heaven and hell today often refer not to eternal life but to human love. Willie Nelson puts it bluntly in "Heaven or Hell" (a song performed by Waylon Jennings). Heaven is not a place paved with gold, and hell is not a place of fire. "Heaven is lying in my sweet baby's arms/Hell is when my baby's not there." In fact, in song after song, heaven has become a metaphor for sexual pleasure.

Thus we have Mark Wills' scoring a hit with "Jacob's Ladder" (Tony Martin, Cal and Brenda Sweat) about a poor boy named Jacob who uses a ladder to climb up to his girlfriend's room. "Heaven was waitin' at the top of Jacob's ladder." Jacob's girl-friend is named Rachel-the writers obviously knew their Bible, but the biblical allusions are gutted of their content and twisted into a very different kind of message.

One of the more blasphemous songs in country music may be "Heaven's Just a Sin Away" (Jerry Gillespie), sung by the Kendalls. A sweet, little-girl voice sings about giving in to sexual temptation. "Heaven's just a sin away, oh, oh, just a sin away/I can't wait another day I think I'm givin' in." She knows it's wrong, but she longs to be with him tonight. She knows the devil is tempting her, but-the song is punctuated throughout by panting oh, ohs-she is giving in. Such is the allure of sensual "heaven." The song, sung with nearly pornographic eagerness, is full of Bible talk, but it is horribly twisted: The way to "heaven" is to sin. A number one hit in 1977, the song is made even creepier by the fact that the Kendalls are a father-daughter duet. What father would even let his daughter sing a song like this?

Of course, the orthodox heaven is also a recurrent theme in country music. Most often heaven is imagined not just in terms of pearly gates and streets of gold but as the place of reunion with family and loved ones after death. This is evident from the Carter Family's "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" to, more recently, Johnny Cash's composition "Meet Me in Heaven." The singer recalls their life together, the troubles, pain, love, and laughter that they shared. We can't be sure what it is going to be like after death. But they will know each other in heaven. The song goes on to describe a deep spiritual intimacy. "We've seen the secret things revealed by God." And it ends by squarely facing death and eternity: "Will you meet me in Heaven someday?" This song is apparently addressed to Johnny's wife, June Carter, making it something of a reprise of her family's most famous song about the family circle being unbroken "bye and bye."

The prospect of heaven has largely driven out the prospect of hell in today's country music. The earlier music was often full of brimstone, but just as even many evangelical churches have since toned down threats of eternal damnation-or at least stopped talking so much about it-todays country music leans toward a cheerful universalism. Even criminals about to be hung think they are headed for heaven, as in Porter Waggoner's "The Green, Green Grass of Home" (Curly Putman) or Merle Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home." Often heaven becomes embarrassingly sentimentalized, as in Steve Wariner's "Holes in the Floor of Heaven," which he both wrote and performed. It is about a little boy whose grandma dies, whereupon his mother tells him that heaven has holes in its floor. This means his grandma can look down through the holes in the floor and see what is happening to him. Furthermore, when it rains, those are her tears leaking through those same holes. In the course of the song, the boy grows up and gets married, but then the wife dies, again calling to mind heaven's perforated flooring. And as if that were not enough, the final stanza includes the other surefire tearjerking scenario of the same man giving away his daughter in marriage. It is raining, so the daughter consoles her dad by pointing out how mama is looking down and crying through those holes. Not only was this a monster hit for Steve Wariner, it was named 1998 Song of the Year by the Country Music Association. The success of this song, as late as 1998, demonstrates the continued appeal of eternal life songs, even as it shows how they have slipped in biblical seriousness. (The Bailes Brothers or the Louvin Brothers or Hank Williams might point out that heaven's floor is paved with gold and is thus presumably leakproof.)

And yet, even modern, mainline country music still recognizes the real thing. Vince Gill had a hit in 1994 with "Go Rest High on That Mountain," a moving tribute he wrote on the death of his brother, who had been mentally handicapped. The song treats this wrenching topic with honest emotion, without a shred of sentimentality. He recognizes that his brother's life was troubled and filled with pain. But as the family gathers around his brother's grave the emotions are tempered with the hope and the joy of his eternal life. His work is done. He can go into his rest. He can "Go to heaven a-shoutin/Love for the Father and the Son." Heaven, like the gospel, offers rest from our work. It is also a place of singing. The brother goes to his heavenly rest shouting with love for God the Father and His Son, the Savior Jesus Christ. The song is not only an orthodox depiction of the Christian heaven, it is framed in trinitarian terms.

Taken from Honky Tonk Gospel by Gene Edward Veith and Thomas L. Wilmeth. Used by permission of Baker Book House Company, copyright 2001. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Book House Company. Honky Tonk Gospel can be purchased for a total of $17 by calling the Issues, Etc. resource line at 1-800-737-0172.

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