Long Black Train
Glimpses of Grace in Country Music
By: Gina Dalfonzo|Published: April 7, 2011 7:04 PM
There's a long black train comin' down the line
Feedin' off the souls that are lost and cryin'
Rails of sin, only evil remains
Watch out, brother, for that long black train
(Josh Turner, “Long Black Train”)
A dear friend and I are having one of our periodic good-natured debates over contemporary Christian music (or CCM, as it’s often called). Specifically, over my lack of interest in it.
It started—or I should say, it started again—when I told her I was going with some members of my Bible study to a Christian concert. She was thrilled, convinced that this meant I’d finally seen the light, or at least was about to see it, and was on the verge of embracing CCM with open arms.
Actually, though I haven’t had the heart to break it to her, all it means is that I went with some members of my Bible study to a Christian concert.
I’ve had some difficulty explaining to my enthusiastic friend, not only why I listen to very little CCM, but also why I prefer country music instead. The fact that I grew up listening to my parents playing Kenny Rogers, Patsy Cline, and Randy Travis is certainly a factor, but not a full explanation. After all, my parents grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and spent a lot of time way down South after that. Why should their daughter, a product of the Northern Virginia suburbs, feel any particular connection to what used to be known as “hillbilly music”?
Well, you’re not supposed to say the word cancer in a song
The thing is, while country music may not reflect my own life very well, there’s an honesty and an authenticity in it that I find deeply appealing. Country artists delight in their freedom to write and sing about a wide range of ideas and experiences. And that includes the freedom to write and sing about God.
But it has that in common with contemporary Christian music, you might say. Not exactly. While I love most of the music that I sing in church on Sundays, when it comes to what’s being played on the CCM radio stations, I don’t hear a lot of freedom. In fact, going by the anecdotal evidence of many Christian performers, it seems to me that while country artists are not afraid to sing about Jesus, Christian artists are afraid not to sing about Jesus.
That may appear to be a slight difference, but I don’t think so. I think it’s a highly significant one.
Of course the two genres do have something important in common: Both of them understand the language of faith. In country music, that language is not as common as it is in CCM, but it’s common enough that artists and fans alike recognize it when they hear it. It flows like an undercurrent throughout the genre, appearing sometimes when you least expect it.
That’s why Kenny Chesney (in the song “Down the Road”) or Toby Keith (in “God Love Her”) can sing a line about being “washed in the blood” and know that their audience will grasp what they’re singing about. It’s why Carrie Underwood, fresh off American Idol, could burst onto the country scene with a song called “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” and shoot to #1 on the charts without a tenth of the controversy that might have resulted if she’d been a pop or rock singer. Country’s close ties to gospel, bluegrass, and folk music, and its appeal to a demographic that values faith, family, and country, all help to ensure that, just as in foxholes, there are very few atheists in country music.
Grace at the Edge
Everybody wants to go to heaven
Even though I hate to admit it
’Cause I heard Jesus He drank wine
And even when theology crops up, the artist doesn’t always get it right—as in Miranda Lambert’s current top 40 single, which seems to preach grace without repentance. (Nonetheless, I confess to identifying with Miranda in one way: When I was attending a strongly legalistic high school, it was a secret comfort to me to know that a Christian like C. S. Lewis, whom even my teachers admired, drank wine and smoked a pipe!)
If there’s a common language of faith in country music, there can also be an edge to it, an aspect that, understandably, is not to everyone’s taste. You see this among the fans as well as among the artists. A crowd of country fans can be one of the nicest crowds you’ll ever meet, and also one of the most rambunctious. When Jason Aldean sings of trying to “make all the drunk girls scream and shout” with his music, he ain’t just whistling Dixie. I sat behind one of those girls once, at a Chris Young concert, and that part of the concert experience was not an enjoyable one for me or for anyone else around her, including her boyfriend.
Yet as I look back on it now, I remember that the language of faith was being spoken, or rather sung, right there where she couldn’t help but hear it. Sprinkled in among the love songs and the rowdy songs were songs like “Voices” (“Mama tellin’ me to say a prayer/Every time I lay down at night”) and “The Man I Want to Be” (“God, I’m asking you to come change me/Into the man I want to be”).
And it occurs to me that, as devoutly as I wished she were elsewhere, maybe that woman was right where she needed to be that night.
Life’s like a novel with the end ripped out
There’s a place, I believe, for all kinds of music, and that includes CCM. There are beautiful and uplifting songs in contemporary Christian music, songs that honor God and refresh the spirit, and I’m glad they’re out there.
But for me, listening to a great deal of CCM at once is like picking up a book where you already know the beginning, the middle, and the end. You know what the topic is going to be. You’re pretty sure that, no matter the struggle or the heartache, the solution will be implied from the beginning, as in a sitcom where every episode ends with reconciliations and hugs. And it’s likely that there’s going to be a lot of repetition.
Listening to a country station is more like watching a long and winding story unfold in front of you, without knowing quite what’s going to happen. People in this story will undergo all kinds of experiences and all kinds of emotions. Things will take place that are unfair, inexplicable, and unnerving. Carrie Underwood may be asking Jesus to take the wheel at one moment, and the next moment she may be threatening to “find some boy [and] rip his heart right out,” even though “it ain’t the Christian thing to do.” And I’m going to need to use a little discernment, rather than expecting everything I hear to meet my personal standards. (At times, the cynical side of me wonders if overexposure to the safe world of CCM radio fosters in some Christians an expectation that the entire culture will order itself to their tastes, and an unrealistic level of disappointment when it doesn’t.*)
In country music, as opposed to CCM, I don’t know precisely when or where or in which song God will break in. But I do know that, at some point—perhaps when least expected—He will.
It’s possible that everything I’ve written here has just been one long exercise in self-justification. And yet, having written it, I still feel that I’ll take the music where grace keeps feeling like a miraculous surprise, over the music where it’s a safe and sure and unsurprising thing.
But you know there’s victory in the Lord, I say
*Given the way this article began, it’s only fair to note that my friend—who introduced me to Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack, among others—is not one of those who cocoon themselves completely in the world of CCM!
Josh Turner, “Long Black Train.” Long Black Train. MCA Nashville, 2003.
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