“Well, I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt / The beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad, so I had one more for dessert. / Then I fumbled in my closet through my clothes for my cleanest dirty shirt, / Then I washed my face and combed my hair and stumbled down the stairs to meet the day.”
Thus opens Kris Kristofferson’s visceral account of a person ravaged by drug and alcohol abuse, along with the attendant pains of loneliness and depression that always seem to follow hard on the heels of revelry. Sunday is presented paradoxically as a day that presses the broken soul beyond measure, yet pulls one toward the memory of happier times, if not holier times, when Sunday school lessons and warm family dinners stood in the place of bottles and pills. In 1970, the Man in Black turned Kristofferson’s heart-wrenching homily into a hit. Across the South, Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down and songs like it have always been treated as “Gospel” by prodigal sons and daughters.
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.
Some, unfamiliar with the culture in which such songs were born, rail against all of this as just so much hypocrisy. But this is an unfortunate mischaracterization. George Jones, for instance, would not hold himself up as the ideal man. But at the same time, he would be quite insistent that such an ideal did exist, and was embodied somewhere in some form—probably in his own father and in the man Christ Jesus.
Purveyors of Traditional Country Music sang to, and sang about, people who never had 401K’s; people who lived by an audacious truth, whose necks were red from working in the broiling sun, who had dirt under their fingernails and grease on their tattered jeans. Folks in small, tight-knit communities who took care of widows and barefoot kids. These were the worldly saints of southern culture whose battered sanctity came at high costs. They were not sinless, but they were honest about it—this is the opposite of hypocrisy. They did wrong and they said so. They were guilty and in need of redemption. None thought of themselves as saviors.
The Old Country regaled us with tales of the brutal and idiosyncratic rhythms of life in the South. Juke joints and bar rooms were packed with sweaty, beer-soaked sinners on Saturday nights, but the altars were full on Sunday mornings. Some will argue as to the sincerity of their repentance, but few will question to the openness of their confessions. In all of this reveling and praying, that two-step rhythm of sin and redemption is hammered out on flat top guitars and twin fiddles.
Modern Country—Bro Country—thinks it’s cool to steal daddy’s truck and go shoot up the stop signs on mainstreet with some tramp in high-riding denim shorts. For them, rebellion is celebrated. Here the free-wheeling spirit of Rock and Roll clad in flannel and snake-skin boots. This is a cultural heresy; a bastardization which bears little resemblance to the musical faith of their fathers. The terms are all there—mammas, trucks, women, liquor, sin, God—but they are in all of the wrong places.While this is not necessarily a diatribe against New Nashville, the differences are noticeable. He that hath ears to hear, let him invest in ear plugs.
Traditional Country Music was an exercise in fearless self-revelation. It specialized in the sort of disconcerting transparency that would get a respectable man or woman fired from a job. But at the same time, it is just the sort of candor to which honest souls aspire as they listen to these old songs in their garages and kitchens.
Traditional Country was a type of auricular confession for Southern Protestant folk. This, too, is one of those aspects which tends to confuse those who come from places where all of the dirty laundry is washed in secret. As far as the Old Music was concerned, folks sinned out there in front of God and everybody else, so it is only fitting that they let the whole world in on their admission of it. There was no screen between priest and penitent; there was only an open microphone and a heart laid bare. Guilt was there, and the shame that always rides shotgun with it. But there was also the relief that comes from rolling the burden off of one’s back in the warm light of Sunday.
And those of us who sing along with them, even if we have never cheated on our wives or shot a man in anger, are caught up in that somber liturgy of self-discovery. By participating in these rough and tumble stories, even songs about whiskey and walking away have the ability to bring us to a critical point of clarity before the face of God.
Though not as explicit about the nature of sin as John Calvin, or as hopeful about the extent of sanctification in this life as John Wesley, Classic Country Music did give us the nuts and bolts of falling, failing, and forgiveness through men like Johnny Cash. That austere, black-clad figure has reminded us all of the need to quit our foolishness, get our houses in order, and prepare for that inevitable day “when the Man comes around.”