NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Country Music in 2007: Jesus and Small Towns?

Songs Increasingly Explore Faith and Heartland Values

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

So, why does it seem that every country song these days is about either devout faith or rock-solid heartland values?

You can’t turn on the radio without hearing a paean to God and Jesus and Mother and country and noble old people. Or, conversely, you’ll hear an anthem of rural and small-town values, which span a pretty broad spectrum from blue collar working men and women to farmers and mom-and-pop stores, all the way down to pickup trucks and keggers and Black Jack and Jose Cuervo and Jim Beam and girls in tight shorts and about-to-pop-off tank tops. “I love Jesus and Mama and Chevy and Ford and Bud. And I’m from a small town, and, by God, if you don’t like that, I’ll kick your ass.”

My colleague Alanna Nash did some research for an article in Country Weekly about faith-based country music that surprised me. She found that in 1976 there were no spiritually themed songs prominently charting in Billboard‘s country chart. The same held true for 1981 and 1986. There were two in 1991, one in 1996, two in 2001 and one in 2002.

Then, in 2003, there were three, led by Randy Travis’ No. 1 hit, “Three Wooden Crosses.” In 2004, Josh Turner’s “Long Black Train” was a hit. In 2005, Craig Morgan’s “That’s What I Love About Sunday” hit No. 1, followed by three other high-charting songs by Andy Griggs, Tim McGraw and Martina McBride. The year 2005 saw four spiritually-themed songs charting high, led by Kenny Chesney’s “Who You’d Be Today” and Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” They were followed into 2006 by a rush of charting songs, from Alan Jackson’s “Monday Morning Church” to the Brad Paisley-Dolly Parton collaboration on “When I Get Where I’m Going” hit No. 1, as did “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” Brooks & Dunn’s “Believe” and Diamond Rio’s “God Only Cries” also charted high. At the moment, the country chart shows Trent Tomlinson’s “One Wing in the Fire” (which is also charting on the Christian Country Top 100 chart) and Josh Turner’s “Me and God.” Meanwhile, Alan Jackson’s gospel album Precious Memories has sold well over 1 million copies. Merle Haggard recently recorded “Crying Holy” in a duet with Christian singer Chester Smith.

This is all about the values of the devout working man and working woman.

John Mellencamp, who has always been an astute chronicler of the blue collar ethos, captured that blue collar spirit brilliantly, I think, in his song “Our Country,” which — not surprisingly — was a Chevy commercial before it was a commercial music release. (By the way, I am greatly enjoying listening to an advance of Mellencamp’s next CD, Freedom’s Road, which I’ll try to tell you about next week.)

I think all of this is shorthand for preserving “Our Way of Life,” which seems to be constantly under threat, from many sides. And it’s all about class — as in the fact that country music listeners are viewed from many quarters as undesirable. It’s not about race, it’s totally about class. It’s the fact that the country audience is the fly-over audience, the working class between the east and west coasts, that is disdained by the autocracy in business, the media and politics.

I think I know why country listeners are seeking out music with some substance and grit and message. It’s because the values spelled out in these songs are mostly lacking throughout our society today. Faith and honesty have become faux virtues mouthed by political and business leaders who routinely lie and steal and seemingly cannot be held accountable by anybody. Journalism becomes a joke when seemingly serious news outlets and publications race to capture the latest public exploits by trashy celebrities. So-called business leaders compete to see who can snare the biggest multi-million dollar bonuses and golden parachutes while hourly workers are routinely laid off. And let’s not even get started on political so-called leaders, going all the way up to the top.

I believe New York state’s new governor, Eliot Spitzer, is one of the few genuine heroes in public life today. As New York’s Attorney General, he single-handedly went after and nailed corruption in the recording industry. That sort of thing doesn’t happen often.

But music itself, oh, music can hold and express and extol and convey and preserve basic human virtues that all good and decent people seek.

Are all the current faith-based and small-town rootsy songs themselves honest and worthy? The good thing is that that’s up to the listeners to decide.