August 31, 2020


Southern Guilt, Southern Gospel (J. Brandon Meeks, August 31, 2020, Mere Orthodoxy)

Traditional Country Music as expressed by the haunting echoes of Hank Williams, the gritty ballads of Johnny Cash, and the tragic tales of love gone wrong by George Jones (to name but a few iconic examples) may be described as a form of religious testimony. The enigmatic figures who sang them were like some instantiation of Johannes Redivivus--latter day messengers storming in from the wilderness with honey on their chins, fire in their bellies, and a tear in their voices. Such unvarnished prophets often said more about the stark realities of sin and our inherent need for redemption in a single song than one might hear in a whole month of Sunday sermons.

The popular prophets of this musical tradition were hostages of times and places foreign to those who do not hail from small southern towns or dysfunctional southern families. Classic Country is not a diverse genre; its character may well seem painfully abstruse to anyone who wasn't raised with a yard full of dogs and rusty pickup trucks. It is typically working class, white, southern, and Protestant. So it speaks of that which it knows; it sings the songs of its people.

To say that it witnesses to a particular form of faith is not to say that it is a defense of the particulars of that faith, rather it demonstrates how faith so shaped the environs in which these artists lived, moved, and had their being that the presence of certain unwritten dogmas were simply their daily bread. Teetering back and forth between honor and shame, Classic Country extolled what has come to be termed "traditional values," while at the same time admitting--without hesitancy--the failure of most in living in perfect conformity to that moral standard.

For instance, daddies were revered as strong patriarchs, but almost always as angels with broken halos. Mothers were venerated far above any Madonna, as they sought to instill the fear of God in the hearts of rebellious sons. Or, as we are told, those mammas tried. The Church was respected, even when its members were not respectable. Longsuffering wives were the stuff of legend, as husbands, derelict in their duties and callous in their affections, rendering sorrowful tributes to broken-hearted and neglected spouses have too often told us. Children were viewed as blessings instead of burdens. Virtues were well regarded even if rarely manifested. Vices were portrayed as such, along with their lamentable consequences. The Prodigal God who wastes his substance on those living riotous lives, ever ready to welcome home foolish sons, was never far from their minds.

Posted by at August 31, 2020 12:00 AM