Positive Country is often the term used to describe much of the music we hear on country radio today. It’s indeed country, yet excluding much of the ancient country-song lyrics that were primarily drinking-cheating-and-heartbreak driven. Regardless of its label, fans simply like how it makes them feel — good.
The term Positive Country surfaced only a few years ago, and whether or not music industry trade publications continue to chart such a format, it’s here to stay. In fact, it’s been around perhaps longer than most of us even realize. Country greats such as Charlie Daniels, Martina McBride, Ricky Skaggs, Paul Overstreet, Connie Smith, Ricky Van Shelton and Dolly Parton are living proof.
This brand of not-hardly gospel, yet spiritually-laced country music, stems from its predecessor Christian Country. Artists like Charlie Daniels, Ricky Skaggs, Margo Smith and Paul Overstreet could very well take much of the credit for launching this unique brand of music that was just different enough to acquire its own name, and eventually a chart in music publications, as well as Positive Country radio formats.
But the long and winding road doesn’t stop there. Christian Country stemmed from an even earlier rooted format — gospel music — which flourished in the southeastern United States in the late 30s and early 40s. It later branched into what’s best described as Southern Gospel — a trend that began to blossom in the mid 50s when gospel pioneer J.D. Sumner took the church camp meeting concept to new heights by helping pioneer the National Quartet Convention that was first held in Memphis in 1957.
Sumner believed in his personal dream and presented it to another gospel great, James Blackwood. Their goal was to bring all the singers, musicians, record companies and fans of Southern Gospel together. “When I was a kid,” said Sumner, “the one thing every year that I looked forward to was the old camp meetings. We used to live for that. It was a time when all the churches got together from all over the state to sing and fellowship for about ten days. My idea was to have a camp meeting for all of gospel music — a time when everyone involved could come together. It’s really just a big gospel music family reunion.” The annual event continues to reel in thousands of gospel music fans today.
Among many others, familiar classics such as “Amazing Grace” have since become and remain prize examples of such unwinding musical history. Undeniably, it was and still is many of those familiar church hymns and early worship numbers that serve as the training ground for countless country music pioneers and many of today’s brightest country stars. As multiple music historians and country journalist explain — You almost can’t throw a rock and not hit a country entertainer who didn’t start out singing in church.
Whether it’s Dolly Parton’s explosive gospel performance of “He’s Alive;” Vince Gill’s self-penned “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” a spiritual number dedicated to the loss of his brother; Garth Brooks’ powerful “The Change;” LeAnn Rimes’ current “On The Side Of Angels;” husband/wife singers Tim McGraw & Faith Hill’s “It’s Your Love;” or even Reba McEntire’s current inspirational hit, “What If”: it’s music that’s uplifting and delivers hope and optimism. It’s simply positive country.
Other examples of country hits that have managed to actually show up on Positive Country or Christian Country charts include Wynonna’s “Live With Jesus,” a cut featured on her Tell Me Why disc; Ricky Skaggs’ earlier release of “My Father’s Son;” and several Ricky Van Shelton tunes. An earlier released Shelton album — Don’t Overlook Salvation held the No. 1 spot for several months on the Gospel Voice magazine’s top-selling Southern Gospel Album chart. Other well-known names in the country field such as Paul Overstreet, the Oak Ridge Boys, Connie Smith, Glen Campbell, Trace Adkins and Barbara Fairchild have also established their music successfully in the gospel music arena.
Prowling further back into music history, such legends as Loretta Lynn, Roy Acuff, Porter Wagoner, the Browns and Tennessee Ernie Ford all scored major successes by releasing gospel-only albums.
In the 60s and 70s, when syndicated television variety shows, especially country music themed ones, began to hit, a gospel music segment became a vital part of the show, as well as a phenomenal hit with viewers. Such shows as Barbara Mandrell’s and the Statler Brothers’ almost always feature a gospel segment. The long-running Hee Haw marked another sterling example, as the show launched the award-winning Hee Haw Gospel Quartet, comprised of Grandpa Jones, Buck Owens, Roy Clark, Kenny Price, and at one time, the late and great Roy Acuff.
In 1979, the Music City News Awards, now called the TNN Music City News Country Awards, added the Gospel Group/Act to its list of award show categories. Well known country acts such as the legendary Carter Family, Connie Smith, the Hee Haw Gospel Quartet, the Whites, Paul Overstreet and Ricky Van Shelton have all walked away with the honor.
Even today, gospel music continues to weave its way into the country arena. TNN’s Prime Time Country, hosted by Christian music artist Gary Chapman, allows such a platform. The famous Grand Ole Opry has long been and is still recognized for its gospel performances. Only recently, the world’s longest-running radio show featured several gospel performances on a special all-gospel Opry show.
“Thank you so much for having the gospel night on the Grand Ole Opry,” country.com was e-mailed. “We watch the show every Saturday night but have never appreciated it more. We have always enjoyed the show, but tonight just kept us faithful watchers and supporters of the program. If you would continue to do Gospel Night more often, I assure you that many people would watch the show over and over again.” Another e-mail to country.com read: “Thank you so much for an evening of wonderful gospel music. It was a delightful mix, and our family would love to see a night of gospel regularly as part of the Grand Ole Opry.”
It was only a couple of years ago that the idea of country artists singing gospel music began to catch on even more with the country music fans. An album entitled Amazing Grace: A Country Salute To Gospel was released and eventually followed by an Amazing Grace 2 release. The original project, which featured such country top-guns as Martina McBride, John Anderson, Lari White, Shenandoah’s Marty Raybon, Charlie Daniels and Billy Dean all singing favorite gospel hymns, went on to be certified gold and win a Grammy award. Soon afterwards, another project, Silent Witness, featuring a different string of country greats like Tammy Wynette, Ricky Van Shelton and Marty Stuart, was released. Just recently, multi-award winning LeAnn Rimes released an album featuring only inspirational numbers.
In 1994, the movie Maverick, starring Mel Gibson, James Garner and Jodie Foster, again brought country artists singing gospel music to the big table. Artists such as Reba McEntire, Clint Black and Alabama hit the big screen doing just that when they joined the Maverick cast in singing “Amazing Grace.” The star-studded line-up of country greats later performed the classic song on the Country Music Awards show.
For the past 17 years, the Music City Christian Fellowship has produced Sunday Morning Country as part of the annual Country Music International Fan Fair. This year, the organization is arranging a worldwide television broadcast of the event. The program will recognize contributions made by Christian country and country artists who are Christians within the music industry. For fans, the annual event means great country gospel music.
It’s country — positively.