[Because I’m gonna be talking in part about religion, let me remind you all that the opinions in this column are mine alone and do not reflect those of Treble Media.]
On the way home from a particularly bleak night of excessive drinking, I felt the presence of something I cannot rationally explain, while Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light” played in my headphones. During the few days before this I’d been going through almost every track on the mammoth Complete Hank Williams Singles compilation, some of which were quite familiar, others not at all. “Light” was closer to the latter, oddly enough, though I’m sure I’d heard it somewhere. I stopped at a street corner that I’d walked past countless times, that wasn’t far from where I lived in Boston back then (autumn 2017), because the setting seemed suddenly alien.
Hank sang in my ears and I felt both untethered from the earth and hyper-aware of my life in aggregate: a tawdry, unpleasant thing back then, dominated by loneliness, self-hatred, misery and liquor. I could see the sum of it as if omnisciently above it, and Hank sang “I saw the light, I saw the light.” I understood the degree to which I was in emotional and mental cardiac arrest, and a voice that I won’t call God’s because it sounded like me but seemed calm in a way I never was said something like, “You can’t keep this shit up.” And Hank sang, “No more in darkness, no more in night,” and I felt like I’d just been sucker-punched in the gut and had to grasp a lightpost to keep from falling. I know I started crying, although I can’t recall if it was audible to the 1 a.m. air, and Hank sang, “Praise the Lord, I saw the light.”
Whatever that voice had been, I didn’t take its advice, at least not for about five or six more months. (I did, of fucking course, tweet about what had just happened, but I referenced “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive” instead of “I Saw the Light” and didn’t allude to physical sensations, voices or God.) I am not entirely sure how I made it out of 2017 without seeing the inside of a psych ward, but I know this very website’s Brian Roesler is one of the reasons. (Those of you who like his writing should know he’s an even better human being than he is a writer, and he’s a pretty fucking good writer.)
The irony attendant to this anecdote is that, for most of his all-too-short career, Hank Williams didn’t cut gospel songs because of devout religious belief. He did it because, as Paul Hemphill wrote in his lyrical Williams biography Lovesick Blues, “Jesus was good for business.” But the singular power of Hank’s songwriting and singing is too great for “I Saw the Light” to have anything less than a seismic impact on the listener, like it did on me.
At its best, when performed with sincerity and without schmaltz (or a bare minimum of schmaltz), country gospel is immensely moving, and its Christian lyrical content does not mean it should be confused with or equated to the vomitous treacle of contemporary Christian music. You cannot explore country music to any significant degree without encountering some of it. I genuinely believe you can appreciate the best of it on the merits, regardless of religion or lack thereof, the same way I think you can love the religious films of Martin Scorsese whether you’re Catholic or not. The key is not to worry about whether country artists are using their gospel material to make you believe—some are, but many are not—and to focus on how they express what they believe.
Country gospel’s roots aren’t much different than those of Black gospel: Elements of slavery- and Reconstruction-era spirituals and ring shouts of Black Americans (particularly those accompanied by the banjo), European hymns of the 18th and 19th centuries, folk music of Appalachia and the blues can all be detected throughout it at various times, depending on the artist. (Subtract the hymns and you have the foundations of country in toto, not to mention, like, y’know, the vast majority of American popular music.) The most obvious principal difference between gospel’s country variant and its much more popular Black counterpart is its common (though not guaranteed) de-emphasis of R&B, ragtime and soul rhythmic techniques, which means it sometimes can’t be quite as gripping or dynamic as Black gospel.
The less obvious but arguably more important contrast between the two is the influence of Sacred Harp singing, an altogether otherworldly variant of hymnody named for the book that has been its primary text since 1844. Though it started in New England, it became most popular in the rural South before eventually spreading worldwide; Canada, Ireland, Germany and Australia all have major Sacred Harp events now. Unlike traditional Pentecostal or Black gospel, it isn’t sung by a choir that is separate from the congregants of a religious service, who may or may not sing. The singing is the service—everyone takes part, and when executed properly, the effect is gripping:
I lack the knowledge of musical theory to explain to you precisely how this all works, but from that Alan Lomax recording of 1959’s United Sacred Harp Convention, you can get a pretty good idea: The vocal arrangements for treble, alto, tenor and bass voices are typically established in advance, but no two performances are ever quite the same because participants take turns leading. Songs begin with the leaders phonetically singing the notes as fa, so, la, di and so on before the hymn’s actual words are ever enunciated, which contributes to the ethereal beauty of the overall sound. (Those of you who are allergic to Christian music, or organized religion in general, may simply think it’s creepy; I don’t necessarily blame you.)
OK, so … why is any of that relevant? Mostly because of shape notes, a style of musical notation designed in large part to make music easier to read (and print) and therefore encourage broader participation in hymns. Johnny Cash learned to sing using the Heavenly Highway Hymns shape-note hymnal, and gospel makes up a sizable share of Cash’s discography. Ira and Charlie Louvin learned their inimitable, achingly beautiful harmony style by participating in Sacred Harp singing, and while gospel isn’t what made The Louvin Brothers country superstars, more of their catalog is gospel than isn’t. Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, Roy Acuff and Hank Williams, to name just a few other country pioneers, all would’ve been familiar with the shape-note style in some form or fashion, and all of those acts recorded gospel (the Carters the most, Rodgers the least). The thorough permeation of the style—and Christianity itself—throughout the Southern culture in which these and other early country musicians grew up made gospel a key part of the genre’s DNA, including its secular songs.
If you think of country as a culturally and politically conservative form of music, which is understandable in various respects, you may have read the last sentence and thought, “Well, duh; that figures.” But if “country = Christian conservative” was an across-the-board truism, country gospel wouldn’t be all that interesting beyond whatever objective musical merits specific artists or songs possess. What makes it interesting is the constant clash of sacred and profane within country music culture.
White and Black musicians alike of the American South sometimes refer to the dichotomy between Saturday night and Sunday morning: Basically, you’re praying hard at Sunday service and hoping to God, literally, that the shit you pulled the night before doesn’t catch up with you, or that you can make up for it in some way. But Black gospel was—and, to some extent, still is—thought of as something wholly apart from secular genres like R&B and the blues by Black audiences. People like Ray Charles and Sam Cooke who fused gospel with R&B to create soul were loudly rebuked at first. By contrast, the list of country stars I can think of just off the top of my head who freely alternated between secular and religious music is pretty long: Bill Monroe, Kitty Wells, Johnny Cash, the Louvin Brothers, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Buck Owens, Porter Wagoner and everyone I’ve previously mentioned except Jimmie Rodgers … yeah, I think I’ve made my point.
For more than a few of these folks, the words of gospel tunes they sang didn’t always match their behavior. And it’s not unfair to speculate that some of this was performative or sometimes even gauche. The Saturday night/Sunday morning duality shows up quite a bit. Buck Owens was, as best I can tell, 100 percent sincere when he and the Buckaroos recorded Dust on Mother’s Bible; he was also well-documented as an insatiable womanizer. We all know how much of a hellraiser George Jones was for the vast majority of his public life; it’s equally true that some of his most arresting and revelatory material is original gospel tracks like “Take The Devil Out of Me” and wildly underrated songs like his take on Dallas Frazier’s “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor” or his wrenching late-career rendition of “Amazing Grace.” When the Maddox Brothers and Rose played the odd gospel tune, they almost certainly weren’t doing it for the money, because they were a regional act without significant nationwide notice and a couple of religious songs weren’t gonna change that. I covered in great detail how rowdy most of their material was last time around. Rose recorded a rather lovely gospel LP, Glorybound Train, on her own, but spent most of her solo career being only slightly less of an unrepentantly bawdy raconteur than she’d been in her family band. Any attempt to diagram the mental motivations for these artists would be as knotty and complex as the sectioned stump of a sequoia and likely wouldn’t give you any straight answer as to whether the sacred or the profane was truest to their personality.
In all honesty, would you really want to hang out with the people who did unfailingly practice what they “preached,” so to speak? If you could somehow be at a party with any number of country legends, living or dead, imagine how fucking boring it would be to be around Roy Acuff, more or less a choirboy, for longer than five minutes, if he wasn’t playing music or talking about music. I can assure you, after that fifth minute, what you’d be praying for is to have a wildcard like Lefty Frizell swoop in and crack Roy Acuff over the head with a bottle.
It should surprise nobody who’s read this series that my first direct experience with country gospel was listening to Johnny Cash.
My Mother’s Hymn Book, a 2004 single-disc release excerpted from the previous year’s Unearthed box set, is among the purest and most moving works of musical worship you will ever hear. The songs are well-known gospel traditionals Cash learned from his mother as a child, likely with Heavenly Highway Hymns as their primer. Because it’s just voice and solo guitar, all of the things that made him Johnny Cash are quite audible, including the many non-gospel genres he loved. The songs are mostly on the less heavy-handed and less overtly Christian end of the spectrum, far more concerned with praise than conversion. Short version: If you liked his first American Recordings album, I see no reason why you wouldn’t like Hymn Book, unless gospel is a dealbreaker for you on its face.
I’d say the same, TBQH, of Hymns by Johnny Cash, his first all-gospel album from 1959. For an album that Cash allegedly left Sun Records for Columbia to make, the majority of it sounds no different from the Tennessee Two sound that made him famous … because Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant play on the entire album. Sure, there are a few slow and way-too-sentimental songs, like “Are All the Children In” and “Lead Me Father,” but they’re the exception, not the rule. Cash’s original “It Was Jesus” and his re-arrangement of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” are both every bit as emblematic of his early sound as “I Walk the Line” and “Cry! Cry! Cry!”
My own relationship to the Irish Catholic faith I was raised in is … complicated. The short version is that I believe. I have never had much care for public worship—neither did Jesus Christ, as virtually every known translation of Matthew 6:5 tells us—and listening to Johnny Cash sing gospel didn’t change that opinion then. Nor does it now. I also feel great anger toward the Roman Catholic church as an institution, for reasons I’m sure you can deduce, and feel similar disgust toward any kind of prosperity-gospel bullshit or violent zealotry in any religion.
Yet none of this has ever kept me from being moved by country gospel, or any other kind. It may even be a big part of why I find myself moved by the most sincere renditions of gospel tunes: They express a guileless and sincere notion of faith not as a shield from responsibility but as a foundation of hope and transcendence, even if that is perhaps only an idealized notion of what belief in a higher power can give you.
If there is an ur-text of gospel as we understand it today, it’s probably “Amazing Grace,” originally written by John Newton in 1772, published in 1779 and set to the shape-note melody with which it’s now forever linked by William Walker in 1833. More than 3,000 versions of or variations on are preserved by the Library of Congress—a collection that I doubt is complete—and the American Dictionary of North American Hymnology lists that it’s been printed in 1,337 hymnals as of this writing. It is foundational to all strains of gospel.
Newton, an Englishman, spent part of his early life as a slaver and all-around bastard—and was also himself enslaved, by the Sherbro of Sierra Leone, for more than a year at some point between 1745 and 1748. He converted to Christianity after surviving the sinking of a ship, abandoned the slave trade in 1754 to spend the remaining 50-plus years of his life as a lay minister —and, from 1780 until his death in 1807, an ardent abolitionist. Taking that apostasy into consideration, if “Amazing Grace” is indeed Newton’s paean in gratitude to the God that saved a sinning wretch like he, it’s logical to conclude that the sin he detested the most in his past self was his participation in slavery. His abolitionist pamphlets, like Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, say this all but verbatim, but even if they didn’t, the song and the context of how he came to write it would prove sufficient evidence.
The origins of “Amazing Grace” are not anywhere near as well known as the song itself. Certainly not in America, where school curricula don’t typically cover William Wilberforce, the House of Commons member influenced by Newton in his ultimately successful campaign to outlaw slavery in England. One can only imagine how it’d go for any teacher to touch that now, in an era where power-hungry nihilists and grifters have convinced the moronic right-wing base to clutch their pearls over a law-school concept that rhymes with “hittable mace leery” and was rarely if ever alluded to in K-12.
I can concede that while the specific origins and authorial intent of “Amazing Grace” are hard to deny, the lyrics themselves are to at least some extent open to interpretation. For one, there’s no explicit mention of any God until the fourth verse, and no mentions of Jesus Christ or any other faith-specific figure. That’s part of the song’s universal appeal—part of why it became a foundational song in Black gospel completely independent of its origin story. It’s so common a spiritual that it was almost certainly sung alongside “We Shall Overcome” and “I Shall Not Be Moved” by civil rights demonstrators throughout the 1950s and 1960s. That era of such struggle and turmoil, one which seemed like it was on the cusp of bringing about sweeping material change in this country with the Great Society programs and the back-to-back passage of the Civil Rights Act and even more powerful Voting Rights Act, ultimately galvanized the right wing far more than the left. This is borne out by historical evidence starting with Richard Nixon’s election via the nihilistically racist Southern Strategy and continuing through to the past decade’s court-mandated evisceration of the VRA.
This turmoil manifested itself not only in the country music mainstream—e.g., Johnny Cash speaking out against Vietnam and Merle Haggard recording “Okie From Muskogee” as a joke and then leaning into its jingoistic caricatures when he lost control of the narrative—but also in the slow but firm stranglehold the religious right began putting on the genre. Hence we have the rise of so-called “Christian country music,” which would be one of the rotten seeds to sprout the poison tree of CCM. It started with the fucking Oak Ridge Boys and Mercy River Boys in the 1970s, who mashed up the “white men’s quartet plus piano” formula of Southern white gospel with the wider-ranging instrumentation of country music. It continues now with Carrie Underwood using a gradual transition to gospel in conjunction with her turn toward more open endorsement of right-wing politics. George Strait did something similar—albeit much, much more subtly; Strait ain’t giving smoke signals through Twitter likes—with “God and Country Music” on 2019’s Honky Tonk Time Machine. Given the direction Jason Aldean is going in, I’d hardly be surprised if he makes a performative gospel record in the next few years.
It’s become increasingly clear that in the current ecosystem of country music, doing a gospel album is almost always a virtue signal to an audience that artists (or, at the very least, their labels) categorize as “right-wing more often than not.”
In the 1970s, a well-known rambling man and leftist like Kris Kristofferson could write and record “Why Me” without sacrificing one whit of either his artistic integrity or his personal values. (Remember, Kristofferson is an Army Ranger captain who vocally opposed America’s covert shenanigans in Central America and wrote songs in solidarity with the Sandinistas on 1986’s Repossessed.) All of the sincere belief in the possibility of redemptive grace in the service of God as artists understand the deity can be summarized in lines from that song’s second verse:
Try me, Lord.
If you think there’s a way
I can try to repay
All I’ve taken from you.
I can show someone else
What I’ve been through myself
On my way back to you.
Countless country music figures have recorded “Why Me” to great effect, sometimes with much more raw vocal talent than Kris Kristofferson—though few if any can match the plaintive gravitas Kristofferson brings to the original. It never loses its power; it’s just a matter of how much staggering power you’re setting yourself up for whenever you press play on any version of the song. You’ll find songs of faith that have similar depth, without preachiness or smarminess, all over country music of the golden era, like Dallas Frazier’s haunting “Lord Is That Me?” or the Carter Family’s immortal “The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea” (though I’m partial to the Louvin Brothers version of that one). But these days, in the wake of country’s mainstream explosion during the ’90s and clumsy shoehorning into the right-wing side of the culture war in the early 2000s, writing or recording songs like these makes audiences expect things of you. Not in the minds of the whole audience, no. More like an extremely loud and dedicated portion—but that’s the portion who buy a lot of the CDs at Wal-Mart, who keep country commercially viable as a genre. (Trust me, your Spotify streams of Sturgill Simpson’s bluegrass anthologies ain’t what’s doing it.) Those who plan on using country as an instrument in the culture wars, whether to push a straight-up dominionist agenda or cynically count the dollars, want to keep those expectations alive. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, if you go the Sturgill/Margo Price route, you’ll be blackballed from the airplay charts.
As an object-lesson, consider “We Shall Be Free” by Garth Brooks. A little corny and perhaps a lot naive, sure, but a heartfelt message for unity and against racism, greed, religious intolerance and homophobia, framed in a pop-country/Black gospel fusion that somehow works. In theory, a message most people can agree with. Yet it took a musician of Brooks’s massive clout to put out a song like that in 1992. “We Shall Be Free” got banned by a few radio stations and is Garth’s only single released between 1989 and 1995 not to make Top 10 on the Billboard country charts. If Garth or any country artist of note put that out in 2003, they’d be Natalie Maines-ed in less time than it takes you to say “Natalie Maines-ed.” In the before, during and (God willing) after of the Trump era? Forget it. Travis Tritt’s shit-for-brains peckerwood ass would be calling Garth “a beta victim of the woke mob” and performatively blocking him on Twitter.
I got to thinking about “We Shall Be Free” after hearing “By Your Grace,” the closing track on Cody Johnson’s new album, and desperately trying to figure out a way to type the thoughts in this column together. It also bears Black gospel influence and has a melodic construction that reminds me of Garth’s tune, albeit in a minor key and at a much different (slower) tempo. It’s a pretty good song. Johnson is one of the few interesting male artists in the Nashville mainstream, and if he did a gospel record, it likely wouldn’t be half bad. A large portion of the Nashville mainstream audience would likely also expect him to express negative opinions on abortion and Joe Biden immediately as part of his press tour for such a record. Whether those are or aren’t his politics—I have no idea; my guess would be “center-right but not particularly firm”—is irrelevant. The choice to make Christian music as a country artist should exist in a vacuum, and it does not.
You will find little information about the Marshall Family if you look. To be clear, I mean the bluegrass gospel group led by Chester “Pop” Marshall and his children David and Judy; there are other groups who call themselves some version of “The Marshall Family,” and the phrase “pale imitations” gives them too much credit. The only Marshall Family that matters recorded a handful of LPs on Gloryland Records and Rebel Records that have been out of print for decades between the late ’60s and early ’80s before disappearing into complete obscurity. (It’s an obscurity so complete as to somewhat beggar belief in this age where you can learn anything at your fingertips; as such, the Marshalls may require further examination.)
They are only easily listened to through Rebel’s two-volume compilation series The Legendary Marshall Family, available on streaming services. I cannot convey with any accuracy the unadorned and guileless grace of their music. You have to hear it for yourself.
When I first heard Judy Marshall’s lead vocal on “When I Wake Up To Sleep No More,” I shit you not I thought it was Dolly Parton. Like a guest appearance, maybe? Nope. Marshall’s voice is just that arresting. In some ways it’s more arresting than Dolly’s: Dolly is always Going For It in a way we understand as listeners of popular music—and that’s part of what makes her great, so grant me mercy, Dolly stans—and Marshall simply is not. It emerges from her like something from a much earlier, more elemental time of human existence, austere and wrenching in its beauty. And I had all of these realizations two songs into the second volume of their Rebel Records anthology, after the aforementioned “Sleep No More” and “Waiting For the Master to Come.” David and Pop have their fair share of lead vocals, and they are integral to the group’s overall quality because of their gorgeous harmony contributions and David’s virtuoso banjo and songwriting. But Judy Marshall will damn near stop your breath.
It would be fair to say that the Marshall Family were trying to spread the Christian religion in their work, more so than a fair number of country artists who played gospel. But you do not feel belabored or put upon listening to their music. They’re expressing joy because of what they believe, rather than demanding fealty from you to the God they worship.
As I alluded to earlier, I was having trouble finding a clear ending to this installment. This hasn’t been a comprehensive history of a subgenre, so I don’t have that easy frame, and my projection of the direction that country’s going in, especially regarding its connection to gospel, is not a rosy one. Failing that, I defaulted to an attempt to convey the wonder I felt at hearing the Marshall Family for the first time—which took place only because of research done for this column. You never can tell where majesty is gonna strike you, as a listener; I certainly didn’t expect it here. If there’s any clear message I can think to leave you with, it’s that listening to gospel, in most cases, is not something that demands your capitulation. It only requests your ear. What you hear or don’t hear in it is your business, and yours alone.
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