Down yonder, a reader writes:
I would like to see someone write a long article on the strange combination of traditional values like patriotism, family and a faith that plays right alongside praising infidelity, praising being drunk and Tim McGraw’s ambivalent song about abortion. There seems to be a strange disconnect among Country singers and their fans who can sing along with Restless Heart’s "Why does it have to be wrong or right?" one minute and then switch to "Believe" by Brooks and Dunn the next.
It’s like reading Cosmo and Inside the Vatican and not seeing any conflict.
I think I can shed some light on the paradox. The reason for it is very simple: Country music is a form of folk music.
Folk music, by definition, reflects the interests of a particular people or "folk." Since there are saints and sinners in every group, folks music invariably includes songs that appeal to both. By its nature, folk music is broadly reflective of whatever the particular folk is interested in, which includes things like their religious lives, their families, their romances, their jobs, their frustrations, and their entertainments. The particular mix of these topics will vary from culture to culture and from time to time even within a particular musical tradition, but the same topics show up over and over again, just in different ratios.
Folk music can be distinguished from more selective musical traditions which are more polarized topically. Religious music–particularly those song that are sung in church–for example, is very, very narrow topically. Perhaps it’s the most narrow genre of music that shows up in each culture since it is devoted to the holy, which by definition is set apart from the ordinary.
Children’s music is also quite narrow in topics because its target audience is only just learning about life and the music created for children is focused on what children are interested in (e.g., animals, the jobs of the adults they see around them) and what is considered appropriate for them at their age.
Classic rock and roll, which received its foundational imprint as music for mid 20th century adolescents and young adults, is also narrower in topic than country music since its target audience hasn’t really come to terms with life as adults. It’s also marked by the obsessive interest of young males with a few particular topics (e.g., dating, sex, cars, rebellion against authority). It also shows notable traces of the particular era in which it was formed (e.g., songs about drug abuse rather than alcohol abuse).
Country music received its foundational imprint as music for traditional American adult society, which has historically been rural and religious. This means that you get some songs that are heavily religiously themed but also songs about sin. Since people struggle with their sins, you get some songs that reflect the struggle ("Why Does It Have To Be Right Or Wrong?"). Since people also give themselves over to their sins, you also have songs that glorify sinning ("Get Drunk And Be Somebody"). Since people get hurt by others’ sins, there are songs about that, too ("Your Cheatin’ Heart"). And there are songs that morally censure sinning ("Wreck on the Highway"). And songs from the perspective of those hurting under their own sins ("Honky Tonk Blues"). And songs that worry about whether people will escape from their sins ("Will The Circle Be Unbroken?").
You even get some songs that are like something from a Flannery O’Connor story (e.g., the Dixie Chicks’ "Goodbye, Earl" or Rock County’s "Turn It On! Turn It On! Turn It On!").
It’s a big, complex mix because folk music reflects the lives and struggles of the folk it represents. It includes both the good and the bad, leading to the paradox of amazingly powerful spiritual songs right next to ones glorifying sin.
That’s not to say that people to whom the folk music is addressed like all of the songs in the tradition. Religious country music fans frown on the glorify sin songs. Irreligious country music fans may roll their eyes at the religious songs. But the mix is there because the music represents a folk and the folk itself is mixed. Some fans appreciate both kinds of songs because both reflect their lives and aspirations.
The paradox seems particularly striking if one is used to music that is topically more narrow (e.g., used to only religious music–which has the holy stuff but leaves out the sin-oriented songs–or used to rock and roll–which is more oriented toward the sinful stuff and tends to leave out the holy most of the time).
But the paradox of modern country music is normal in folk music. If you go back and listen to 19th century American folk music, the exact same themes are there: You’ve got explicitly religious songs and ones that hit the standard life and sin themes. "Ol’ Rosin the Beau" glorifies a reprobate who dies and goes to hell and drinks whiskey with the devil. "Soldier’s Joy" has alcohol/drug abuse in it ("It’s 25 cents for the morphine/It’s 15 cents for the beer/It’s 25 cents for the morphine/Gonna drink me away from here"). The original, pre-War version of "Dixie" has adultery in it ("Old Missus married Will the weaver/William was a gay deceiver . . . Old Missus played the foolish part/She died for a man who broke her heart"). "Sweet Betsy From Pike" has implied extramarital sex and possible illegitimate preganancy in it. "Buffalo Gals" and "The Yellow Rose Of Texas" are about being attracted to the opposite sex. "Cindy" is about the opposite sex being attracted to you. "Lorena" is about lost love and missed opportunities. The "Boatman’s Dance" is about glorifying a particular job/lifestyle.
And the same is true of folk music in other times and cultures. Back in the Middle Ages they had all kinds of religiously themed songs, but they also had drinking songs they’d sing in the taverns. And songs about romance and sex and loneliness and hardship and everything else that is part of the human condition.
Because that’s the paradox of true folk music: It reflects the paradox of the fallen human condition.
As to the paradox of why particular singers will sing both religious songs and those that glorify sin, the answer to that is simple also: They’re doing what singers have always done . . . trying to make money.