How to write a good country song

IMG_3306When was it that a hit country song became a list of country-fried images?  Seems like all you have to do is string together bare feet, pickup trucks, fishing poles, and mama and you’ve got you a bestseller.  (And, yes, I do know that I was a country music DJ back in the day when John Anderson was “Swingin’” on the porch with Charlotte Johnson while her daddy was in the back yard rolling up a garden hose and he was feeling love down to his toes.  But this is a rant with a point, thank you very much.)  And that point is that easy call-outs to a romanticized rural lifestyle somehow work.  So Josh Turner can laud his “Hometown Girl” who grew up “where the corn grows up to the road side” and who “couldn’t hide her beauty with a baseball cap” and he’s got a Top 10 hit.

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Adia Victoria

Meantime, I’ve been listening to Adia Victoria, whose own version of the blues has been described as Southern Gothic.  Adia, like Josh, was born in South Carolina, but her view of the place is decidedly darker.  “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout Southern belles,” she says in “Stuck in the South,” “but I can tell you something about Southern hell.”  Her music, as her voice, growls with subversive energy.

But I didn’t come to do music criticism.  (Although, Sam Hunt…”Body like a Back Road”?  Are you serious?)  I just came by today to say once more that we need a little more texture in our view of the places we live.  I say this as somebody who is a sucker for gauzy sentimentality.  A fireworks show after a baseball game can get me misty and a far-off train whistle stirs my high lonesome sensibilities.  It’s not healthy to remain in those places, though.

As a church leader, I know the comforts and the dangers of nostalgia.  When a church defends itself against self-reflection by glorifying an idealized past, it is preferring not to see the world as it really is or people as they really are.  It could be that the children and youth who used to populate Christmas pageants as bathrobes shepherds (I’m getting misty again) still bear the image of God (they do) and could enrich our lives and our worship if we chose to engage them deeply (they could).

We rightly bristle when our communities are lampooned and real people are reduced to stereotypes, but I worry that we do it to ourselves, too.  We grasp an identity or an ideology that reflects a piece of who we are and see all things through that lens.  Seeing our culture only as noble pickup trucks or vicious hanging trees is not really seeing at all.  We are more than that.

Seeing our culture only as noble pickup trucks or vicious hanging trees is not really seeing at all.  We are more than that.

The role of good worship and of good art is to offer us a frame to see the world in its depth and to resist final declarations about it.  In both we pause before mystery and use what resources we have to give voice and notice to what we see.  Perhaps we sing.  And with any luck we rise above schmaltz to poetry.

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