A Moneychanger Book Review

Honky-Tonk Gospel: The Story of Sin and Salvation in Country Music

by Gene Edward Veith and Thomas L. Wilmeth

After reading Modern Fascism: Liquidating the Judeo-Christian Worldview and Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture I would read the label on a potato chip bag if I knew Ed Veith had written it. Although (or perhaps because) he specialises in art criticism, Ed Veith has a superb gift for critiquing modern culture from a Christian standpoint. If any Christian writer on the scene today can help you discern our times, what they mean and where they’re headed, it’s Ed Veith. When I found out that he and Thomas Wilmeth had written Honky-Tonk Gospel I made a bee line for it. I was both pleased and disappointed.

DISAPPOINTED

Disappointed because on page 26 I read, “Just as the town of Bristol is partly in Tennessee and partly in Kentucky, the Bristol [recording] Sessions themselves would come to be a dividing line and crossroads in its own right.” Somebody should have checked a map. Bristol straddles the Tennessee-Virginia line, a long ways from Kentucky.

Yet another bone needs picking. Veith and Wilmeth begin with the Bristol Sessions in July & August, 1927 as their starting point for country music. I understand that some point must serve as a beginning, arbitrary as the choice may be may be. However, any discussion of country music or Southern gospel music is hardly complete without mentioning James D. Vaughn, “founder and father of Southern gospel music.” In 1903 Vaughn founded the J.D. Vaughn Publishing Company on the square in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. (I know because it’s about 25 minutes from my front door.) Vaughn was a great promoter of gospel music, printing books and sheet music, organising singing schools and quartets, and publishing the first tabloid about gospel music. He was also a visionary. In 1923 he secured the license for a radio station, and on January 1, 1925 WOAN went on the air as the first radio station in Tennessee. Vaughn had to sell in 1929, and Nashville’s WSM bought the frequency—yes, WSM, as in the “Home of the Grand Old Opry.”

PLEASED

But let’s step past these two oversights to more important questions. Surveying three-quarters of a century of music, there’s always a danger that the authors will lose the reader in a forest of lists. Veith and Wilmeth avoid this trap by unfolding various separate threads of the Christian tradition in country music one by one. Looking at the songs they picked as examples, over and over I caught myself dreaming, “If only their book came with a CD containing all the music they reference!” No expert in either gospel or country music, I kept on wishing I could hear the songs they cited.

The authors’ sympathies plainly lie with country music as a deeply rooted art form that faithfully reflects the whole spectrum of human experience. Unlike the artificial and synthetic popular culture driven primarily by the bottom line, country music maintains its organic connection to real life—however tenuous that connection may have become under the onslaught of commercialism. And of course, in real life, Christianity is not yet a dirty word.

“The real world for country music includes Christianity. In stark contrast to most of today’s other entertainment venues, people in country songs are likely to pray, quote the Bible, and talk about Jesus. This is true not only in country’s most traditional forms, such as bluegrass … and classic …, it is true also in contemporary country music, which in many other ways has drifted far from its roots.” (p. 12, 13).

Whoa! What about country music’s “dark side”? What about all those songs about drugs, dives, and drinking—not to mention adultery? “Country music, though sometimes vulgar and rowdy, remains a forum for traditional values.” (p. 14) “The worldview of country music embraces both sin and grace. Historically, country music grew out of both little country churches and honky-tonks, family sing-alongs and drunken Saturday nights. Expressions of both sides of life—and the conflict between them—can still be found in country music.”

Frankly, it is this no-holds-barred honesty that most strongly attracts me to country music, the soul torn between sin and grace, the drunken Hank Williams with his other persona, Luke the Drifter who sings only religious songs. Life in country music has not yet been sanitised and Bowdlerised (as too many Christians would prefer). The warfare in our souls is real, bloody, and not always victorious. Country music has the courage (sometimes, yes, the lack of shame) to reflect that faithfully, and Veith and Wilmeth steadily guide us through that effort.

WHUPPIN’ POP CULTURE AND POSTMODERNISM

In the final chapter “Contemporary Country Music,” the authors kick their cultural critique up into high gear, dissecting commercialism, pop culture, and postmodernism out of contemporary country music. At stake is the survival of authentic culture and authentic Christianity.

n the late 20th century, pop culture has been pushing out and taking the place of [high culture and folk culture]. Just as high culture institutions such as schools and universities are having problems teaching young people who can pay attention only if they are being entertained, folk cultures around the world are disappearing under the onslaught of American TV, movies, consumer goods, and fast-food restaurants. In religion, many people today have no interest in the high culture of theological reflection, nor in the folk culture of ancient practices and old hymns; rather, they are cultivating a pop Christianity void of doctrine and unpleasant moral demands, centered instead on individualistic emotional gratification. Instead of achieving conversions through conviction of sin and proclaiming the blood of the Lamb, evangelism is sometimes reduced to what is, in effect, a commercial appeal.” (p. 164)

“The end of the millennium was the postmodern age. [All that had been “modern”] became passé. On a deeper level, the assumptions that drove the 20th century—that scientific rationalism is the only acceptable form of truth; that social engineering can solve all of our problems; that progress, reason, and realism will stamp out religious faith—came unglued…

“Postmodernism took different forms and manifested itself in different ways. If what is modern is no longer seen as great, one response is to recover what is old and bring it into the contemporary times. … In the meantime, confessional, orthodox, historic Christianity came back in force, as the modernist theology of mainline liberals grew increasingly anemic and irrelevant. This cultural mood was doubtless one of the reasons country music—with what Bill Monroe called its `ancient tones’—came back into fashion…

“But there were other ways to be postmodern, which in many ways overwhelmed the neoconservatism. If scientific rationalism can never give us the certainty of truth, as many scholars in the universities were arguing, then maybe we can never apprehend truth. Maybe we can do without it. For many postmodernist scholars, truth is a construction—a provisional paradigm, manufactured by our culture or by ourselves. The pre-modernists believed in moral and intellectual absolutes, grounded in a transcendent God; modernists believed that truth is only what we can perceive empirically; the postmodernists believed that we make our own truths.

“This sort of academic speculation might seem esoteric, with little to offer ordinary people living … `here in the real world.’ But cultural, intellectual, moral, and religious relativism soon permeated every level of American culture. In 1991, 66% of Americans—two out of three—agreed that `there is no such thing as absolute truth.’ Statements such as `That may be true for you, but it isn’t true for me’ became commonplace. Moral issues—from sex to abortion to euthanasia—began to be seen solely in terms of choice, a matter not of ethical principles but of choosing `what’s right for you.’

“Postmodernist relativism was carried by the pop culture, not only in its impermanence but in its way of reducing everything—including serious matters such as politics—to a consumer choice. Even Christianity, despite the new confessionalism, found new expression as a pop religion, its doctrinal and moral truths and ancient traditions often toned down to fit the demands of the religious marketplace. New megachurches sprang up, featuring pop music instead of hymns, self-help tips instead of sermons, and entertainment instead of worship.” (P. 196-171.) “Contrary to the power-of-positive-thinking theology of pop Christianity—which views faith as the capacity to change reality by mind-power, rather than faith as trust in Christ—in this song (“Daddy took up a snake”) objective reality broke in, and the snake killed him. Postmodernist solipsism has a way of running up against hard, cold, objective reality. Rattlesnake bite. Interpret that.” (p. 172.)

In the end Veith and Wilmeth hold out hope for country music—and for us. “Country music may keep getting murdered, but then—even in the new millennium—it keeps getting born again. In the best of all this music and the traditions it keeps alive, the despair and the hope, the suffering and the ordinary pleasures, all ring true. It can sometimes be tacky and vulgar and sentimental, but somehow that is part of its charm, too. The music has a way of applying, no matter how often the culture changes. And the faith seems as authentic as the sinning.”


Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2001. ISBN 0-8010-6355-8. 188 pages with end notes.


Originally published September 2001