The March 22 issue of Towers has a bit of a twang in its tune. The most recent issue of the Southern Seminary newspaper spotlights country music, including its relationship to the Southern Baptist Convention; its impact on, and reflection of, American culture; and connections to the country music world. Below is an interview on country music I did with Jeff Robinson.
How long have you been a country music fan?
Russell D. Moore: I have always listened to country music. Probably my earliest memories are of being in the living room with my parents and grandparents listening to an eight track with a compilation of the best of the Grand Ole Opry. I listened to that eight track all through elementary school, high school and college. When the eight track wore out it was a major loss. One of the best gifts anyone has ever given me was when my wife, Maria, just a few years ago, found the LP of that album and had it transferred onto a CD. Now I have that on my Ipod. It has everybody from Chet Atkins to Kitty Wells to the Carter family.
Besides that, country music was all over our house and our community in south Mississippi. I have always liked country music, but I kind of kept quiet about it (when I left Mississippi) because I was going off into the big wide world. I was in Washington, D.C., listening to George Jones, but nobody ever knew what was playing in my earbuds, so eventually, I just said, “I am who I am.”
Who are your favorite country artists and why?
Moore: I love Merle Haggard. He has an honesty about him that led Johnny Cash to say once, “You have lived the life that I have pretended to live.” Haggard really has lived a life of pain and there is a great deal of honesty and character that comes through in what he has to say.
I like George Jones. I think Jones is a unique song writer and as a vocalist is inimitable. I like Loretta Lynn. Some musicians of any genre tend to write songs when they are younger and then play and perform throughout their career the songs they wrote when they were young, but Lynn, by contrast, continues all through her career to come up with good new songs. On this relatively new album, Van Lear Rose, she has this song, “I Miss Being Mrs. Tonight,” about losing her husband. It is a powerful, haunting song. Lynn is a complicated musician in a lot of ways and has a life story that is rooted in music.
I like the Carter Family, Ralph Stanley, of course Johnny Cash for the whole span of his career. I like Kris Kristofferson’s songwriting, but don’t like him as a singer. One of my favorite albums is Willie Nelson sings Kris Kristofferson. I like Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Charlie Pride is one of my favorites. He is a fellow Mississippian. I like Hank Williams; it’s hard to get better lyrical poetry than “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Of the newer artists, I like a lot of Alan Jackson’s stuff and I also like Brad Paisley.
What is it that draws you to country music?
Moore: Number one, country music is rooted. I’m not talking about the new stuff, but the old country music. There is a Nashville sound and a Bakersfield sound that has really been lost in American culture. Everything is just kind of homogenized. Don Williams sings, “Good Old Boys Like Me” and he sings, “I learned to talk like the man on the six o’clock news.” All of American art is moving in that direction of having a sameness and people who aren’t from anywhere.
Country music is not like that. There are unique regional sounds and there also is an autobiographical lyrical experience in country music, so that Lynn is singing as a coal miner’s daughter and Cash is singing as a man in black. In some other forms of music, there’s more of a branding. In country music, at least in the genuine article, it’s really not; it is really a recognition that a life is a narrative and I like that.
Theologically, what might Christians find attractive about country music?
Moore: Country music recognizes sin and redemption even from people who are lost. Many of these artists are lost, but they are lost in a different kind of way. Country music tends to bypass, at least a little bit, self-justification. Whereas in some other genres of music you can have sin consistently glorified with no consequences, country music rarely does that. There is a lot of singing about sin but it is always sin that has some hope of redemption or some recognition of judgment – the sowing and reaping and consequences.
Somebody asked me one day, “How can you listen to people singing who you know use drugs and participate in drunkenness?” Because people use drugs and people get drunk and country music, with some exceptions, is recognizing the full complicatedness of sin. Think of “Ring of Fire” (by Johnny Cash) for instance. June Carter Cash is writing this talking about adultery kind of on the front end of adultery. This isn’t a glorification of adultery; it is a real representation of what adultery feels like – “bound by wild desire, love is a burning thing” – I think that is authentic.
I think a Christian ought to be able to resonate with that because it is formed out of at least a memory of something that came from Scripture. I think the way love is presented in country music is very different from pop music, which is adolescent hormonal (love) only. People joke about country music being a bunch of songs about how my woman left me and there is a lot of that in there. But there is also a lot about middle-aged and elderly people in love. You will never find a top 40 song about elderly people in love or about elderly people falling out of love, but in country music you do have that and I think that’s the way it ought to be. In pop music, what you typically have is, “I want to love you all night long,” or “I’m going to love you forever,” but it’s kind of abstractly forever. Country music is more, “We can’t make the house payment, but we’re going to stay together until we are dead.”
On one hand, George Jones sings “Wrong’s What I Do Best” and he’s right, and then on the other hand, Hank Williams sings, “I Saw the Light.” Both sin and grace seem to abound in country music. Do you think country music has both of them mostly right?
Moore: I don’t have any evidence that Hank ever knew the Lord, but he seemed to halfway want to know the Lord. In “I Saw the Light” and in his Luke the Drifter stuff, you have a longing for redemption. It’s almost Augustine (saying), “give me chastity, but not yet.” You see what redemption is, but you know that you’re not ready for it. I think that’s present in country music. If somebody could just understand what is going on in, “I Saw the Light,” or if they could just understand how Willie Nelson can sing Amazing Grace and then move right into “Whiskey River,” I think they would be much more missiologically-equipped than they are by listening to happy-clappy Christian music.
Americans are said to live within a contradiction in which a deep religiosity exists alongside a fairly pronounced ethical Antinomianism and many see country music as reflecting that paradox. Do you agree with that?
Moore: Yes, but I don’t think it’s American, I think it’s Southern Baptist. Most of the country music that we hear is coming from a person who has either been redeemed through a Southern Baptist version of Christianity or damned by a Southern Baptist version of Christianity. So, all of the best aspects of Southern Baptist “Just As I Am” revivalism are present in country music – the idea that no one is too far for redemption, the idea of new beginnings, being born again – all those are present in country music. But you also have the carnal, “Jesus is my Savior but not my Lord,” unregenerate person, keeping the hypocrisy hidden under the church attendance — all that is present too. Even from artists who are not Baptists, but are growing up in a Bible Belt South, where, as one sociologist put it, “Baptists are the center of gravity,” we (Southern Baptist culture) created country music for both good and for ill.
How has country music affected the SBC and how has the SBC affected country music?
Moore: When you look at the trajectory of country music as coming out of the South, it became more and more commercial and more and more “showy” and consumerist. So did the SBC. Whether there is a direct link or whether common cultural factors were impacting both the Grand Ole Opry and the SBC remains to be seen, but both follow a similar trajectory. County music started as a group of people who were largely despised as ignorant hillbillies and rednecks, but who are playing the music that arises out of their experience and speaking to that experience. Country music was not even welcomed in Nashville at the beginning; the cultural elites of Nashville hated the idea of being identified with country music because they saw it as backward. But country music spoke so well to the experience of common people, that it became commercially viable and then commercially profitable and the more commercially profitable it became, the more mainstream it became in the culture and the more mainstream it became in the culture, the more like the rest of the culture it became and the more then it was shaped by that commercial success.
The SBC has the exact same trajectory. It starts with a group of people who are cut off from the established churches, seen as backward, but able to speak to common people with the simplicity of the Gospel, and able to speak so well that the SBC becomes successful. The more successful the churches become, the more consumerist and elite they become and the less powerful. Why do people like to listen to Cash on American VI or American V when he is singing, “Hurt?” It’s because it is a dying man. You don’t see a strong, sober picture of a man facing death. Instead you have the authenticity of somebody whose voice is raspy and who is dying. The difference between Cash and Rascal Flatts is the difference between a prophetic, marginalized Baptist witness and the slick packaged product of Southern Baptist success.