Van Sloten: The theology of country music

Article content

I had a moving country music moment the other day. Listening to an old Garth Brooks tune, I was struck by these words, “If tomorrow never comes, will she know how much I loved her?” My heart skipped a beat and I asked myself, “Does she know how much I love her?” I couldn’t text her fast enough to ask.

This is how country music works, right? By singing about the everyday experiences of ordinary people in a plain-spoken and honest way, country music connects to our day-to-day life. And by expressing things that we often struggle to express, it also brings clarity and understanding. “I’m so lonesome I could die.” “He stopped loving her today.” “Mama tried.” Country music connects through the eloquence of the ordinary — and most often with those who feel excluded.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Article content

“Country music rose from the bottom up, from the songs Americans sang to themselves in farm fields and railroad yards to ease them through their labors. . . Most of all its roots sprang from the need of Americans, especially those who felt left out and looked down upon: to tell their stories.” (Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns, Introduction to Episode One)

This is what country music does so well. Musicians give voice to our reality. They let us know that we’re not alone and that our experiences and cries are seen and heard.

What a gift for all of us unsettled souls living in a world filled with disappointment, confusion, and doubt.

Because of its historic connection to the Christian faith, country music, in particular, often expresses its yearnings before God. It struggles with living a “Saturday night” life alongside a “Sunday morning” faith. It tries to reconcile a fast-paced urban existence with its more humble rural roots. Country music yearns for a bygone era, the comfort of home, the simple faith of the past, and a time when we really knew ourselves.

Country music is filled with a nostalgia for these yearnings: “Country roads, take me home to the place I belong…” (John Denver)

Article content

Advertisement 3

Article content

But it’s also filled with hope: “The sun is gonna rise tomorrow somewhere on the east side of sorrow.” (Zach Bryan)

At times, the faith-based foundation of country music can be explicit and at other times more nuanced. But either way I believe country music is a “faith-full” genre.

“I think hard times and country music were born for each other. There’s a strange faith and hope that exists in country music, even in songs that have nothing to do with faith and hope.” (Marty Stuart, Episode 2, Country Music)

To be human is to live in faith and hope.

As a faith leader, I wonder if part of the massive success of country music lies in the fact that it keeps a kind of faith tradition going in listeners’ lives. In a post-Christian world, we still need ways to express faith and hope. I think God is good with that expression happening either through a hymn on Sunday morning or a great country song on Saturday night.

In 1929, Albert E. Brumley wrote a gospel hymn entitled, I’ll Fly Away. It was inspired by these lyrics from a 1924 secular tune The Prisoner’s Song”

“Oh, I wish I had someone to love me, someone to call me their own 
Oh, I wish I had someone to live with, ’cause I’m tired of livin’ alone…

Advertisement 4

Article content

Now if I had wings like an angel, over these prison walls I would fly 
And I’d fly to the arms of my poor darlin’, and there I’d be willing to die.” (Vernon Dalhart)

Inspired by this all too human cry, the hymn writer Albert Brumley wrote:

“Just a few more weary days and then, I’ll fly away
To a land where joy shall never end, I’ll fly away.”

Brumley understood the prisoner’s cry as a cry for God—yearning for the arms of your “poor darlin’” is a lot like yearning for the arms of God. We all long to be free, home, and held.

It’s telling how extensively both of these songs have been covered and re-covered by country musicians over the past century — The Prisoner’s Song over 75 times and I’ll Fly Away an estimated 5,000 times!

True lyrics, it seems, are universally true. What’s a good hymn for one person is clearly a great country song for another.

John Van Sloten pastors Calgary’s Marda Loop Church. On Oct 15 he’s preaching on a Morgan Evans song and on Oct 20, a small country music concert will be hosted.

Article content

Comments

Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

    Advertisement 1