Faith and Country Music
Songwriter Harlan Howard once described country music as “three chords and the truth.”1 Today, country music is often discounted as shallow and formulaic, saturated with songs that glorify partying and a fantasy of the “country lifestyle,” perhaps with the occasional reference to Jesus or growing up in church thrown in among the beer and pickup trucks. However, a closer look at country music from the past and present reveals the truthfulness of Howard’s claim: country music at its best represents some of the most masterful and candid songwriting of any genre and does not shy away from exploring meaningful topics. In particular, the relationship between country music and faith has always been complicated. The 1927 series of recording sessions held by the Victor recording company in Bristol, Tennessee are considered the start of modern country music and produced the industry’s first major stars. The Carter Family, with their wholesome repertoire of old-time gospel songs and Appalachian folk tunes, and Jimmie Rodgers, whose yodel-infused hits spoke of jumping freights and carousing in barrooms, were the two most important acts who got their start at Bristol.2 The contrasting themes represented by the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers at such a defining moment in early country music history is an example of how the genre often juxtaposes the Christian faith with wandering ways. From Bristol’s “Big Bang of Country Music” to the present, country singers have expressed, explored, and sometimes challenged faith through unflinchingly honest lyrics. This article endeavors to illustrate the wide array of country songs that present multifaceted perspectives on the Christian’s journey of faith.
From Bristol’s “Big Bang of Country Music” to the present, country singers have expressed, explored, and sometimes challenged faith through unflinchingly honest lyrics.
Within country music, there certainly exist countless songs that are explicitly religious in nature, drawing on the influences of hymns and spirituals. One well-known example is the gospel song “I Saw the Light,” written by Hank Williams in 1947.3 The lyrics present a very optimistic view of the Christian life, proclaiming: “I saw the light / I saw the light / No more darkness, no more night / Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight / Praise the Lord, I saw the light.” The song is rife with biblical allusions and contrasts the singer’s former wandering and sinful ways with his present hope and joy. “I Saw the Light” powerfully demonstrates the joy that accompanies placing one’s faith in Christ. However, this song was not written from the naive perspective of someone who has never undergone hardship. In fact, Hank Williams’ life was far from perfect, as he struggled with alcoholism, chronic pain, and infidelity, culminating with his tragic death at the age of 29.4 Knowing the background to Williams’ life makes “I Saw the Light” particularly interesting, since Williams expressed such a firm belief in the hope of Christ while often failing to live it out. This does not make the song inauthentic, but rather illustrates the reality that many people know about and can even articulate the good news of the gospel, yet struggle to fully accept Christ’s transformation in their everyday lives. Certainly, the majority of Christians will at times feel that they are unable to attain the renewed life that God has promised despite knowing the truth of the Bible, even if their struggles are not so extreme. Coming from a different source, the lyrics could seem like glib platitudes, but the imperfections of Williams’ life actually enhance “I Saw the Light” because the song represents a sinner proclaiming the joy of Christ. This gives hope to those of us who have ever felt like a hypocrite singing along to a hymn in church—we don’t have to be perfect to say we have seen the light.
This does not make the song inauthentic, but rather illustrates the reality that many people know about and can even articulate the good news of the gospel, yet struggle to fully accept Christ’s transformation in their everyday lives.
Many country artists have directly addressed the struggle of living out faith within their songs, such as contemporary musician Cody Jinks. In the 2019 song “Think Like You Think,” the narrator’s wife confronts his apparent hypocrisy in professing Christian faith, yet succumbing to the temptation to drink heavily. The first verse states: “The Good Book holds reasons I believe the way I do / All I needed to know I was taught in Sunday school / But I live like those rules were for everyone but me / With selfish disregard for how it hurt my family.” In the chorus, the narrator’s wife summarizes his dilemma by asking him, “How can you think like you think and drink like you drink?” This is just one example of many country songs that clearly present the tension between a person’s faithful ideals and his or her sinful inclinations and desires. Jinks presents faith as a set of intellectual principles and rules to follow, but his character in the song finds it difficult to actually apply these principles to his own life, although he recognizes that this makes his faith appear insincere to those around him. Simply knowing the rules is not sufficient to inspire meaningful change in his life. Songs such as these embody the difficulties many people face when trying to reconcile their knowledge of the truth with their human struggles.
As fundamental as Christianity has been to the development of country music, artists have wrestled with and challenged faith traditions through their honest songwriting. However, it is not unusual that songs that may appear to be unrelated or even antithetical to faith actually affirm Christian themes. One example of this is “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (1969) by Kris Kristofferson. The narrator of this song describes his own lonely, hungover Sunday morning in contrast to the smell of family meals being cooked and the sound of church bells ringing. The chorus says: “On the Sunday morning sidewalks / Wishing, Lord, that I was stoned / ‘Cause there’s something in a Sunday / Makes a body feel alone.” Although the narrator of this song seems very disillusioned and removed from the world of church and Sunday dinners, his longing for connection in his isolated Sunday morning reveals a very human yearning for community and relationship, both with God and with other people. Kristofferson’s depiction of a sinful and broken man still reveals Christian truths through its honest depiction of human nature, which, in some way, points back to God. Even when country songwriters show some of the lowest points of human struggles in their music, songs that accurately represent the human condition also reflect the One in whose image we are made.
Kristofferson’s depiction of a sinful and broken man still reveals Christian truths through its honest depiction of human nature, which, in some way, points back to God.
Country music encompasses a wide variety of perspectives on faith and life, and the genre’s emphasis on authenticity enables it to honestly depict the beauty of faith and the struggles that accompany it. A song that has been very impactful in my own life is “Why Me,” written by Kris Kristofferson a few years after “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” In “Why Me,” the speaker openly pleads with God, saying, “Lord help me, Jesus / I’ve wasted it, so help me, Jesus / I know what I am / But now that I know / That I’ve needed you so help me, Jesus / My soul’s in your hands.” There have been many times in my life where I have realized my own inadequacy to overcome my sinfulness and brokenness, and songs like “Why Me” really speak to me in these moments. These are the times when I realize how dependent I am on God, who alone can redeem and transform me. The song seems to echo the sentiments of Psalm 51, where David writes, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me … Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” Country music can connect with people at any stage of their faith journey, and like the Psalms, it authentically explores a wide variety of emotions and experiences, from joy and celebration to shame, suffering, and loneliness. Through its candid lyrics and honest storytelling, country music is able to poignantly explore the human condition with little more than three chords and the truth.
References: 1. Dansby, Andrew. “Country Scribe Harlan Howard Dies.” Rolling Stone, 5 Mar. 2002, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/country-scribe-harlan-howard-dies-197596/. 2. Burns, Ken. “The Rub.” Country Music, 1, PBS, 15 Sept. 2019. In fact, the Carters’ wholesome, Sunday-school image belied the issues they faced in their private lives. The group disbanded in the early 1940s when Sara and A. P. Carter divorced. 3. Wikipedia contributors, “I Saw the Light (Hank Williams song),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=I_Saw_the_Light_(Hank_Williams_song)&oldid=1051072670 (accessed January 1, 2022). 4. Wallenfeldt, J.. “Hank Williams.” Encyclopedia Britannica, September 13, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Hank-Williams.