country music

New release from Nashville: a timely, thought-provoking dive into 'God and Country Music'

New release from Nashville: a timely, thought-provoking dive into 'God and Country Music'

Holly Meyer’s mama tried to raise her better.

Actually, I think her mother did just fine. That opening was my rather feeble attempt to set the scene (with thanks to Merle Haggard) for this post on “God and Country Music.”

Meyer, The Tennessean’s religion writer, had a big piece on Sunday’s front page about a religious revival in country music.

It turns out that the story idea came from, well, Meyer’s mother.

“And a good story idea is a good story idea, especially when it comes from your mom,” Meyer said.


Full disclosure: I love country music. In fact, I wrote a column several years ago exploring country songs as “modern-day parables.” So I was pretty certain I was going to appreciate Meyer’s piece. And I did.

Her timely lede:

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Gray Lady visits buckle of Bible Belt: Ignores historic Christian roots in booming Nashville

Gray Lady visits buckle of Bible Belt: Ignores historic Christian roots in booming Nashville

I have been in and out of Nashville since the mid-1980s and I have heard that great city called many things.

Of course, it is the “Music City,” but I am more fond of the nickname “Guitar Town.”

Southern Baptists used to refer to the national convention’s large, strategically located headquarters as the “Baptist Vatican.” Then again, the United Methodist corporate presence in Nashville is also important.

This points to another reality: The historic synergy between the country music industry and the world of gospel music, in a wide variety of forms (including Contemporary Christian Music). Nashville is also home to a hub of Christian publishing companies that has global clout. All of that contributes to another well-known Nashville label: “Buckle of the Bible Belt.”

It’s an amazing town, with a stunning mix of churches and honky-tonks. As country legend Naomi Judd once told me, in Nashville artists can sing about Saturday night and Sunday morning in the same show and no one will blink.

This brings me to a massive New York Times feature that ran with this sprawling double-decker headline:

Nashville’s Star Rises as Midsize Cities Break Into Winners and Losers

Nashville and others are thriving thanks to a mix of luck, astute political choices and well-timed investments, while cities like Birmingham, Ala., fall behind.

That tells you the basic thrust of the story. What interested me is that the Times covered the rapidly changing face of Nashville — many Tennesseans moan that it’s the new Atlanta — without making a single reference to the role that religious institutions have played in the city’s past and, yes, its present.

That’s really, really hard to do. But the Times team managed to pull that off.

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Washington Post spots big religion ghost in the Byrds' 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo' revival

Washington Post spots big religion ghost in the Byrds' 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo' revival

You know those "desert island" games people like to play with music, books, movies and other forms of culture? You start with a question like this: If you were stranded on a dessert island, what 10 albums/CDs would you have choose to have with you (with no box sets allowed)? Let the life-defining debates begin.

The Washington Post ran a long, wonderful feature the other day that punched one of those buttons for me. The headline: "It was the Byrds album everyone hated in 1968. Now, ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ is a classic."

If I had to name a "favorite American rock band," I would almost certainly pick the Byrds.

If all Roger McGuinn and company gave American history (forget music) was radio hits that helped introduce that Bob Dylan guy, that would be a lot of cultural clout. But the Byrds, with a major assist from Buffalo Springfield, gave us so, so, so much more. Think Crosby, Stills & Nash, think Poco, think Flying Burrito Brothers, think Eagles, think Tom Petty, think R.E.M. and on and on. Just look at this family-tree chart on that.

This Post story gets that, but it also spotlights the fact that several crucial issues linked to the "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" album that were, yes,  essentially religious. This was when the Byrds tried to wade deep into the water of country music and, thus, ran head-on into Bible Belt culture.

Did the Post spot this "religion ghost"? Yes! This feature does a fantastic job handling a major religion ghost, woven into the life of McQuinn, but missed two other ghosts. Hold that thought. Here is the overture:

In June, with so little fanfare they weren’t even listed on the bill, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman took the stage at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium to play a song from “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.”

They last did that on March 16, 1968, and it did not go well. They were the Byrds then, and the appearance at the Grand Ole Opry elicited boos, catcalls or indifference, depending on who’s telling the story.

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#RNA2017: Five takeaways from the 68th annual conference of the Religion News Association

#RNA2017: Five takeaways from the 68th annual conference of the Religion News Association

In advance of last week's 68th annual conference of the Religion News Association, the Rev. Thomas J. Reese wrote an interesting column on the state of the Godbeat.

In case you hadn't heard, this oft-quoted priest joined Religion News Service last month as a senior analyst and columnist focused on Catholicism, the Vatican and Pope Francis. His recent column featured a clever headline about "religion journalists singing country & blues in Nashville."

Music City was, of course, the site of this year's RNA conference. Reese wrote:

(RNS) — This week I am looking forward to the annual meeting of the Religion News Association (Sept. 7-9) in Nashville, where I hope to see old friends and make new ones. I enjoy the company of journalists, who are almost always bright, articulate and funny. Religion reporters are a special breed because of their interest in values, religion and the transcendent.
There is also some sadness as I get ready to travel because I know many old friends will not be there. It is not that they have died, although some have. Rather, there are simply fewer religion writers today. They have either been laid off or jumped ship before they got pushed out.
So, when we get to Nashville, I am not sure whether we will be singing country or the blues.

Actually, Godbeat pros sang a few church hymns, as part of a session on congregational singing (and beer):

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Fine Washington Post story about Dolly Parton (but try to guess what part got left out)

Fine Washington Post story about Dolly Parton (but try to guess what part got left out)

Quite some time ago, the world-weary team of journalists at Entertainment Weekly produced a surprisingly serious and well thought out list of the most important women in the history of the American entertainment business.

I wish I could give you a URL for that article, but I have never been able to figure out that magazine's approach to digital content. 

Anyway, my memory is that Lucille Ball was No. 1, in large part because of her revolutionary role in managing her own career options. Oh, and she was a brilliant comic actress.

Dolly Parton was No. 2 for pretty much the same reason. Bluntly stated, she was and is a brilliant businesswoman who has opened all kinds of doors for other women in Nashville and the entertainment biz, period. She is also one of the most underrated songwriters, and stage performers, of all time.

I bring this up for a simple reason. Dolly is always news here in East Tennessee, where she is to our culture sort of what the Queen is to England -- only Parton has tons of business clout to go with all of her earth mama of the Smokes symbolism.

Now Dolly has gone and done something really important linked to the wildfires that ravaged our region a few weeks ago. You may have seen one or two short items about that on the national news. Maybe. For elite media, this was kind of like the Louisiana floods 2.0, as in something going on in red-state land that really didn't matter that much. Maybe if Donald Trump had paid a visit?

Parton has pledged, through her foundation, to give every family that lost a home -- 700 homes and businesses were destroyed -- $1000 a month for six months to help get them back on their feet. Her do-it-yourself TV telethon raised about $9 million to help out, too.

You can imagine the local coverage here in East Tennessee. However, Dolly's crusade also caught the eye of editors at The Washington Post, which printed nice, long, highly detailed feature on her. However, anyone want to guess what part of Parton's story the Post pretty much ignored?

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Merle Haggard's Church of Christ mama tried to raise him better, and he embraced Jesus as Lord

Merle Haggard's Church of Christ mama tried to raise him better, and he embraced Jesus as Lord
Despite all my Sunday learning
Towards the bad I kept on turning
Till Mama couldn't hold me anymore
And I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole
No one could steer me right but Mama tried, Mama tried
Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied
That leaves only me to blame 'cause Mama tried
— "Mama Tried," No. 1 hit by Merle Haggard released in July 1968

Merle Haggard's friend Johnny Cash only sang at San Quentin State Prison in California.

Haggard — who died Wednesday as he turned 79 — actually served three years at San Quentin on a burglary conviction and spent his 21st birthday in solitary confinement, as The New York Times pointed out in today's front-page obituary.

Cash's performance prompted Haggard to form a prison band, noted the Los Angeles Times:

This real-life narrative would become a classic trope of country music. “Mama Tried,” considered by some critics to be Haggard's greatest song, is a fairly straight autobiographical account of his road to San Quentin.
Its indelible chorus — “I turned 21 in prison doin' life without parole” — exaggerates his sentence; paroled after less than three years, Haggard was able to unfurl his musical gifts under state supervision.

Reading mainstream media coverage of the county music legend's death, I see no mention of his self-proclaimed Christian faith. Did I miss this anywhere?

But the New York Times does reference Haggard's religious upbringing:

Merle Ronald Haggard was born on April 6, 1937, in Oildale, Calif. His first years were spent in the abandoned boxcar that his father, James, a railroad carpenter, had converted into a home for his family. James Haggard died of a stroke in 1946, after which Mr. Haggard’s mother, the former Flossie Mae Harp, a strict and pious member of the ultraconservative Church of Christ, took a bookkeeping job to provide for her three children.

A strict and pious member of the ultraconservative Church of Christ. Please, tell me more.

On the one hand — as a lifelong Church of Christ member — I kind of understand what the irreligious and radically liberal Old Gray Lady is saying.

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