Discussion: Losing My Religion?

snl-coffee-talk_lI’m a little verklempt!

Talk amongst yourselves..I’ll give you a topic:

A recent article circulating the interwebs, most notably on CMT and the weekly Quotable Country entry at Country California, ponders the prevalance of Christianity in country music.  Though the blog contains a couple inaccuracies (for example, “She Left Me for Jesus” is not a typical religious song), the question posed by its author is in plain view.  Is country music merely a platform for spirituality?

Please keep the dialogue respectful, but feel free to discuss “Let’s Get Jesus Out of Country Music” by Bob Wire (a regular Joe, judging from the website) and the response by CMT’s Alison Bonaguru.

*I’m not really verklempt, but this photo is phenomenal.


  1. Before this discussion blows up, I’d just like to point out that I totally called it by featuring a quote from the Bob Wire article in this past Sunday’s edition of Quotable Country. Which appeared two days before the Bonaguro post.

    Thank you and good night.

  2. I dunno…

    I hate songs with Jesus in them if they feel contrived or heavy handed. Then again, I’m the first to run out and buy Randy Travis’, Alan Jackson’s, etc. religious albums. In other words, I don’t have an inherent beef against songs that celebrate God; I just don’t want to feel as though it’s being done purely for commercial purposes. I suppose it’s all about the execution of the song rather than who’s being sung about in the song that matters to me. I can certainly compile a list of religious country songs that I love, but I can probably compile an even longer list of religious country songs that miss the mark for me.

  3. First off, the picture and quote brought back pleasant reminders of Pam Tillis’ CMA Female Vocalist acceptance speech.

    Second, I think there are two fatal flaws to the argument for getting Jesus out of country music:

    1. He’s always been there in the first place. It’s not a recent phenomenon that dates back to “Three Wooden Crosses” or “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” Christian themes and imagery have been part of country music from the beginning because…

    2. Country music at its foundation is about expressing the honest truths of everyday life, and right now, Christianity is part of that every day life for the large majority of Americans, particularly those who write, perform and purchase country music.

    When and if Jesus leaves country music, it will be because the Christian religion has faded from dominance or relevance, which has happened in parts of Europe but doesn’t seem likely to happen in America anytime soon.

  4. @ Blake: Oh, I didn’t expect to be credited or anything, especially since it’s not like I responded to the Wire post in any substantive way… just poked fun at it, as I’m wont to do. But shoot, thanks, I’ll take some credit too.

    Wire considers himself a satirist and it’s obvious that he’s painting in pretty broad strokes for effect. Many of his facts are off.

    Getting down to particular examples, I feel much the same way as Leeann. It varies from song to song and artist to artist, and sincerity (as perceived by me) has a lot to do with how I end up feeling about it in any particular case.

  5. Country music might hit you over the head with it a little harder than some genres, or perhaps be a little bit more obvious about it, but religion (or faith) is actually a prevalent theme across all genres of music. It’s all over my ipod.

    While I’m not particularly religious, some of my favorite country songs are religious-themed, and they include one that Wire mentioned: Randy Travis’ “Three Crosses.” That was just a beautifully written song. The key is in the writing and the sincerity of the performance. The best religious/country songs transcend genre.

    All that said, I did roll my eyes at the prevalence of religious songs on country radio a few years ago. But that was only because there was a pandering aspect to it that rubbed me wrong. It just seemed like some artists were just out for a buck – religion was selling, and they were jumping on that bandwagon while it was hot. (Unfortunately…or fortunately…I can’t actually say if that is still the case…)

  6. As a religious studies major in college (well, interdisciplinary humanaties major with a religious studies emphasis, but why split hairs) and a country music blogger, this is a topic that especially interests me.

    Alison Banaguro, CMT’s resident “former marketing copy-writer/fan first journalist second/self-proclaimed ‘very credible music critic'” provides us with a good jumping off point that I think gets right to what’s bothering Wire with this little blip

    “In fact, everything this writer hates, I love. I love feel-good faith. I love the blurring of the lines between Christian music and country music. And I love hearing artists singing about their spirituality. What I don’t love, as a God-fearin’ woman, is someone bashing country because it leans a little Jesus.”

    Alison pretty much loves everything that, as someone who has studied religion, I hate in country music as well.

    “Feel-Good Faith” is pretty much just code for “faith-as-narcotic”. Not only is “Faith as opiate of the masses” one of the most pervasive arguments that the anti-theistic crowd presents against the legitimacy of religion, but it’s one of the most effective. Religion as merely an opiate makes it easily dismissible, and rightfully scorned. The joy that one is supposed to draw from religion is supposed to be transformative and transcendent, not a nice “pick me up” in the middle of a frivolous day.

    When Bonaguro pines for the blending of Christian and Country music, she ignores, or doesn’t have the capability to notice, a real downside to that combination, namely; Christian music sucks. It’s terrible. In fact, the worst modern country music often is that which sounds the most like Christian music. (see: One Night Rodeo – Alive and Living)

    Which brings us to her love of “an artist singing about their spirituality”. Now, I’ll stop short of accusing these artists of a shallow spirituality, because who are we to say, but I can certainly tell you what’s wrong with their expression of their spirituality. In both modern Christian and modern Country music the religious discourse that’s been going on has mostly been stupid, plastic, trivial, self-centered, bourgeois, and (most importantly) boring.

    Bonaguro, a self-identified “God Fearin’ Woman”, thinks this guy is bashing country because it “leans a little Jesus”, but that’s not really the case because country music isn’t really leaning more Jesus nowadays. Think “They’ll be No Depression in Heaven”, “I Saw The Light”, “Good Christian Soldier”, “The Troublemaker”, and all of Cash’s gospel material. No, nowadays the problem is that country music leans a little stupid, and that religion (being the most important of topics) looks especially ugly when it’s stupid, overblown, and insincere.

    As a rule, Bonaguro likes a lot of stupid music. She seems to pride herself on paying lip service to whatever is shallow – so long as it is popular – and in this post we see a glimpse of what she wants from Christian Music, and from Country Music; Mindless, painless, trivial affirmations to be used as “pick-me ups” that allow her to continue on living as unaffected as possible by the big questions and hard realities that country music used to explore.

    In my opinion, the difference in how Country Music should discuss religion versus how it currently discusses religion quickly becomes clear when comparing something like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” to something like “Everybody Wanna Go To Heaven”.

  7. I don’t think country is loosing its religion, or I hope it doesn’t.

    No matter the pop in country music with some of its newer stars, I still think God and Jesus when I think country. I mean ever Taylor asks God to play her song again.

    And “I Saw God Today” was best single or song at the CMA’s this year.

  8. There are religious songs in every form of music. Hell, living in the South its blasted at you from every angle, most surprising of which was the variety of music genres that the “Christian Music” video channels play. That said, I avoid most of the religious stuff, especially that which is so blatant and/or forced.

    Freedom of religion also means freedom FROM religion.

  9. Thanks for the wealth of well-considered responses so far. I’d been tossing around an idea in my head about the same subject for a later post, and I appreciate being able to borrow liberally from all of these comments.

    I tease, I tease.

  10. It’s late, I’m tired, and y’all have pretty much said everything I would have said, but better than I would have. Maybe I’ll come up with something tomorrow.

    Fantastic topic, Blake, and I commend you for throwing in an entirely irrelevant and completely wonderful Mike Myers reference. CU needs a little more of that, I think.

  11. Ben makes a good point, even though I imagine we’d have some disagreements if it came to hashing out specific examples. Much of the Christianity in modern country music is Joel Osteen Christianity, generic self-help, feel-good slogans that happen to use Christ as a hero. There is, I think, a difference between that and the historic conception of Christianity in country music.

  12. I think Ben is on to something when he says that Country music is leaning a little stupid, (which I personally attribute to the excessive pop influence on the genre), therefore it follows that religously themed country music would also suffer that fate.

    For me it is the difference between Carrie’s “Jesus Take the Wheel” (kitchy) and Carrie’s “How Great Thou Art” (magnificent).

    Spirituality in music, Country included, deserves majestic treatment. Most Bluegrass gets it right, in my opinion. But being so closly allied with the Gospel musical tradition, I guess that’s only natural.

    Again, I guess it’s the difference between when Country sounds like modern Christian music, which as Ben indicates is of less than stellar quality, versus when religious Country is skillfully exceuted and is more closely aligned with the Gospel traditon. When modern religous Country is well done, the reverence is actually crafted into the music itself and as well as the lyrics.

    But I differ with ya Ben on your take on Kenny’s “Everybody Wanna Go to Heaven”…I don’t think that’s intended to be a specifically religous song per se, I see it more as a Reggae flavored celebration of THIS life, with the “Heaven” as a popular cultural metaphor for the afterlife (or death itself), and is used merely to set up the contrast.

    Kenny’s song seems very unpopular here, and I guess I’m in the minority in liking it. I guess maybe it’s because I love Reggae music as well, and I think Kenny Chesney does a pretty good job with it.

  13. When I was a little boy, listening to country music, I assumed all country singers were Christians. They all mentioned God a time or two and Jesus. Back then I felt that that fact made the music safe. I think, like others here, that being a country music singer and being a Christian have always walked hand in hand. The Carter Family sang about God, so did Hank, so does Dolly. I don’t think I would like country music as much if that element was gone.

    I also thought that at one point there was too much Christian country music. I assumed that that was due to two factors: 1. 9/11 and 2. The amount of money and fame that a singer with a pop voice and a Christian bent could make in country music. It seemed like all new country artist were failed Christian singers.

    But now what bothers me is that Christian songs pander to the most limited thinking one can have about being a Christian(Trace Adkins’s new song pops to mind). They lack depth. But like Steve from Boston wrote a great of country music is ” leaning to the stupid” these days .

    I also hate that every singer wears a cross. I wear a cross everyday, but I don’t display it because I think that one’s faith is a private matter. To display it would be like showing my bank account to everyone I meet. But I think a great many singers are wearing a cross to tell the audience right away they are Christian, and therefore safe, good, and decent. The cross is suppose to tell you right away that they have good character. Thus you have no reason not to like their music. But that is just pandering. It insults one’s faith by making it a part of the singer and not the art. Make good country music. You can even sing about Christ. But don’t insult my faith by assuming I will like you more because you have a cross around your neck.

  14. Steve from Boston and Craig R. pretty much nail it. Religion should be a personal thing; at least to the extent that excessive “flaunting” it musically or any other way would be indicative of terminal tackiness.

  15. I basically agree with what Kevin said.

    I am not religious. But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a well-written religious song. I look at the song from the point-of-view of a Christian so that I can understand it better. In this way, I can see that “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven” brings up an excellent point that we can all relate to. An although I don’t think the prayers in “Somebody Said a Prayer” are actually the reason the each of the people turned their lives around, I am able to appreciate the song anyway. “God Must Be Busy” is another well-written example.

    So although I wouldn’t be sad if religion left, I don’t have any problem with it, and can see why it is so popular in country music.

  16. I really hesitated posting on this, to the point where I left the window up for a full day. While I will never begrudge someone their religious beliefs, it seems sometimes that they doth protest too much. And this comes from someone who knows their minister on a first-name basis inside and outside the church. I prefer my religion to be personal, not on a billboard, but I guess that’s where I differ from a lot of country fans.

  17. Craig R, Thanks, but I was borrowing the phrase that modern country “leans towards the stupid” from Hollerin’ Ben (great board name you chose there Ben..) Wish it was my phrase though, and I was using it in agreement with Ben. Yeah, depth is the thing, I think you put your finger on it there Craig.

    And Patrick, I’m not totally against public expression of one’s faith, as long as it is done with dignity and sincerity, and brings honor to the Creator. Yeah, I think we certainly agree that “termninal tackiness” should be avoided at all costs, and no cheap plastic-Jesus should be erected for misguided veneration…in music or lyric, or in word or in deed by those who profess the Faith.

    It can be a fine line though, no doubt.

  18. I don’t mind religious songs – I would consider myself spiritual rather than religious – I agree with what others have said. Country sometimes does very shallow songs. Religion should feel inspired, and beautiful, but sometimes it seems like some singers are using religion or trying to prove something to their fans. I don’t care if my favourite artists go to Church, I just want to hear good songs, that have a inspired message – Something that means something.

  19. It’s quite interesting how the discussion thread here on this subject is so much different than the one over on the CMT blog. I’m impressed with the thoughtfulness of the comments here.

  20. I agree with Jane’s approach to things–there’s nothing wrong with injecting God and religion into country music, so long as it’s not done from a pulpit, or involves using the Bible as a weapon. But sometimes in country music, the difference between religion and spirituality is blurred by those who do force their own views on others. As it is so often said: “Religion is for those who fear going to Hell, while spirituality is for those who have actually been through it.”

    That being said, I do like the Man In Black’s approach (e.g. “Daddy Sang Bass”), as well as Elvis’ frequent excursions into Gospel (“Peace In The Valley”; “Crying In The Chapel”, etc.).

  21. In reality, no single religion could guarantee us a place in Heaven. In the end, what matters is how we a treat other people.*’*

  22. “In reality, no single religion could guarantee us a place in Heaven. In the end, what matters is how we a treat other people”

    I saw that After School Special too.

  23. Man, am I late to the party! By this point, I could either just go down the list of points I agree with (boring), or I can ask a question (hopefully less boring). Most of the examples cited of “good” religious songs have been various performances of standards. Steve from Boston, for instance, cited Carrie Underwood’s performance of “How Great Thou Art.”

    So the $64,000 question is: Why aren’t more newer songs “good?” Is it merely another casualty of the slipping standards in songwriting and production? Is today’s audience less discerning? Is it that today’s worshipers are more superficial? Or maybe something else entirely?

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