Editor’s Note: CMT 20 Greatest Songs of Faith premieres Saturday (March 26) at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
Faith has always been an integral part of country music, embraced by its first artists as well as today’s stars.
From country’s earliest origins to modern day hits such as “Long Black Train” and “Three Wooden Crosses,” artists and fans alike have been drawn to songs that provide comfort, encouragement and direction during their earthly journeys. The new special, CMT 20 Greatest Songs of Faith, features some of country’s most enduring compositions, but it also finds several country stars explaining why the inspirational music continues to matter.
Craig Morgan, currently spending his second week at No. 1 on the country singles chart with “That’s What I Love About Sunday,” says, “Faith is something you can’t see or touch, but you can feel it. People say you can’t hold it, but you can. It’s something you can hold onto when things are bad.”
Asked about the Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side,” Alison Krauss says, “That one makes me jump up and down. You’ve got to take the good with the bad, and the good is going to outweigh the bad. No matter how bad the bad is, it’s going to get better. I think it’s the ultimate ‘the glass is half-full as opposed to half-empty’ song.”
The bluegrass standard, “Working on a Building,” is particularly meaningful to Wynonna.
“I’m definitely working on a building, absolutely,” she says. “I think 20 years later and I’m still here. I’m still working. And everything I do, I really try not to labor in vain. I think after all this time, for me, it’s just about showing up and being grateful. I’m working my butt off. I’ve never worked harder. And every step of the way, I feel like I am building something. I want that legacy to go on and on and ripple out into the generations.”
“Go Rest High on That Mountain,” written by Vince Gill, still brings hope to all who hear it.
“I remember getting a phone call from Vince,” Ricky Skaggs recalls. “He said, ‘Buddy, I got this song. … And I’ve got Patty [Loveless]. She’s going to sing on it, and I really want you to come sing on it with me. It would really mean a lot to me.’”
Skaggs continues, “I went to the studio and heard it, and I just wanted to hear it over and over and over and over again without my voice on it. It’s a classic. It will go down in history as being one of the greatest gospel songs that’s a country song. ‘Go Rest High’ has brought a lot of peace to a lot of people’s hearts who hear that song.”
With roots in gospel, Josh Turner’s “Long Black Train” has touched a new generation of country listeners. He was inspired to write the song after listening to The Complete Hank Williams box set in the music library at Nashville’s Belmont University.
“It really made me feel like I was in the room with him,” Turner explains. “When I walked out of the library, I noticed there was something unusually dark about this night. About halfway home, I had this vision come to me of this wide open space way out in the plains somewhere. There was a train track running right down the middle of this wide open space. From out of the darkness came roaring down this track this long black beautiful shiny train. I could see people standing out to the side of this track watching this train go by.
“As I was walking, I kept asking myself, ‘What does this vision mean exactly, and how is it relevant to me or anybody else, and what’s going through these people’s minds?’ Finally, it dawned on me the train was a physical metaphor for temptation and that these people were caught up in the decision of whether or not to get on this train. So then I realized I had something really powerful and really special. So when I got home that night, I got my guitar and it just poured out of me.”
Randy Travis’ recording of “Three Wooden Crosses” brought its story full circle when the preacher’s mother was the hooker who received the bloodstained Bible from a preacher after a deadly bus accident. Travis remembers a comment from a stranger that made him realize the power of the song.
Travis recalls, “He said, ‘You never know when you’re singing, when you’re speaking, who you’re going to influence, how much you’re going to influence them. In other words, you could be up singing and preaching, whichever the case it may be, and have the right effect on a person sitting there who may turn out to be the next Billy Graham.’ … I’ve never really thought about it in those terms, but that was a wonderful way to put it.”
“How Great Thou Art” remains a timeless tune of faith. “I sing that in my shows a lot,” says Brad Paisley. “I like it because it’s so non-specific. It just talks about the wonders of the universe and the God who made us all. And it really makes you appreciate how great that — I don’t want to say person — but that creator is that made us all.”
Naomi Judd recites the definition of faith in the Book of Hebrews that states, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of the unseen.” She says it’s what “Farther Along” exemplifies.
“‘Farther Along’ gives credence to the definition of faith, because it’s talking about how it’s not for us to know,” Judd says. “That’s what faith is. We have to be willing to surrender and that is what faith is. … We’re having a human experience. We’re spiritual beings going through His human experience.”