Today, in light of its strong showing at the recent Grammy Awards, Rozann Carter offers her reflection on the genre of country music, its positive insights and potential pitfalls.
This past Sunday evening was the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards. As is typically the case regarding the entertainment industry’s yearly “anybody-who’s-anybody” galas, the Grammys earn their high ratings by way of the in-your-face shock factor. Performances are increasingly Olympic-opening-ceremony-ish, musically ecumenical, or randomly risqué, red carpet entrances have gone beyond the ridiculous to the extremely absurd (thank you, Lady Gaga), and the Grammy get-ups are their own form of modern art. This year, however, in the face of all the theatrics, I was gratified to see several top honors won by country music artists.
Now, I don’t pretend for a moment that country music is immune to theatrics and the occasional shock factor. In addition, while I thoroughly appreciate all of the references to God and religion that country artists are proud to make, I know that the wholesome card can be played as a means to saccharin-ize the image of the “crazy ex-girlfriend” underneath the surface. And, I know that country music haters across America will throw out the cliché commentary that in rewinding a country song, the guy gets his girl back, avoids burning down his house, resuscitates his dog, and makes things right with his momma. But despite all of this, I believe that there are a few spiritual lessons to learn in regards to this bucolic approach to musical expression.
While it goes without saying that music itself is highly influential and formative across the board, growing up in rural America, country music has been a defining element of my upbringing. Living now in urban Chicago, I find that my radio is almost always tuned to the only country station in Chicago, subconsciously, I think, to keep myself connected to the “fly-over states,” to “my people,” or to “where I come from” (…you choose the lyrics). Recently, much to my surprise, this particular genre has received some attention in the Catholic blog world, even as it has become more and more folksy-cool in popular culture. Joe Carter at First Things wrote about “Finding God in the Gaps of Country Music” last week, and the Archbolds made mention of the same over on Creative Minority Report in response to the egotistical rants of Ricky Gervais at this year’s Golden Globes. At the same time, Country Strong (starring Gwyneth Paltrow) hit the big screens, not too long after Jeff Bridges played a washed-out country singer in last year’s Crazy Heart. With the crossover musician becoming more in vogue, we now see a greater representation of country music in the pop sector.
Why the intrigue? It seems to me that country music finds its point of difference in its general realism, in the direct and non-convoluted way that it describes the simple truths of life. With rugged, raw, and unapologetic honesty, it relates to the listener by means of a common experience expressed in a nostalgic way… with a hint of colloquialism and maybe a little twang. Rather than poetically expressing abstract interpretations of ideologies that must be translated or fleshed out, country music presents the ballad or narrative that is “lived” by the listener, in 4 to 5 minute increments. While other musical genres typically incite the formation of hipster cult followings, country seems to operate according to the mantra: “the more the merrier.” Come one, come all (y’all?). And while it is admittedly true that country music aligns itself with a number of cliché plotlines (or is a converted quip of wisdom set to a catchy beat), there is an open-armed air of hospitality about the music that is endearing, even if it requires setting aside one’s preconceived musical pretension. It’s not pulling any punches, not making things more complicated than they are, and not denying its communal and values-oriented roots.
This, as far as I can tell, is what makes country music so amenable to the Christian ethos, what keeps God in its lyrics and in the thank-you speeches of its creators: a stubborn refusal to bend to the philosophy of being different merely for the sake of being different, of doubting commonly held ideals in a way that valorizes the doubt itself, and of disconnecting with the straightforward, undeniable reality of lived experience.
In the spiritual life, there is something paradoxical about this relationship between the complicated and the simple. The deepest truths of theology are most definitely poetic, artistic, uniquely expressive, and draw upon an immeasurable wellspring of beauty and richness, but they can be complicated by immersion into convoluted expressions of these truths without the lived experience of the faith, without the rugged, unapologetic practice that unites all underneath the umbrella of mutual dignity and promotes the experiential reality of the love of God. The beauty of this experience of God’s love is only enhanced by the tools of theological understanding, not created by them. Over and over, we see this truth play out in the lives of saints who, because of their humility and submission, were infused by the Holy Spirit in an uncomplicated way. The simple narrative of their practical faith draws the world into their sanctity, rather than promoting an endless cycle of reflection, critical analysis, and cynicism. The ballad of their lives is told in a way that invites others to “live” it, too. The more, the merrier.
However, I have a concerned word of caution for fellow devotees of my favorite musical genre. There is a tendency, with country music’s built-in realism, to abandon the ideal-- to embrace one’s humanity at the expense of one’s calling. Humble experience, unapologetic simplicity, and the “this is who I am” mentality promoted by country music are wonderful things, unless they become ends in themselves. There is much beyond the story wrapped up in those short ballads, and you’ll miss the implied lesson to be learned if you let the affirmation that you glean from your “theme song” define you. As is often the modus operandi of country music, don’t fall into the trap of becoming narcissistic about your simplicity. Instead, in country music and the spiritual life, revel in the beauty of the shared experience, learn the lesson that is laid out in the final verse of another’s catchy narrative, avoid overcomplicating the matter with theatrics and snobbery, and enjoy the music.
Rozann Carter is an Administrative Assistant at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.