Saturday, March 17, 2007
The Gospel, Country Music, and Johnny Cash
Country Music has as a part of its roots, Gospel. Nowhere is that more evident than the recent insurgence of Gospel Messages in the popular music of the "working" man, and woman. Such recent hits as Trace Adkins' Songs About Me, Tim McGraw's Drugs or Jesus or Live Like You're Dying, Craig Morgan's That's What I Love About Sunday's, Billy Dean's Let Them Be Little, or Randy Travis' Three Wooden Crosses have shown that you can’t separate Gospel music from Country Music for very long.
Nowhere are the roots of Gospel in Country Music more evident than in the music of The Carter Family. Starting August 2, 1927 the infamous Bristol, Tennessee Recording Sessions started with The Carters, Jimmy Rodgers and many others. Maybelle Carter is said to have obtained her desire to play music when hearing the old hymn, Standing on the Promises of God when a child and at church. Not only did she perfect her guitar method known as the Carter Scratch, but she and the rest of the family perfected a new style of Americana music. It is ironic because now in the mountains of Tennessee, on the Virginia/Tennessee State line, the community is known more for it's stock car racing than it is as the birth place of Country Music. Being a native of the area myself, it would be some years later before I understood the history of the real birthplace of Country Music. Country Music has always been unique in its blend of real life with spiritual hope and influences. In 1934 Zora Layman recorded the first country song about divorce. From Texas Swing Joints, to the California Mine Fields music was being recorded that portrayed the culture and times. Life influences ranged from party tunes to songs about the families that were breaking up due to the difficult times coming from unemployment, alcoholism, and other life struggles of the times. Faith was always a way out of the difficulty and no other form of music outside of the Black Gospel roots portrayed this as did Country. It didn't take long for this influence to come into play in Country Music, especially since much of the music came out of the hills of Appalachia, which was rooted deeply in faith.
From the Carter Family to Contemporary Icons like Ronnie Dunn, faith has always been a underlying theme and backdrop for the music of many country music icons. While Mother Maybelle Carter was influenced by many great shape shifting note songs out of the church hymnal, people like Ronnie Dunn came from a background of singing in the church and even at one time preparing to be a minister in the church. Dunn even attended Abilene Christian University where he planned to study to become a preacher. Later on he went to Tulsa Oklahoma, and the rest is history for the musical group Brooks and Dunn. Christian Influences in Rock 'N' Roll with the likes of Bono from U2 is not unique just for Popular Pop or Rock Music; those influences have been abundant in the Country Market since its origins.
The influence of individuals of faith in music is not to be taken lightly. As mentioned above, individuals like Bono from U2 have taken their faith to a new level and a new place. While gaining the respect of the music industry and at the same time attributing to the creative components of the music they play. Others that have made an impact include people like Bruce Cockburn an icon in Canada, Cliff Richards in Europe, and others like T Bone Burnett from American who has scored many movies including this years release of Walk The Line. Christians and people of faith have had a dramatic impact on the music they play and produce.
Johnny Cash was on a journey where he never forgot about his roots. Neither did he negate or reject his faith in later years, but Cash was one who could redo the song Hurt by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails with a passion that would cause many younger fans to appreciate his honesty and integrity, long after many considered his career dead. That journey came however at an expense an expense that he gladly faced and moved on beyond. While not generally recognized and given respect within the Country Music Industry during his lifetime, he remained a favorite of the populace. It was one reason why the one photo of Johnny Cash flipping off the camera with a middle finger garnished so much respect for the populace. It was as if Cash was speaking for them. The attitude of you can't change who I am so fuck you was an attitude that Cash carried through his life, it was an attitude that when finally allowed to record his music again, in the American Recording Sessions with Rock 'N' Roll producer Rick Rubin. Along with various artists over the project ranging from Kris Kristofferson, to Nick Lowe, and from Leonard Cohen to Tom Waits and the inclusion of people like Mick Fleetwood and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Johnny Cash would show that he was as lasting as his music. I'll never forget in my younger years of struggle, while going through many difficulties and thought provoking attitudes and bitterness towards the church of the role that Johnny Cash played in my recovery. I never cared much for Country Music or Roots Music as I came to call it in later years, however, there was something about Johnny Cash that was different. On one particular occasion I was a little high from doing the drugs that I had done. I remember standing on the hill on Virginia Street in Johnson City Tennessee looking across University Parkway at this little church. I was no more than 75 yards from this church looking at and wondering about the performer they were going to be having perform that night. Johnny Cash was there to do a "religious" concert at this church prior to doing his larger concert in Freedom Hall Civic Center later that night. I'll never forget that night, wondering what it would be like to go to the concert, to listen to the music of this man that so many in the church seemed to despise, yet knowing that I wanted nothing to do with going to church. After all I had heard from many in the church; "How could this man sing about religion one moment, and then go sing about murderers, thugs and street people the next moment?" Many of those in the religious community of Upper East Tennessee had not forgotten about his involvement with the creation of Rock 'N' Roll, so they weren't ready to quite forgive and let go, or for that matter even begin to try and understand. For a young man struggling with faith it was people like Johnny Cash that offered a glimmer of hope and a nice taste of possibility that kept me searching instead of throwing everything related to faith out like used up bathwater. As I watched Johnny Cash arrive, I thought about going to the concert anyway, I yelled out; "Hey Johnny!" only to see him turn in his long black duster and black clothes to wave at me standing on that hill. I don't know what I would have heard that night if I had gone to see him, I never had that chance, I do know that he was a man of faith that I happened to respect, and for me, there weren't many of those around. Nowhere is Johnny Cash's ability to communicate with the "rejects" of society better exemplified than his live recordings at Folsom Prison and San Quentin. In these concerts, which have been re-released unedited, Cash shows an ability to sing songs that touch the souls of men, even in the deepest darkest dungeons. He finds a way to do so in a style that likely offends many a church going person, yet at the same time opening up the discussion of faith among those who have nothing to do with church. This can be seen with closing songs on Johnny Cash live at Folsom Prison with the closing song written by a inmate at Folsom. The closing song Greystone Chapel talks about the freedom found through Christ at this little chapel. It is a moving experience to hear the live rendition of this song and the audience, of Folsom Prison inmates, cheering with enthusiasm at the words to this song. You can hear the same enthusiasm with a more spiritual type of concert on the album At San Quentin. Songs including the old Carter Favorite, Peace in the Valley, I Walk the Line, I Don't Know Where I'm Bound, Ring of Fire, and Daddy Sang Bass. Those songs exemplified to his audience that Faith was an important part of Johnny Cash's life. Cash was not the first to incorporate faith and music, he won't be the last. He was however one of the most enduring artists of all time. While he spoke to the masses, he spoke of a sincerity of faith that many don't understand. He had his struggles, but in the end, he found what he was looking for. Fortunately, for the rest of us, he also helped provide us the answers to the questions we were asking, in a way that we could appreciate and admire. The Virtual Pew and our other work is supported solely by the kind contributions of others. 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