NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Heaven or Hell? Sin or Salvation?

Either Way, Country Music Wants Your Immortal Soul

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

In researching the show CMT 20 Greatest Songs of Faith — which debuts Saturday (March 26) at 8 p.m. ET/PT — I was forcefully reminded again of how the eternal conflict between good and evil, between sin and salvation, between the darkness of Saturday night and the sunlight and bright promise of Sunday morning have dominated country music.

Those twin themes have driven the highs and lows of country music. “Keep on the Sunny Side” duels with “The Wild Side of Life.” Banal cheating songs such as “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away” and overt drinking songs such as “I Gotta Get Drunk” appeal just as powerfully to country music fans as an uplifting song such as “Three Wooden Crosses” or “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Backsliding country stars can come out of jail and out of rehab to tearfully claim their rightful place as one of the saved and the righteous.

The traveling singers and musicians who sometimes performed at my father’s church in Texas and especially at his summer tent revivals were endlessly fascinating. They were fairly exotic and a trifle “worldly,” my mother would sniff as she warned my sister and my brothers and me to steer clear of them. They would roll in with their touring cars and the occasional bus with a whiff of the outside world about them.

I’ve seen some of them step forward and kneel to be saved, and I’ve seen them lay down a flask of whiskey or a pack of cigarettes or a deck of cards on the altar as they tearfully prayed for salvation and a new life. Music is what did it to them, in most cases. Music led them astray, and then music drew them back.

Certainly, those who have sinned — and especially those who have sinned greatly — are the most effective in telling musical tales from the dark side.

What is perhaps the greatest gospel song in country history was written and performed by its most tortured and hell-bound artist ever. Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light” was the cry and plea of a man who sought a way out of what he felt was a road to doom. Long after he wrote it, he confessed to Minnie Pearl — shortly before he died young — that he couldn’t see the light anymore.

Johnny Cash was no stranger to very long Saturday nights of serious sinning, but he eventually turned his life around. His uplifting songs such as “Daddy Sang Bass” (actually written by his Sun Records labelmate Carl Perkins) and “A Thing Called Love” seem all the richer for the understanding that his years of sin seem to bring to his delivery. Cash spent many years trying to record a gospel album, but record labels — beginning with Sun records in the 1950s — never thought it could be commercial enough to bother with. He finally succeeded shortly before he died, and the resulting My Mother’s Hymn Book was released after his death.

Like Cash, his running buddy Kris Kristofferson put a lot of years of whiskey and drugs into the beauty and poetry of his song, “Why Me.”

Willie Nelson is truly the holy man of the honky-tonks. His shows to this day still take on the air of a prayer meeting. When I first took some Rolling Stone colleagues to a Willie show, they were astounded to see crippled people on crutches and in wheelchairs lined up near the stage, as if awaiting some kind of healing or anointing. If you’ve never encountered it, I recommend his first gospel album, The Troublemaker, which was first released in 1976.

That gospel’s effect has not lessened on younger artists is certainly proved by young Josh Turner’s strong “Long Black Train” which reads and sounds like it could have been written and recorded anytime in the past century but is no less stunning today.

One man — besides Willie — who is today the closest thing I know of to a Biblical prophet is Billy Joe Shaver, whose life has been a literal road to perdition and damnation and back again. No one knows the highs and lows of misery and joy better than this man. His songs are a catalog of heaven and hell. After all, not many people are really qualified to write and sing a song like “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ.” These days, Billy Joe is fond of closing his shows by shouting at his audiences, “If you don’t love Jesus, go to hell!”