When CMT announced it would be counting down country music’s “Greatest Songs of Faith”, I was intrigued. Few genres are as rich in such songs as country music, and I was hoping for a list as informed as their Greatest Women and Greatest Bands specials had been. When their top twenty list was revealed Friday night, and the first song was Martina McBride’s “Blessed”, I quickly understood that this was going to be a “singing loudly on Sunday morning” rather than a “didn’t make it to church because of Saturday night” affair. I humbly present an alternate dozen songs that are bit more challenging and a lot more obscure, but for me, capture the essential struggle of faith, with a bit of hope for redemption thrown in for good measure.
12. Carlene Carter, “Hallelujah In My Heart”
Few artists have been as far down the dark path as Carlene Carter and lived to tell about it; a surprising amount who have are in Carlene’s extended family, but that’s another list. On this track from her very satisfying Little Love Letters collection, she sings about her return to the light over a tent-revival beat.
More songs of faith by Carlene Carter: “Change”, “Guardian Angel”, “Me and the Wildwood Rose”
11. Linda Ronstadt, “Keep Me From Blowing Away”
The lyric speaks for itself: “Lord if you’re listenin’, I know I’m no Christian, and I don’t have much coming my way; but Lord, if you hear me, touch me, and hold me, and keep me from blowing away.” Sometimes the most honest conversations with God have a lost soul doing the talking.
More songs of faith by Linda Ronstadt: “The Sweetest Gift”, “We Need A Lot More of Jesus (and a Lot Less Rock & Roll)”, “Farther Along”
10. Chris Thile, “Believer”
The mandolin virtuoso from Nickel Creek grabbed the title for his solo album Deceiver from a line in this song – “God save the believer we mistake for a deceiver.” This song is a vicious indictment of those who find it easier to tear down another man’s faith than to build up their own. In my experience, the ones who do this the most often tend to claim the “believer” label as solely their own – the type who think it’s so great that God hates all of the same people they do.
9. Wynonna, “Rescue Me”
The tabloid-lined spectacle of Wynonna Judd – from her tearful interviews on Oprah to her public struggles with her weight, her love life and, most of all, her mother – has almost always overshadowed her music. Her hunger for God has colored all of her work, even her seminal early recordings as the talented half of The Judds. When she became a solo artist, her spiritual reflections became more pronounced, producing some of her best work. On her most recent album, she closes with “Rescue Me”, a soft-spoken plea for God to help her that is as plain-spoken and quiet as her public image is loud and excessive. The sincerity of this performance reveals much about the core values and determined dignity of the woman who is too often made a caricature by the grocery-aisle media.
More songs of faith by Wynonna: “I Will Be”, “Live With Jesus”, “My Angel Is Here.”
8. Alison Krauss & Union Station, “A Living Prayer”
Spiritual adjectives abound when people try to describe the voice of Alison Krauss. There is an angelic, ethereal sound when she sings even the most secular material; when she sings to God in a song like “A Living Prayer”, the results truly are heavenly. It gives me chills every time I hear her sing “Take my life and let me be, a living prayer, my God to thee.”
More songs of faith by Alison Krauss & Union Station: “When God Dips His Pen Of Love In My Heart”, “In The Palm Of Your Hand”, “There Is A Reason”
7. Johnny Cash, “No Earthly Good”
Judging by his music, Cash’s faith fueled his sensitivity towards the down-trodden as much as it lifted his own relationship with God. Here, he calls to task those who never connect their belief in Jesus to their obligation to the people in need that are all around them: “You’re shining your light, and shine it you should, but you’re so heavenly-minded, you’re no earthly good.” He originally recorded this in 1977 for the Americana concept album The Rambler, but the definitive version is an acoustic take found only on the recent Cash Unearthed box set.
More songs of faith by Johnny Cash: “Man In Black”, “Flesh and Blood”, “The Man Comes Around”
6. Porter Wagoner, “What Would You Do (If Jesus Came To Your House)”
A spoken-word reflection that asks an interesting question – if Jesus came to your house, would you have to burn some dirty magazines and put away those sinful records before you opened the door? Would you be a bit relieved when he left, so your friends could come around again and you could resume normal conversations? It’s a clever way to make you wonder if the way you live your life would make you proud or ashamed if you knew He was watching.
More songs of faith by Porter Wagoner: “A Satisfied Mind”, “The Last One To Touch Me”, “Green, Green Grass Of Home”
5. Lee Ann Womack, “Stubborn (Psalm 151)”
For me, the most interesting songs of faith involve a deep conflict. “There’s a whole lot of stubborn in this room,” Womack sings, “and there’s no one here but me.” The resistance between her faith in God and the demons to her left and right is powerfully illustrated, and by the time she confesses “I can’t quite remember how to pray anymore”, it’s hard not to share her desperation.
More songs of faith by Lee Ann Womack: “The Preacher Won’t Have To Lie”, “Lord I Hope This Day Is Good”, “Something Worth Leaving Behind”
4. Dolly Parton, “Welcome Home”
Few country songwriters are as adept at connecting the human experience to religious texts as Dolly Parton. Much like “Coat of Many Colors” drew parallels between Joseph’s coat and the one “mama made for me”, the recent “Welcome Home” connects a son coming home from war to another dying at war and going to heaven, to God welcoming his own son home after the crucifixion, and finally, Dolly’s own hope for a warm welcoming “when it’s my time to go.”
More songs of faith by Dolly Parton: “Coat Of Many Colors”, “Light Of A Clear Blue Morning”, “Hello God”
3. Kathy Mattea, “Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying Of Thirst)”
Mattea’s spiritual catalog runs deep, though the message is often hidden under the surface. This song is a lament about how we are surrounded by plenty but still feel empty and alone. In the first verse, Mattea notes that “friends I could count on, I could count on one hand, with a left over finger or two”, but she took them for granted, and now wonders where they are; similarly, the second verse talks about lovers that still linger, and she wonders “why I ever let them go.”
But the underlying message of the song is subtly revealed in the third verse, where she sings: “The sidewalk is crowded, the city goes by, and I rush through another day; and a world full of strangers turn their eyes to me, but I just look the other way.” In this reference to the homeless in a city (and nation) of plenty, the focus shifts from Mattea’s own failure to accept the love she’s been given, to a society that is letting a world full of needy people sink quietly as we go about our day. This urban parable is ultimately a challenge to see the face of God in all that turn to us for help.
More songs of faith by Kathy Mattea: “That’s All The Lumber You Sent”, “God Ain’t No Stained-Glass Window”, “Seeds”
2. Emmylou Harris, “Prayer In Open D”
There are enough songs about God in the work of Emmylou Harris to fill this list five times over. This self-penned song of isolation may be the best among them. Over a haunting guitar melody, she sings about “the valley of sorrow in my soul, where every night I hear the thunder roll, like the sound of a distant gun over all the damage I have done.” She believes she has done so much wrong that there is no going back – “I can find no bridge for me to cross, no way to bring back what is lost” – and she is without comfort or hope, only feeling the pain of regret. The tearful crack in her voice is perfectly suited for such a message of despair.
More songs of faith by Emmylou Harris: “Cup Of Kindness”, “In My Hour Of Darkness”, “Where Will I Be”
1. Dixie Chicks, “Top Of The World”
This Patty Griffin song closes Home, the best country album of the 21st century. Over a chilling, stark backdrop of minor chords, Natalie Maines sings from the perspective of a man who has died, and realized that his life has caused great damage to the ones he loved, particularly his wife (“I think I broke the wings off that little songbird, she’s never gonna fly to the top of the world now.”) His confession of his shortcomings are too little, too late, and sound heartbreakingly pitiful (“I wish I had shown you all of the things I was on the inside”), like a grown-up child trying to excuse their wrongdoings with “I didn’t mean it! Honest!” If you believe that hurting others and living selfishly damages your relationship with God more than any other sin, this song will chill you to the bone.
More songs of faith by Dixie Chicks: “I Believe In Love”, “More Love”, “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”