Country Music Turns to God In Turbulent Social Period
New releases from Florida Georgia Line, Carrie Underwood and Hillary Scott hinge on spiritual imagery.
At a time that Americans are still baffled and hurt by the brutal slaying of 49 people in Orlando, Fla., it’s poetic that Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind” was confirmed as the No. 1 title on Country Airplay within 48 hours. Still at No. 6 on the latest chart, dated July 2, the song gently, poignantly reminds the listener of a simple truth: that the depth of a person’s relationship with God is reflected in the way they treat others.
Because spiritual views are such a personal subject, it made “Humble and Kind” a tricky exercise for songwriter Lori McKenna (“Girl Crush,” “God Made Girls”), who wanted to provide her five children a few life lessons without moralizing.
“I was lucky that it didn’t end up being preachy,” McKenna told the audience at a June 15 party for her forthcoming album, The Bird & The Rifle, due July 29. “It could have.”
Preachiness is a big issue for country at the moment, as the genre rides a cycle where songs that address spirituality directly or use it as a lyrical device are in full force. Florida Georgia Line’s “H.O.L.Y.” and Carrie Underwood’s “Church Bells” — songs that reference religious symbolism in earthly stories — are both in the top 10. Craig Campbell’s “Outskirts of Heaven” resides at No. 50, and two other titles that played with Christianity, Maren Morris’ “My Church” and Trace Adkins’ “Jesus and Jones,” only disappeared from the list in the past two weeks.
Eli Young Band’s “Saltwater Gospel” was released to radio via Play MPE on June 10. Blake Shelton closes his top five album, If I’m Honest, with the hymn-like “Savior’s Shadow,” and Hillary Scott’s “Thy Will” — the lead single from a forthcoming, faith-based album, Love Remains, due July 29 — is at No. 43 on Hot Country Songs.
“It’s not like we all sat in a room and schemed,” says Scott of the trend. “It just naturally happened that way, and I think it’s just showing that people are trying to find their footing in a really uncertain world right now. I think there’s a lot of reasons why people don’t feel safe.”
The June 12 terrorist attack on Orlando’s Pulse nightclub and the June 10 shooting of former The Voice contestant Christina Grimmie by a deranged fan are only the most obvious examples. The high negative ratings for the two primary presidential candidates, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, suggest the electorate is fearful of either person ascending to the most powerful position in the country. Weaving texters are exacerbating road rage on increasingly congested roads. And even at home, there’s a sense of danger on the Internet, as cyber criminals look for ways to steal key information and money.
“It’s a different world,” says Craig Morgan, whose 2005 No. 1 single, “That’s What I Love About Sunday,” spends its first verse in a sanctuary. “I think America is starving for that wholesomeness that our format, even today, truly represents — the simple life, the love, the compassion, the caring.”
God has had a significant place in country since its inception with such titles as Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light,” The Chuck Wagon Gang’s “I’ll Fly Away” and The Carter Family’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” among its foundational songs. The latter is even part of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s structure, with the circular rotunda — where its members are enshrined — bearing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” above the bronze plaques while the outside of the building has the actual shape notes from the song built into its design.
“Songs like ‘Believe’ by Brooks & Dunn, ‘Go Rest High on That Mountain,’ Vince Gill — songs like those have always resonated with country music fans,” says Florida Georgia Line’s Brian Kelley. “A lot of country music fans are in church on Sundays, are very spiritual people. They can also have church [with these songs] no matter where they’re at.”
Spiritual questions tend to rise in the wake of tragedy, and the volume of soul-searching country increased after the 9/11 terror attacks in 2011. Underwood’s initiation into the format came just a few years after that, and her first No. 1 single, “Jesus, Take the Wheel” in 2006, established faith as a major lyrical theme in her career. Her current “Church Bells” may use religion as a backdrop for murder, but other titles in her canon — including the baptismal “Something in the Water” and two songs that embrace the promise of a heavenly afterlife, “Temporary Home” and “See You Again” — connect to the hope that’s present in most spiritual thought.
“I’m a Christian person and have a very strong belief that we will be reunited someday and this world is temporary and there is some place that we are going to go,” says Underwood. “I think that people really connect to those songs because of that.”
What that afterlife is like is the thought behind Campbell’s “Outskirts of Heaven,” which benefited from a conversation that co-writer Dave Turnbull (“Lucky Man,” “Old Alabama”) had with his son just days before they wrote it. The boy asked Turnbull why he was a believer. He had an answer.
“When you look at the disciples, all of them died a horrific death defending the fact that Jesus was real,” explains Turnbull. “If somebody really didn’t believe in something, why would they want to die for it? I said, ‘That’s why I believe in it the most.’ ”
That points, perhaps, to one of the reasons that religion is such a difficult subject. Terrorists have proven themselves willing to die for their beliefs, too, though had they gotten the message in “Humble and Kind,” they might have found a way to do that without harming others in the process. But it’s those kinds of attitudes that make spiritual songs and images so powerful. It’s impossible to make sense of the senseless or to answer the unanswerable. At some point, the mysteries of life are behind the faith that country isn’t afraid to address.
“I just can’t imagine walking through life not knowing that there is a higher power who has our best interest at heart, who truly loves us more than we could ever fathom,” says Scott. “To think that we are just walking around on earth, just trying to find our way through it [without purpose], I just can’t look at life like that. I just can’t.”