In 1922 Eck Robertson did the earliest documented record of what would be later called “hillbilly music.” Ralph Peer coined the term as a name for a group of mountain musicians he recorded in 1925 (Malone and Neal, 2010, pp. 39–40). Two years later, recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, would prove to be the “creation event” of country music because its first two superstars—the A. P. Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers—would be discovered in these sessions. Of major importance as well, the sessions occurred in Appalachia, far from New York City, using regional talent that captured the essence of this “hillbilly music” (Neal, 2013, p. 37). With the arrival in the 1930s of the singing cowboys and the music of Bob Wills, the name “Western” would be added, but the term “country music” would not come into use until the late 1940s (Malone, 1981, p. 5).
Derived from many sources, including black music (Neal, 2013, pp. 5–10), country music emerged from the rural and urban white working-class South and speaks to and expresses the hopes and dreams, the frustrations and failures, the loves and lost relationships, the alienated work, the domestic struggles, the economic assaults, the faith, and the lives of desperation of these folk. It is white soul (Sample, 1996, pp. 14–15).
It is a music of dislocation that reflects the movement of a society from rural agrarian to urban industrial, from a farm to a factory to a service economy, from an oral culture to a print and then an informational-technological one, and from a national to a global economy. While the audience and fan base of the music has expanded nationally and internationally, it has never lost its deep connections to the southern United States and the rural and urban white working class (Malone, 2002).
Meanwhile, the Great Depression, World War II, a postwar period of relative economic gain, the Korean conflict, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the feminist movement, the Gulf War, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, recurring economic recessions, the offshoring of jobs, and the decline of wages, in a short list, have all had significant effects on working-class people and country music. The impact of these events has broken up many extended families, dislocated them to the cities and different regions of the country, and removed them from their traditional roots and communal settings.
Country is a music dedicated to authenticity, to a faithful embodiment of its roots, and yet from its beginnings in the 1920s the music was clearly a commercialized institution (Peterson, 1997, pp. 205–220). Even with songs expressive of traditional roots throughout its nearly 10-decade existence, it has relentlessly sought crossover success in a popular market, thus accommodating itself to a larger more middle-class national audience and threatening its connection with its rural and urban working-class base (Peterson, 1998, pp. 234–255; Neal, 2013, p. 187).
A story music of working-class people dealing with ordinary life, country music seeks resolution to the struggles pervasively present in the changes and dislocations of their lived existence. Reflecting the oral culture of much of its audience, these narratives find crystallization in unforgettable lyrics, such as “sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug,” or, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy,” or “I’ve been roped and thrown by Jesus in the Holy Ghost corral.”
Country music is also a music of contradiction (Fox, 2004, pp. 317–321). If it vaunts the rambling man, it shouts praise for Jesus and the church, at least the old small country church; if it moans the broken heart and voices the outlaw traditions of the honky-tonk, it will venerate a white Protestant evangelical and, early on, a fundamentalist faith; if it can lust after sex and hedonism, it can also call people back to the virtues of a traditional culture; and even when it brings down judgment on the music itself on behalf of a more authentic genre, it aims those very songs at the pop charts for crossover success. The study of country music is a prime candidate for the advice of the sociologist Anthony Giddens: “Don’t look for the functions social practices fulfill, look for the contradictions they embody!” (1979, p. 131). In terms of the topic here, the sociologist George H. Lewis writes that the music “resembles a battlefield of cultural conflict and contradiction” (1993, p. 219).
One important contradiction in country music is the role of a traditional culture in addressing male sociality, that is, attempting to control masculine behavior that can be disruptive to the coping and survival of the family. In this regard, it is essential to distinguish a conservative economic political orientation—held mainly by affluent and wealthy people—in which there is a commitment to a highly competitive, free market, where free autonomous individuals pursue self-interest in the conviction that the invisible hands of such an economy result in the greatest good of the greatest number of people. This discourse typically holds to minimal government and high military spending and opposes welfare expenditures. The greatest fear of this position is the loss of liberty, especially market freedom.
While some white working-class Americans hold this position, their stance is much more likely to be characterized by a commitment to family and kinship ties, the maintenance of familial authority and respectability, the cooperation of basic institutions like the family, the school, and the church, and the commitment to a morality that serves the raising of children and restrains the pursuit of self-interest dangerous to domestic relations, especially that of men. The greatest fear is the loss of morality that structures and sustains family ties (Klatch, 1988, pp. 675–676). Another pattern, in contradiction with this traditional view, exists among white working-class Americans who hold to a “populist anarchism” and who view freedom primarily in terms of being “left the hell alone” (Sample, 1996, pp. 124–130; cf. Cusic, 2008, pp. 159–172).
The anthropologist James Ault’s study of a working-class, fundamentalist congregation outside Worcester, Massachusetts, found similar traditional commitments, which, in part, attempt to control male sociality (2002, pp. 186–200). Because the man is often the major breadwinner in working-class families, the discouragement of his pursuit of egoistic self-interest is crucial. If he walks out the door chasing his interests (e.g., another woman, excessive drinking, hell raising, etc.), the family can be impoverished. So a traditional morality takes on marital, familial, and financial significance of the first order. Note these concerns in the song “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” (1976).
To examine the role of the Bible in country music, it is key to juxtapose these traditional commitments with those of the hard-living, hell-raising forms of life etched indelibly in honky-tonk music and the resistance to be found, for example, in a song like “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” (1984).
The Use of the Bible in Country Music.
Investigation of the use of the Bible in country music requires careful attention to the matters outlined above: country music’s rural/urban working-class origins and sustaining base, the influence of a white Protestant evangelical and/or fundamentalist faith, societal dislocation, the dialectic of authenticity and commercial success, the stories of the music and its memorable sayings, the contradictions embedded in its lyrics, and the key role of a traditional culture, on the one hand, and the celebration of hell raising and hard living, on the other.
Further, across the nearly 100-year commercial history of the genre, the role of religion and especially the Bible has changed. Bill C. Malone, the preeminent historian of country music, observes that religious songs declined sharply and that sectarian songs “virtually disappeared” after the 1970s (2002, p. 287 n. 1).
With these preliminary comments in mind, what follows will focus on three basic uses of the Bible: first, songs that make reference to specific biblical texts; second, songs that make general allusions to the Bible by name but do not address specific texts; and, finally, biblical figures and themes used in music that does not mention the Bible as such. Furthermore, the focus of this article is not on gospel music and bluegrass except when songs from these genres are prominent in country music. Finally, attention here is given to the lyrics of country music in order to compare them more directly with the biblical text.
Use of Biblical Texts.
Specific biblical texts are the focus of a good many country music songs, especially in the first five decades or so of its history. This section examines a few such songs in order to discover the interpretive view(s) at work in them.
“The Great Speckled Bird” (1936).
With lyrics written by the Reverend Guy Smith and famously sung by Roy Acuff, this song references Jeremiah 12:9: “Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird, the birds round about are against her; come ye, assemble all the beasts of the field, come to devour” (KJV). In the song the speckled bird is interpreted as the true church embattled by false churches jealous of its true faithfulness. But then the lyrics leave the Jeremiah passage, claiming that the great speckled bird will soon ascend into the sky and depart the world until this time of devastating tribulation is passed. At this point the lyrics seem to draw from a dispensationalist mix of New Testament sources such as 1 Thessalonians 4:16–18 in which those who are still alive in Christ shall be caught up in the clouds, along with those who died in Christ, to meet the Lord in the air and to be with him forever. Combined with this is a view of the tribulation and last days such as found in Matthew 24, Mark 13:19–23, and Revelation 7:14. Dispensationalism is a fundamentalist Protestant attempt to read the Bible literally by interpreting biblical history as a sequential series of God’s dealings with humankind. A key dispensation, which is found in two country songs here, is the sequence of the rapture of the church being caught up in the air followed later by the second coming of Christ to earth.
A review of scholarly work on Jeremiah 11:18—12:13, however, points out that the issue for Jeremiah in this passage is one of theodicy and of judgment on Israel itself. Regarding theodicy, Jeremiah 12:1 raises the questions of why the wicked prosper and why the treacherous thrive (Melvin, 2011, pp. 99–106). Further, the prosperity and thriving of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous result from “the sin of society which has necessitated Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry and which now necessitates the destruction of the nation” (p. 105). In this passage the fate of a prophet like Jeremiah is so bound up with his people that God’s judgment of them brings wretched suffering for Jeremiah himself, but not only for the prophet; divine judgment against Israel, the love of God’s life, brings great suffering for God (p. 106).
These matters are not addressed in the lyrics of the song. Further, there is no sense of judgment on the true church in the song as there is on Israel and Jeremiah in the biblical passage. Rather, the embattled true church suffers from the attacks of false churches, and judgment is shifted exclusively to the latter, with escape and vindication for the former. Written during the days of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy, it seems that not only a fundamentalist but also a dispensationalist reading of the biblical text is at work in the song, as with the next song to be considered.
“Battle of Armageddon” (1946–1947).
This song makes two explicit references to the Bible: Revelation 16:16 and Matthew 24:1–33. The lyrics state that a “mighty battle” is both coming and already well under way. It will be a day of great sadness with massive armies engaged in the struggle. The chorus states that from the time of leaving Eden to this final battle, trouble, tribulation, sorrow, and despair have held sway, but “He” (Jesus) has taught us “Be ye not troubled for these things shall come to pass” (Matt 24:6B). The final line of the chorus assures its listeners that eternal life will come to those who dwell with Christ. In the second verse of the song the listener is encouraged to turn to Matthew 24:1–33, where Christ prophesied that this “mighty battle” would come “by-and-by,” followed by the chorus.
The biblical problem here is that passages of Revelation 16 and Matthew 24 do not cohere. For one thing, Christ does not prophesy in Matthew 24 that there will be mighty battle but rather “great suffering.” Further, the New Testament scholar Brian K. Blount points out that the word “Armageddon” (“Harmagedon” in the NRSV) appears only in the book of Revelation and nowhere else in the entire Bible. Obviously it is not in the teaching of Jesus. Blount maintains that it “should not attract the kind of interpretive attention that many church traditions have given it over the centuries.” Further, he argues that “what is most important to remember here” is that the author [of Revelation] proposes “a symbolic battle,” not a literal one, with the consequence being the fulfillment and the acknowledgment of the rule of God and the Lamb (2009, p. 306).
It is, of course, permissible in a work of art to make any number of uses of the Bible. The point here is that the use of the Bible in this song serves a dispensationalist and fundamentalist reading, where texts are combined to fit this reading. At the same time it should be noted that this song, like “The Great Speckled Bird,” speaks to the troubles and hardships faced by people in this life in a song that offers the hope of eternity to those who remain faithful.
“Tramp on the Street” (1939).
These lyrics, written by Grady and Hazel Cole and performed by many artists, tell the story found in Luke 16:19–31 where Lazarus begs for food, which falls from the table of a rich man, only to be denied. Lazarus is later discovered dead in the street (not recorded in Luke). The lyrics add to the biblical text that he was some mother’s son, her “darlin’ ” whom she cared for and rocked to sleep.
The next verse of the song introduces Jesus as one who suffered and died on the cross and was abandoned. He, too, was the son and darlin’ of Mary and the son chosen by God. Once fair and young, Mary rocked him to sleep, but he was deserted to die in the street like a tramp (also not recorded in Luke). At this point the lyrics ask rhetorically what would happen if Jesus came to “your door.” Would he receive welcome or be turned aside?
This verse of the song about Jesus as a tramp clearly references Matthew 25:31–46, where Jesus declares blessed those who provide food, drink, welcoming, clothing, care, and prison visitation for those with such needs. But Jesus cautions that those who do not offer this kind of compassion to the least of these have denied Jesus himself and are consigned to eternal punishment. By combining the story of Lazarus from Luke with the teaching of Jesus from Matthew, this song speaks to the significance of responding to a tramp in the street with love and compassion and the consequences of failing to do so.
It is noteworthy that the reading of these two passages introduces the issue of the mother and child in the case of both Lazarus and of Jesus, an appeal to traditional culture with its emphasis on family and especially on the mother and child relation. The biblical text is read through the lens of this traditional family vision. Further, while the song can be seen as an evangelical reading, it is not explicitly a fundamentalist or dispensationalist reading.
“I Corinthians 15:55” (2010).
Written and recorded by Johnny Cash, this song begins with the chorus and quotes directly the biblical text: “O death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory?” Yet the song never deals directly with either of these lines or with the content of Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 15. Rather it addresses the difficulties of the voyage of life in this hard world and offers the hope of Christ’s victory over death and its sting.
The biblical text used in this song is devoted to a major issue in working-class life, that of coping with and surviving the changes and dislocations of a world that does not turn out right, one filled with danger and hardship. In this context the text from 1 Corinthians provides hope in eternity beyond death to face the difficulties of this life. Moreover, it becomes a call to seek out a different passageway, that of the redeemer, rather than that of the world and its darkness.
These country music songs make explicit uses of biblical texts. Sometimes texts are used to promulgate a white Protestant conservative evangelical or fundamentalist or dispensationalist reading of the Bible without necessarily engaging the text carefully. At other times, biblical texts are combined in ways that ignore the difficulties of such combinations, as in the song “Armageddon,” suggesting again a dispensationalist view. In “Tramp on the Street” two biblical passages are presented in a way that are not explicitly an evangelical or fundamentalist reading, but each song gives life beyond death a prominent place, enabling people to have hope, to cope and survive, and to be directed toward traditional faithful living, thereby avoiding judgment and making it through the dark night and troubles of this life, as is the case in 1 Corinthians 15:55.
References to the Bible in General.
A great deal of the use of the Bible in country music does not mention specific biblical texts but rather refers to the Bible in general and seems to assume some biblical acquaintance by its listeners. Such songs often emphasize the Bible as moral guide, the dangers of its neglect, its role in traditional morality and family stability, its importance in the lives of yesteryear mothers and fathers, and its importance along with other authoritative resources for faithful living and for facing the challenges of this world.
The Bible as Moral Guide.
A basic use of the Bible in country music as a generalized reference is its role as a guidepost in support of a traditional morality. In this role it is a resource for family stability, and listeners are often cautioned about the hazards of its neglect.
“Dust on the Bible” (1945).
The Bailes Brothers sing of visiting the home of friends where in the midst of magazines and other books there is no Bible to be found. When brought out, the Bible is covered in dust. With this the song becomes an admonition to clean the dust from the Bible, to use it, and thereby to redeem one’s soul. While the lyrics mention the prophets and the words of the Lord (Jesus) that “the Good Book” teaches, the song remains at this level of generality about the Bible. Still, when dusted off and used, the “Good Book” seems to possess a special power to redeem one’s soul, to place one on the right way of life, and to make the burden of life easier to bear.
“Family Bible” (1980).
Willie Nelson addresses the troubles of the world and suggests that if there were more Bibles in homes and on the tables of families with mothers singing hymns like “Rock of Ages Cleft for Me,” the world would be much better. The song “Family Bible” emits a nostalgia for those years where the family would sit together around the table after supper to listen as Dad read from this revered text.
“Mama’s Family Bible” (1990).
George Jones sings about the settlement of a mother’s estate. One sister got the dishes, another the silverware, and a brother took the radio and the mother’s old rocker. But the singer is left with the best of all the heirlooms—the one the others do not want—their mother’s Bible, which provides inspiration as he reads those chapters and verses she loved and marked in the text. Later on, other items from the estate are gone: the dishes are broken, the silverware stolen, and the radio relegated to a junk store, but mama’s family Bible remains in the singer’s possession, providing testimony that the things of true value last.
“The Family Bible and the Farmer’s Almanac” (1999).
Sometimes the guidance of the Bible is shared with other authoritative sources. Randy Travis sings of a father with only seven years of formal schooling but a lifetime of education who knows when and how to plant and harvest, when to weed and sow, when to expect rain or find help if it does not, and how to prepare for an early frost—all of these crucial practices learned from the pages of the Farmer’s Almanac, which arrives annually at Christmas from the co-op.
The other source of wisdom, the Bible, comes from the father’s mother, a gift on the day of her death, which provides the teaching needed both to live and to die. From these two authorities come, respectively, a plan for the practices of farming and redemption for those who are lost. These two guideposts teach and train him to work with the seasons, on the one hand, and provide a first-name acquaintance with Paul and Peter, on the other. They were the only books in the father’s possession, but they were enough.
“Bible on the Table and the Flag upon the Wall” (1949).
Gene Autry claims that the people of the nation need the Bible and the flag because together they constitute “the backbone” of the nation and provide an answer for salvation and for the challenges the country faces.
These songs, which mention the Bible in more general ways, understand the text to have considerable power as a moral guide for traditional commitments; its neglect is dangerous. The Bible holds a revered place in the family, especially for the mother, but also for the father. When combined with other perceived authorities like the Farmer’s Almanac and the American flag, the Bible is a key factor in sustaining a traditional and sometimes a patriotic life.
Biblical Figures and Themes.
It is remiss to address the use of the Bible in country music if only songs with explicit biblical texts and more general references to the Bible receive attention. Many country songs focus on key biblical figures like God, the Lord, and Jesus or themes like heaven, salvation, judgment, prayer, and preachers and yet do not mention the Bible as such.
Songs about God occur frequently in country music and vary a great deal in content. In “God’s Coloring Book” (2009) Dolly Parton names an array of colors found on a walk through the fields, but she notices also the gray hair of old men, pink baby cheeks, black storm clouds, the brown leaves of the fall, the display of colors in the rainbow and the purple cast of the sky at sunset: such colors and hues make her realize that she is looking upon God’s coloring book.
“Thank God I’m a Country Boy” (1974).
John Denver thanks God for living on a farm with good food and fiddling on an instrument given him by his father. He has a wonderful wife and would not trade his life on the farm for anything. Grateful for all his father taught him, he also learned from him how to love and to give to others.
“God Must Be a Cowboy at Heart” (1983).
Dan Seals sings of life out on the range where drinking coffee from a tin cup warms cold fingers and sleeping in the moonlight under a blanket on the ground makes for a peaceful feeling. Come morning an eagle above makes him yearn “to fly away” before his time to die has come. God created the great spaces of the earth, bringing forth grass, trees, and mountains, made horses to befriend, and provided trails to carry aging cowboys back home. While Seals understands that cities offer an exciting nightlife with fleeting good feelings, the beauty of the range spreads out over many miles and takes away the troubles and cares of a cowboy.
“This Is God” (2003).
Phil Vassar sings words from God who is upset with all the fighting done in the divine name. People engage life as though it were just a mindless competition. Too much human hurt has gone on too long, and God wants a change. God just wants love, but the attitudes and the hate continue, and people become “more ignorant” as time goes on. People waste far too many divine gifts with enormous hurtful consequences, and God asks rhetorically if people have not damaged themselves long enough.
A major figure in country music, of course, is Jesus. In one song “Jesus Was a Country Boy” (2004), in yet another “Jesus Was a Cowboy” (2011), with both of these identifying Jesus with the forms of life of each. There are also calls for a “Country Music Jesus” (2011), which actually wants preachments from the songs of Johnny Cash. But another invites people to go down to the river where “There’s a Man Walking on Water” (Jesus) who can perform miracles and wash away sins. Jesus is also a guide for life especially through dangerous and turbulent times as in “Jesus, Take the Wheel” (2005).
At the same time, songs offer friendly humor around the figure of Jesus—for example, where Jesus is asked to drop-kick the singer down the center of righteousness between “the goalposts of life,” veering neither to one side nor the other (“Drop Kick Me, Jesus,” 1976). In another song, “800 Pound Jesus” (2000), the singer buys an eight-foot-high concrete and rebar Jesus at a garage sale and places the statue by his driveway. Later, after losing his “best girl” to his “best pal,” he attempts suicide by hanging himself from a tree near the statue; however, upon jumping from the tree with a rope around his neck, the statue of Jesus catches him in its arms. In response to this saving act by this concrete redeemer, the singer plants flowers at its feet and purchases for it a herd of “ceramic sheep.”
The theme of heaven is a constant in country music. Curtis W. Ellison contends that heaven provides a basic function of the music in its capacity to “lead us from hard times to heaven” (1995, p. 270). Two of the most enduring songs in country music sing the primary themes of heaven in the genre. “I’ll Fly Away” (1932), written by Albert E. Brumley, a prolific gospel song writer, and sung by many country artists, anticipates that jubilant morning after life ends when the singer flies away to “God’s celestial shore.” The song exults with a hallelujah for that time, when the dark days of life are over. It reassures listeners that not many more difficult days must be endured before the riches of heaven come in all their glory.
Interestingly enough, the inspiration for this song did not derive from 1 Thessalonians 4:17, considered above, where the faithful will “meet the Lord in the air… .” Rather, the song was occasioned by Brumley’s listening to “The Prisoner’s Song” (1924), in which the protagonist wishes for the wings of an angel to fly over prison walls in order to be in the arms of his beloved, suggesting a more secular and romantic source.
The second major theme is that of the reunion of family and friends in heaven as found in “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” Originally a hymn (1907), A. P. Carter rewrote the lyrics in 1935 with a somewhat different chorus asking “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?” The Carter version sings about the death of the singer’s mother in dreary weather as the hearse comes to take her away. Asking if this family circle can be unbroken in heaven, the song claims that “a better home” awaits them there. The song ends with a distraught family grieved and lonely with the loss of their mother.
In country music salvation is sometimes simply going to heaven where the redeemed are released from the hardships and suffering of earthly woes and where family and loved ones are reunited. Yet country songs name another major theme of salvation. A classic country song, “I Saw the Light” (1948), written and first performed by Hank Williams Sr., tells of a sinful, aimless, wandering life that has rejected the Lord. The lyrics describe someone spiritually blind, enveloped in darkness, and possessed by worry and fear until one sees the light and follows the straight and narrow way. In gratitude, the lyrics rejoice with “praise the Lord I saw the light.”
Other songs that sing of salvation include “Peace in the Valley,” composed by Thomas H. Dorsey (1937) and sung by the country artist Red Foley (1951), “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” (many versions, original date unknown), and “Higher Ground” (1898), in which heaven can be heard as a present or future reality, released by Iris DeMent (1995).
At the same time, Ellison reports “a parallel tradition [of salvation] in secular country music” that substitutes “the love of Jesus with the love of women” (1998, pp. 130–131). For example, in a 1999 song the singer has been around, but he wants to offer a ring of engagement to the woman he loves in order to know “How Forever Feels.” In “Do You Want to Go to Heaven?” (1980), the salvation moves from that of a baptismal experience to sexual intercourse.
Saturday night versus Sunday morning.
Yet another major theme in country music is the conflict between Saturday night and Sunday morning, with the Bible playing an important role in the latter. Perhaps the juxtaposition of these two occurred because the church was the place many country singers and musicians learned to sing and play instruments, and the church and the honky-tonk were two places where they could find venues to perform. But it is more than that—in the hard work, the low pay, the accompanying domestic struggle, the dislocations, and the sheer struggle of working-class life, the honky-tonk becomes a place to “let your hair down,” drink, dance, raise hell, enact a populist anarchism, and resist the church and established society, their norms, their sensibilities, and their power and authority.
At the same time the church is a place where people find the courage, the strength, and the transcendent power of God to live on in spite of being in a world where things do not come out right. This kind of faith is more often attributed in country music to the small rural church while at the same time attacking established churches and their perceived hypocrisy (Malone, 2002, pp. 89–116).
Further, Saturday night and the honky-tonk constitute ways to resist the restraints of traditional culture, especially its control of men. This is not to suggest that women do not embody this conflict and contradiction. They do, indeed, “take their love to town” (“Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” 1967). “The Pill” (1975), sung by Loretta Lynn, creating a furor at the time, celebrated the new freedom from childbearing provided by birth control pills that allows greater access to the pursuits of Saturday night (Bufwack and Oermann, 2003, pp. 310–312). More recently, “Redneck Woman” (2004), sung by Gretchen Wilson, celebrates a female who is no Barbie doll type but who can drink beer throughout the night at either a tavern or a honky-tonk and still be just an ordinary woman in her neighborhood.
But the issue of Saturday night and Sunday morning persists. As one song declares, “It’s the Bible against the Bottle” (1975, 1990). In 1980 a faithful wife listens to the broadcast of a preacher in “Jesus on the Radio” while pleading on the phone for her husband to come home from a drinking establishment. In “Jesus and Hank” (2013) the singer confesses that he’s somewhere between both of these figures. Chet Flippo says of Hank Williams Sr. that he “never got it straight in his mind whether he was writing for Saturday night … or … Sunday morning” (1993, p. 49). Arguably, this claim characterizes country music itself, and the Bible lines up primarily with Sunday morning.
Other themes could be developed extensively. Prayer is one example in such songs as “My Prayer” (1976), “The Outlaw’s Prayer” (1979), “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good” (1982), and “Unanswered Prayers” (1991).
The church, a significant theme in the music, is held dear in its association with family and home in “Sunday in the South” (1989) and “That’s What I Love about Sunday” (2005). The church is a source of faith, but it also draws criticism for its hypocrisy, for example, in “S-A-V-E-D” (1981). Preachers, too, are an important theme—both positive models as in “Daddy Was an Old-Time Preacher Man” (1970) but also negative ones, especially TV preachers. “Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?” (1987) suggests that Jesus would disapprove of and not participate in the expensive lifestyles of televangelists. Likewise, “Praise the Lord and Send Me the Money” (1982) and “Wasteland of the Free” (1996) offer biting rebukes of these figures, among many other attacks. In “Preacher Barry” (1979) a local pastor comes under scrutiny, and Don Williams advises his listeners that heaven does not wait for only church attenders (“I Believe in You,” 1980).
Songs like these led the communications scholars Rogers and Smith to observe that country composers and singers are part of a “well established tradition” in which “they debunk the messengers and channels” of organized religion but not “the religious message” (1993, p. 276). Some, however, in the white working class reject the message as well. Jim Goad makes a blazing assault on any form of religion from a working-class white perspective, where he only appreciates “the screamers and tremblers and nutjobs,” who capture his “fondness” but not his credibility (1997, p. 151).
Finally, it may well be the case that the best in country music, theologically speaking, is not its use of the Bible as such but rather the gut-raw lyrics of despair and hope depicting why it is important to make it through the night.
While there are exceptions, these figures and themes from the Bible still reflect a white Protestant faith tradition. Yet in recent decades, the generalized character of their use and the virtual absence of any sectarian convictions suggest a response not only to a wider, middle-class audience but also to what can be sung and played for a public that is more diverse, religiously pluralistic, noninstitutionally spiritual, and secular.
What can be said about the use of the Bible in country music? First, in the early decades of the music explicit biblical texts were often used in terms of a conservative, evangelical, and sometimes a fundamentalist and dispensationalist reading.
Along with these was a frequent referencing of the Bible in general in connection with powers of moral guidance and hope in addressing the struggles and hardships of life. With the passing of these early decades, the use of the Bible explicitly and as a generalized reference has receded. More sectarian uses of the Bible as well as its explicit use now occur much less frequently. Throughout the history of country music, however, the Bible has been employed to privilege and support a traditional culture and its morality and has been combined with the church and traditional culture to counter the honky-tonk celebrations of Saturday night and its adjudged deleterious effects. In more recent decades country songs have continued to make use of biblical figures and images, with these being widely interpreted, used in more general ways, and typically not constrained by careful attention to the biblical text, a trait that can be found throughout the history of the music.
[See also CHRISTIAN MUSIC, CONTEMPORARY.]
- Ault, James M. Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church. New York: Knopf, 2004. An anthropological study of the traditional culture of a contemporary working-class, fundamentalist church.
- Blount, Brian K. Revelation: A Commentary. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2009. A compelling interpretation of the New Testament book of Revelation.
- Bufwack, Mary A., and Robert K. Oermann. Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music, 1800–2000. New York: Crown, 2003. The definitive history of women in country music.
- Cusic, Don. “Politics and Religion.” In Discovering Country Music, pp. 159–172. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2008. A clarifying discussion of the complex relationships within and between Politics and Religion in country music.
- Ellison, Curtis W. Country Music Culture: From Hard Times to Heaven. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. A stimulating and insightful discussion of country music as a culture.
- Flippo, Chet. Your Cheating Heart. New York: St. Martin’s, 1993. A biography of Hank Williams Sr.
- Fox, Aaron A. Real Country: Music and Language in Working-Class Culture. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004. A breakthrough anthropological study of country music and language in a Lockhart, Texas, honky-tonk.
- Giddens, Anthony. Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure and Contradiction in Social Analysis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Addresses contradiction in terms of the structural properties of a social system. Compare with Lewis (1993).
- Goad, Jim. “Prayin’ Hard.” In The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks, and White Trash Became America’s Scapegoats, pp. 146–171. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. An outrageously funny white working-class attack on organized religion with an extraordinary “defense” of Elvis Presley.
- Klatch, Rebecca. “Coalition and Conflict among Women of the New Right.” Signs 13, no. 4 (1988): 675–676. Distinguishes an economic from a social conservative view in a study of New Right women.
- Lewis, George H.. “Tension, Conflict and Contradiction in Country Music.” In All That Glitters: Country Music in America, edited by George H. Lewis, pp. 211–223. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993. Addresses contradiction in terms of the values of a system. Compare with Giddens (1979).
- Malone, Bill C. “With My Friends at the Old Country Church.” In Don’t Get above Your Raisin’: Country Music and the Southern Working Class, pp. 89–116. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. A history of the role of religion in country music.
- Malone, Bill C., ed. The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Country Music. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1981. A collection of key country music songs through the first six decades of the music’s history with annotations by the top historical authority on the music.
- Malone, Bill C., and Jocelyn R. Neal. Country Music USA. 3d rev. ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010. The definitive history of country music, encyclopedic in its treatment, with bibliographic essays of more than a hundred pages.
- Melvin, David P. “Why Does the Way of the Wicked Prosper? Human and Divine Suffering in Jeremiah 11:18—12:13 and the Problem of Evil.” Evangelical Quarterly 83, no. 2 (2011): 99–106. A review of scholarly interpretations of this passage in Jeremiah.
- Neal, Jocelyn R. Country Music: A Cultural and Stylistic History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. A readable history of country music, especially for undergraduates, with useful conceptualizations and characterizations of important dimensions of the music.
- Peterson, Richard A. Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. The definitive analysis of “authenticity” in country music.
- Peterson, Richard A. “The Dialectic of Hard-Core and Soft-Shell Country Music.” In Reading Country Music: Steel Guitars, Opry Stars, and Honky-Tonk Bars, edited by Cecelia Tichi, pp. 234–255. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998. Provides a concise typology of this dialectic.
- Rogers, Jimmie N., and Stephen A. Smith, “Country Music and Organized Religion.” In All That Glitters: Country Music in America, edited by George H. Lewis, pp. 270–289. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993. A study of the lyrics of commercially popular country songs with a focus on the attitudes toward organized religion, religious communication, and religious messengers to discover what these attitudes disclose about contemporary southern culture.
- Sample, Tex. White Soul: Country Music, the Church and Working Americans. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1996. A discussion of the relationship between country music and the lifestyles of white working-class North Americans.
- Tichi, Cecilia. “Country Music, Seriously: An Interview with Bill C. Malone.” In Reading Country Music: Steel Guitars, Opry Stars, and Honky-Tonk Bars, edited by Cecilia Tichi, pp. 290–306. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998. An interview with the preeminent historian of country music.
- Country Music Television (website). www.cmt.com. A website with official music videos containing country music hits, artists’ websites, and previews of their work.
- Google Search. A handy resource for country music lyrics, but check out other versions of a song for variations in its performance.
- iTunes. Another valuable resource for researching and downloading country songs.
- McCall, Michael, John Rumble, and Paul Kingsbury, eds. The Encyclopedia of Country Music. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Compiled by the staff of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the best encyclopedia of the music.
- YouTube. A resource for videos of performances of country songs.