My last post was on Gospel/Bluegrass music and its heavy Christian roots. Now, I’ll travel a bit further down that path to that genre’s direct descendant: country music.
In the early days of folk music, there really was no distinction between genres as we know them now. You had music and that was it. Technically it was all gospel/bluegrass.
Gradually, the focus of some of the music moved from explicitly Christian themes to more personal themes, focusing more on the stories of the singer’s life, etc., rather than praise hymns or conversion experience songs.
The most influential band in making the segue was perhaps the “hillbilly” band The Maddox Brothers and Rose. Not only were they the first to change the style of bluegrass to a more “boogie”-like western swing, they also were the first to call what they did “country music.” People just called it hillbilly back then, but the moniker caught on and stuck.
Country music then and now usually was very closely tied to the singer and their emotions: hence the many breakup songs, etc., that are an essential part of this music. Country artist are people, and they act like it. Country speaks to the heart because it speaks of things we’ve all been through, or things we never want to go through. For an example of this, listen to Trace Adkin’s hit “Songs about Me.”
One important aspect of the country-gospel divide was the treatment of sin and the tolerance thereof. While the industry then, and to some extent now, has standards of what is and is not acceptable in music, those standards were lowered a great deal from the backporch gospel hymns.
Perhaps the best example of this is Kitty Wells’ early hit, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-tonk Angels,” an answer to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life.”
This song was iconic for two reasons:
- It was the first time in country music history that a woman had a #1 hit.
- It paved the way for the later “cheating ” songs that would make the industry famous.
The song was banned across the country by many stations including the Grand Ole Opry, for being “suggestive.” At the time, this kind of endorsement of adultery was heavily frowned upon for obvious reasons. However, nothing was quite the same after that.
Despite this, country music has retained, to steal a phrase from Flannery O’Connor, a “Christ-haunted” quality. God, church, faithfulness, etc., are all basic surface tenets of country even today. Is sin condoned, yes, often, and this is a problem. But quite often it’s not so much an endorsement as an expression of regret.
Although fornication is rampant (relative to the parent genre of gospel), marriage is still revered, and is always the ultimate goal for any good country artist. Tying the knot is the greatest expression of love in a country song (as it should be).
Then along came Hank. Hank Williams was a boozer, an abuser, a druggie at times, and a cheater (being married no less than 3 times, with at least one illegitimate child, and one of those marriages was performed 3 times in one day). He fought and beat his wife Audrey (although she beat him far worse at points) throughout their marriage. He died tragically of a supposed overdose in a long car ride on the lost highway (although the circumstances of his death are still debated).
Hank Williams sang from the heart, and this is what made him great. Many of his (few) songs are full of pain and regret from the life he led.
Despite recording a lively version of the gospel favorite “I Saw the Light,” Hank’s few ups and many downs led him to sob to his good (perhaps only) true friend Horace Logan, “Oh Lord, Hoss, there ain’t no light for me.”
His tragic life ended shortly after recording the hit “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”
Although arguably one of the greatest singer/songwriters country music has ever known, because of his loose life, Hank was never inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
And I cannot close this topic without mentioning Elvis.
In every history of country music you will ever read, you will find this phrase:
Elvis changed everything.
His rockabilly sound blew the masses off their feet, drove the girls crazy, and set the whole world to rockin’. Just as gospel gave birth to country, so country through Elvis gave birth to rock-and-roll.
To sum up:
Country, while a slightly apostate version of gospel/bluegrass, retains much of its Christian roots and influences. The old southern religion is clearly evident in many songs, despite your frequent cheatin’ song. With a critical ear, it’s well worth your listen.