NASHVILLE SKYLINE: The Music of The Passion

Nashville Was Always On the Trail to the Cross

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.

You know what’s most astonishing about the box office success of the film The Passion of the Christ is not that it is such an enormous success. The shocking thing to me is that Hollywood and the media centers of this country themselves find it astonishing that people will not only accept entertainment based on faith but that they will flock to it.

The fact that the Passion soundtrack and the accompanying album Songs Inspired by The Passion of Christ are also receiving favorable — if sometimes grudgingly favorable — reviews by mainstream media is also surprising. That media seem surprised that ordinary citizens — in the “flyover” zones of the U.S. — in large numbers would actually prefer faith-based music to the latest gangsta CDs full of dire threats or to the newest yawn-inducing diva sexcapades set to music. The soundtrack album itself has charted as high as No. 17 on the Billboard 200 chart, and the Inspired CD was released just Tuesday (April 6) but is expected to do well.

It’s nothing new, this yearning for music with some backbone and heft and meaning to it. Especially in country music, this sort of thing has been going on for decades. Country music was born of an amalgam of gospel and sacred music and folk tunes and gritty blues, and that mix is still very much alive in the best country music. Country’s roots were deep in the church and artists from the Carter Family and Roy Acuff to Flatt & Scruggs and Ricky Skaggs have made gospel songs staples of their repertoire. Bluegrass knows no boundaries separating the church pulpit from the festival stage, with artists like the Stanley Brothers performing such favorites as “Gathering Flowers for the Master’s Bouquet” and “Angel Band.” Even Hee Haw had the Hee Haw Gospel Quartet, which sold a lot of records. With a lineup of Buck Owens, Grandpa Jones, Roy Clark and Kenny Price, it should.

Hank Williams invented his “Luke the Drifter” persona to record his overtly gospel recitations such as “Pictures From Life’s Other Side” — even though his own songs such as “I Saw the Light” were patently spiritual. He once explained that his Hank Williams songs were honky-tonk material and needed to be kept separate from the loftier (and passion-drenched) messages that Luke the Drifter delivered. Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash recorded numerous gospel songs and gospel albums, and Cash produced his own movie about the life of Christ, The Gospel Road. Veteran country troubadour Randy Travis revived his career with last year’s “Three Wooden Crosses,” a Christian record release that crossed over to top the country charts — to everyone’s surprise but the fans and consumers. And it’s especially indicative of the depth of the country audience’s commitment when new artists are having country hits with religion-soaked songs. Jimmy Wayne’s “I Love You This Much,” which peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart, is about the crucifixion, and Josh Turner’s redemption song “Long Black Train” went to No. 13.

The title of the new Mel Gibson album (for want of a better term, especially since he’s listed as a producer and wrote the liner notes) is Songs Inspired by The Passion of the Christ. That’s rather ingenuous since it very broadly suggests that the songs were inspired by the movie as opposed to being inspired by the actual event of the Passion of Christ — and as such is wildly misleading. Especially since the songs were around long before the Mel movie. But the album has its heart in the right place. The assortment of songs and artists seems at first glance haphazard, but it’s for the most part a jigsaw puzzle that comes together very nicely. It’s also a Nashville album, on Universal South, which is a natural fit.

It doesn’t hurt that the album opens with Hank Williams’ granddaughter Holly Williams singing Hank’s “How Can You Refuse Him Now?” Recorded by Hank Williams at one of his Nashville demo sessions in 1950, the song was released posthumously on the 1954 album I Saw the Light (and it was recorded by his wife Audrey as a single while he was still alive). It’s an affecting song, delivered here in a quavering, minimalist delivery by his grandchild. In his liner notes, Gibson notes that the first country record he ever bought was by Ricky Skaggs, who delivers here an a capella version of “Are You Afraid to Die.” (It’s illuminating to recall that Skaggs was the point man in Nashville for Gibson. He held a screening of The Passion of the Christ last December at a Baptist church for a large group of influential Nashvillians. Skaggs also talked extensively to the media about the movie.) Another country standout here is a duet by Jessi Colter and her son, Shooter Jennings. They co-wrote the song “Please Carry Me Home” and, accompanied by Colter on piano with a cello and organ and resonator guitar, their voices are effective foils for each other.

Gibson is a better song collector than you might have imagined. He builds a fascinating set of songs by wildly varying artists that complement each other well, from Bob Dylan to Elvis Presley and Leonard Cohen to the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Blue lead singer Lee Ryan (on Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me”), Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Leon Russell, the Cranberries’ Delores Riordan and someone calling himself “The Ghost Who Walks.”

By the way, if you like the John Debney soundtrack to the film The Passion of the Christ, you will find it fascinating to go back and listen to Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack for the Martin Scorsese film The Last Temptation of Christ. Both albums function admirably as moody, atmospheric, intense soundtracks to this most dramatic human drama of all time. But Gabriel’s intricate Passion is more and more claiming a legitimate identity as a superb freestanding musical work. Which I suspect Debney’s will not become, as closely tied to the film’s images as it is.

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.
Serve the Lord with gladness; come before his presence with singing.

— Psalm 100