On Gospel/Bluegrass

A while back I had a post on “Christian” music, centering mostly on mainstream praise music/popular “Christian” bands, and how we should approach that genre.

But I’d also like to address the other end of the Christian music spectrum: gospel and bluegrass.

We discussed how many modern Christian bands fail to meet their proclaimed standards because of desires (intended or not) to conform to modern pop/rock standards of music.

How is this different from the early praise bands in the golden age of bluegrass, and the current gospel music genre that is still extremely popular in some areas of the South? Don’t they have some of the same pitfalls of bad theology and bad music?The answer lies in the origins of both kinds of music, “Christian” rock and gospel/bluegrass:

“Christian” rock stems from, on the surface, a desire to reform the current standards (regardless of their success in this area). They wish to take a currently existing genre and do it in a Christian way (see the earlier post for a larger discussion of this).

Gospel/bluegrass, on the other hand, is the original genre. The first performers and bands in the early days did not look at all the other bands and say, “I wanna do that, except I’m gonna sing about Jesus.” In fact, the only way many of them knew there even were other bands was word of mouth. They created their music straight from hymns and back-porch pickin’.

Later, of course, they branched out and began writing their own songs, creating a slight difference between gospel (which was essentially hymns), and bluegrass (which was more focused on other subjects). Despite this, bluegrass has remained extremely close to gospel in terms of Christian subjects/lyrics (hence the lump genre “gospel/bluegrass”).

Moving further on down the line, bluegrass would eventually evolve into country/western music as we know it today, which, while much more secular, retains many traces of the gospel backporch music that gave birth to it.

Because of this saturation of the Church and worship (almost every early gospel artist learned to sing in church at a young age),  gospel/bluegrass had and will always have a heavy Baptist/Methodist influence: the good ole Southern denominations. The theology of the music reflects this, so while the lyrics are unapologetically Christian, of course we may have issues with some of the concepts expressed (revivalism, etc.).

As for the quality of the music, I personally enjoy it (being a banjo player myself). The musicians are almost always very talented. The nature of gospel/bluegrass is that it changes very little and very slowly over the years, so bands don’t fade in a couple of years like many modern bands tend to do. This gives the musicians involved much more time to hone their skills (“Little” Roy Lewis, of the Lewis Family, has been playing the banjo for 53 years. Straight).

To sum up:

  • Gospel/bluegrass influences > mainstream music
  • Mainstream music influences > “Christian” rock

We see from this that when Christians create faithful music from the heart (even if their theology is a little off), the world sees it and loves it and replicates it.

When we see what the world has and try to replicate that, we get mainstream Christian rock (again, this is not a blanket condemnation; some bands are very good).

When the City of God is faithful, the City of Man starts to become faithful as well. When the City of God tries to imitate the City of Man, both will crumble.

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4 comments

  1. Nick House

    Good article. I think bluegrass is a much more “organic” music than rock or pop/rock is. When you ride through the south, you can feel different kinds of music emanating from the landscape. Just go to Mississippi and try not to feel the blues coming from the soil.
    Good point about Christian bands imitating other ones. Too often it seems like they take the same kind of music and add vaguely Christian lyrics (read: remove the cussing), as opposed to truly redeeming the genre. As they used to say in Britain, “You can’t have punk with lyrics like ‘Let go and let God take over’. The problem is that there are so many good “secular” bands to draw inspiration from: who doesn’t want to sound like the Beatles?

    • MadDawg Scientist

      Exactly: those who say that because AC/DC, Beatles, whatever you want, are evil and we can’t listen to them, are missing out.
      We have to balance being “organic” and “original” with learning from the masters, such as Elvis and the Beatles.

  2. David H

    OK, I’m trying to expand my musical horizons (ie- listening to stuff other than the radio while in the car), and bluegrass and gospel have always vaguely interested me. Could you recommend some good stuff to listen to? Especially if it’s stuff I can just type in Pandora or YouTube for easy access (Finding actual cd’s would be problematic right now).

  3. Ben House

    Shelby,
    Be sure and check out my posting on the Stanley Brothers. See http://www.bennickmusicblog.blogspot.com.
    When it comes to Bluegrass music, especially with a gospel emphasis, the Stanley Brothers could not be beat. They were an incredibly talented duo. And Ralph Stanley is one of the best banjo players around.
    I’m enjoying your blog. Will link it to ours soon.

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