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Classic Country Singles: Randy Travis, “Three Wooden Crosses”

April 17, 2011 Kevin John Coyne 8

Three Wooden Crosses
Randy Travis
2002

Written by Doug Johnson and Kim Williams

During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the antiseptic depictions of faith that have dominated contemporary Christian music began to seep in to country music.

This perception created records both good (“Jesus, Take the Wheel”) and bad (“The Little Girl”), but most of them were bland, adding going to church on Sunday or praying as just one of the token traits of southern life, no more or less significant than the fried chicken or football game that followed the morning services.

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Classic Country Singles: Rosanne Cash featuring Johnny Cash, “September When it Comes”

January 30, 2011 Kevin John Coyne 9

September When it Comes
Rosanne Cash featuring Johnny Cash
2003

Written by Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal

In her memoir Composed, Rosanne Cash describes a handful of prophetic songs that she has written as being “Postcards From the Future”, describing life events in detail before they happen. The most haunting example of this is “September When it Comes.”

She had written the lyrics in the nineties, scribbled quickly on a piece of paper while she was on the Long Island Expressway. At the time, her father Johnny was suffering through a health crisis. The lyrics describe her preparing for the impending death of her father, the time of reckoning described as September, a beautiful metaphor for the autumn years of life.

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Classic Country Singles: Donna Fargo, “You Can’t Be a Beacon (If Your Light Don’t Shine)”

June 7, 2010 Kevin John Coyne 7

You Can’t Be a Beacon (If Your Light Don’t Shine)
Donna Fargo
1974

Written by Martin Cooper

In which preaching to the choir takes on an entirely different meaning.

Donna Fargo burst on to the country scene in 1972 with the gold-selling hits “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” and “Funny Face,” which helped establish her as a burst of positivity against an increasingly dour national landscape.

The Watergate scandal challenged Fargo’s shiny outlook on the world, and influenced the material of her 1974 album Miss Donna Fargo. The lead single, “U.S. of A.”, found her speaking to the country directly, celebrating that the country’s strength comes from its plentiful natural and human resources.

That song went to #9, but it was the follow-up that became a #1 hit, one of Fargo’s first big hits to come from an outside writer. Built upon the biblical passage Matthew 5:16, it is a challenge not to those who do not have God in their life, but rather those who claim that they do:

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Classic Country Singles: The Browns, "The Three Bells"

January 3, 2010 Kevin John Coyne 4

The Three Bells
The Browns
1959

Written by Dick Manning, Bert Reisfeld and Jean Villard

The structure of “The Three Bells” should be familiar to any listener of contemporary country music. A genre that prides itself on its simplicity is ambitious enough to tell an entire life story in under four minutes. It’s an approach that has created several classic singles like “Where’ve You Been” , “Time Marches On” and “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye.”

One of the most significant historical examples of this structure comes from The Browns, who had a massive crossover hit with their 1959 single “The Three Bells.” It’s a simple tale. The church bells ring three times throughout the course of Jimmy Brown’s life: on the day of his baptism, the day of his wedding, and the day of his funeral. The preacher has words of wisdom for each occasion, ones that would be familiar to any Christian churchgoer, Catholic or otherwise.

That the character shares the same name as lead singer Jim Ed Brown and takes place in a little country town might lead you to believe that this was a song of Nashville origin, but it actually began its life and its worldwide success in France as the story of Jean-François Nicot. Originally written in French, “Les Trois Cloches” was an international hit for Édith Piaf, the songstress that was recently immortalized in the film La Vie En Rose. The Browns, composed of siblings Jim Ed, Maxine, and Bonnie, had been performing the song since seeing it Les Campagnons de la Chanson performing an English-language version on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1952.

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