Tom T. Hall's 'Me and Jesus': An Unlikely 'Voice'-Resurrected Hit That Somehow Feels Very 2016
"Me and Jesus," a No. 98 hit for legendary country singer-songwriter Tom T. Hall on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972, would hardly seem like an obvious song choice for a music competition show. It lacks both the cultural ubiquity and the vocal calisthenics that often mark such numbers -- just a wry, gently rollicking country jaunt with a simple melody and an easily understood hook. And of course, there's the subject matter: an unabashed, if slightly winking, ode to the performer's casual, personal relationship with his lord and savior. "Me and Jesus got our own thing going/ Me and Jesus got it all worked out."
On Monday night, however, "Me and Jesus" became one of the breakout hits from season 11 of The Voice. The song was belted by Team Blake contender Sundance Head, receiving a standing ovation from the show's four coaches and a gushing rave from his own captain: "We never experienced any kind of performance like that, ever, in 11 seasons of the show!” Shortly after, Head's version of "Me and Jesus" became the best-selling of the show's performances from that week, even going to No. 1 on the iTunes chart, still lingering in the top five two days after.
It's not the first time the song has been covered in recent years: Country superstar Brad Paisley even included a slowed-down, slightly modernized acoustic version of the song as a bonus track on his 2014 album Moonshine in the Trunk. But Head's version of the track is conspicuous for its lack of any kind of contemporary updating. If anything, the rendition dives even further into the past, giving the song more of a bluegrass arrangement, a honky-tonk swing, and even a mid-song gospel breakdown followed by an invigorating double-time outro. Combined with Head's throwback Grand Ole Opry ensemble, the performance felt about as far removed from 2016 pop culture as you're likely to find on a hit national television show.
It didn't necessarily feel that far removed from 2016 culture in general, though. Tom T. Hall's early '70s original came out at the height of Contemporary Christian Music's mainstream popularity in the U.S., when the Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar soundtracks were fixtures on the charts, bands like Ocean and the (predominantly secular) Doobie Brothers notched major crossover hits with Christian messages, and even Jewish singer/songwriters were scoring smashes declaring that they had a friend in Jesus. The reasons for CCM's Nixon-era ascendance were myriad, but it was at least in part a reaction to the increasing pervasiveness of the counterculture in rock, a reaction to late-'60s hippiedom and what was often perceived as general godlessness from the rock community -- whether provocatively declaring their sympathy for the devil or joking about their supremacy over Jesus -- in the face of family values and religious belief.
It wouldn't be surprising to see a similar swinging of the pendulum to begin in 2016, as artists from the rock, hip-hop and other musical worlds become increasingly radicalized in their dissent over the current political landscape. With the younger underground pulling pop toward such anti-establishment messaging, it would then naturally follow that the more conservative mainstream -- often rooted in heartland country -- would begin to push back, with a more aggressive return to conservative, normalized, and, yes, Christian perspective in popular music. And with our TV music competitions set up to be national musical democracies that more closely mirror our electoral process than, say, top 40 radio or MTV airplay, it would be similarly predictable to see the first in-roads in that movement coming in a show like The Voice.
Of course, one hit single does not a movement make, and the recent preponderance of country on The Voice -- Billy Gilman's cover of Martina McBride's "Anyway" was also one of the week's best-sellers -- is likely just as attributable to the presence of both Shelton and now the Nashville-raised Miley Cyrus on the show's coaching staff as it is to any national trending. Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that Head's performance tapped into something raw with the American public, something they've been hoping to hear and see more of. Just ask Blake...
You think people have lost their faith? Wrong.. Congrats @sundancehead.. #1 song in the land..— Blake Shelton (@blakeshelton) November 29, 2016