NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Is Country Music Headed Straight to Heaven or Straight to Hell?

Alan Jackson's Gospel Songs, Hank Williams III's Hellbilly Music Stretch the Limits

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

I love the range of country music, the vast span of the wide cultural spaces it fills, which it does sometimes admirably well and sometimes with a cockeyed awkwardness. And, as one small example, I love the range of three new album releases: Alan Jackson’s Precious Memories, Hank Williams III’s Straight to Hell and Shannon Brown’s Corn Fed.

In other words, country music sometimes goes straight to heaven, sometimes straight to hell and occasionally straight to the barn.

The images of each CD release could not be more dissimilar: a white-hatted Alan Jackson playing guitar while seated on the steps of a rustic old rural community church … cruel-looking spikes and a goat-headed Satanic figure playing guitar on Hank III’s release … and Shannon Brown looking alluring and kicking back in taut blue jeans in the barnyard.

It’s like seeing the Rev. Billy Graham, Black Sabbath and Daisy Duke jostling for the attention of the country audience. And you know what: The country audience really does have room for all three. Maybe not always in huge Garth Brooks-George Strait numbers, but I’ve seen and corresponded with and talked to enough country music fans over many years to know that their tolerance and tastes span a pretty wide spectrum.

The pristine purity of Alan Jackson’s Precious Memories takes me completely back to my childhood when I grew up in my father’s church in Texas singing these same simple but profound songs of faith. With the pure piano sound especially, the songs draw you into the warm setting of a little wooden country church or even an old brush arbor meeting or summer tent revival. These songs are those that I heard throughout my childhood: “Softly and Tenderly,” “I Love to Tell the Story,” “Standing on the Promises” and 12 other sturdy church standards that all you fundamentalist song lovers will appreciate. Maybe even some Baptists and Methodists will, too.

Hank III’s “Hellbilly” music transports me totally back to the Texas honky tonks I eagerly dived into as a teenager with a fake ID. His rebellious, hell-raising persona has wearied a bit over the past couple of years, but the actual music here stands up very well. It opens on a high note with a short clip of the Louvin Brothers singing their old gospel song “Satan Is Real” that quickly descends into a demonic laugh. It’s listed as “Satan Is Real/Straight to Hell Medley.” But the first real, cut, “Thrown Out of the Bar,” is good old-fashioned, steel-playing, slap-bass honky tonk music. “Pills I Took” and “Smoke and Wine” are a lot of fun. And there’s a classic country shaggy-dog song with “My Drinkin’ Problem” (“My drinkin’ problem left today.”). It closes with the thoroughly gorgeous “Angel of Sin,” which is as good a country song as I have heard in a long time.

As far as I know, though, this is the first album of country music ever to be slapped with a parental advisory sticker warning for “explicit content.” And there is plenty of that explicit stuff here, all right. For example, “Dick in Dixie” is not about anyone named Dick. But there is still some pretty powerful country music here.

The second CD of Hank III’s set is entirely devoted to “Louisiana Stripes,” a chaotic and disturbing — but highly entertaining — 45-minute descent into the abyss. It opens like a conventional prison song about wearing Louisiana stripes, but just after two minutes, we begin to hear the ominous stirrings of something much darker. Random sound effects, random voices, trains, distorted singing, howling and the like. There’s a snippet of him singing his grandfather’s “I Could Never Be Ashamed of You” and short versions of Hank III songs about death, betrayal, sin, salvation, murder and doom. If Frank Zappa had been a country singer, he might have produced something as effective as this.

Hank III’s musical schizophrenia is always on full display, allowing listeners to make of it what they will. He makes a big ado about professing to not care about what people think about him, but you have to wonder what he really thinks. A lot of care and attention went into this two-CD work. Like his grandfather, he has two musical sides. But his grandfather’s two musical egos were divided between the trad country Hank Williams and the musical evangelist Luke the Drifter. Hank III’s two identities are trad country singer and self-destructive punk. Which one will triumph? I’m betting on the country singer side.

Finally, “Shuck This!” wallpapers are being offered on Shannon Brown’s Web site in case you want to further extend the barnyard experience beyond Brown’s pleasant songs themselves. Jackson and Hank III are not offering Heaven or Hell wallpapers.

But I am confident there is plenty of room in both Heaven and Hell for country music listeners. And for country music artists.