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God & 2 Country Guys 

Christian themes have always had a place in country music. Somewhere amidst the genre's shared roots with Southern gospel and the dichotomies and counterparts between Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, the Lord has popped up in one way or another throughout the history of America's twangiest pop.

There is a strata of country that consciously plays to church folks and those they hope to evangelize. It has in recent years retrenched itself as gospel country, but remember the mid- 1990s' positive country trend? Christian market labels were positioning their signings born out of the new/young country frenzy that fomented with the music's vaunted Class of '89 (Clint Black, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt) to reach general market country listeners and develop the music's presence on Christian radio. 

That never really happened as planned because, at the time, country radio was so bereft of cheatin', drinkin' and most any other kind of sinnin' that to have an explcitly Christian presence in the music was nearly redundant. There remains a trade organization (with its own magazine, awards show, etc.) for Christian country artists, but if any of their music is being played on any stations near me in Wisconsin, it has gone under my radar. 

In recent months, country acts who have had hits in the '70s and '80s have re-emerged with all-gospel albums, as was a common practice among country acts until about, oddly enough, the '70s. One of them, Larry Gatlin of The Gatlin Brothers, has gone so far as to put his money into the launch of a cable TV channel dedicated to gospel music of various styles. Others can be heard on The Grand Ole Opry and maybe stages near you. 

More widely heard, and more haunting in their appropriation of the Most High, are recent chart hits by two of country's current top male draws. One of them is arguably the strongest of those aforementioned '89 newbies.

Alan Jackson's "Monday Morning Church" (from What I Do, Arista Nashville) also stands as the stronger of those two hits. Herein a newly-widowed husband  details his late wife's spiritual devotion and his own current desolation. He puts her Bible in the drawer, but he can't close the piano where she would play her favorite hymns. Worse still, he can't pray without yelling at God, and he skips church because he doesn't feel he deserves Jesus' love. By the time he gets to the bridge, it sounds like he may be primed to join his dearly departed by his own design 

In lesser hands, the chorus's opening line, "You left my heart as empty/as a Monday morning church," could crackle with corniness. Not so in Jackson's. A moderately somber, fiddle-laden arrangement and background vocals by dependably neo-traditionalist Patty Loveless top off what may not be among Jackson's #1 singles, but certainly his most touching slow number since his response to the September '01 East Coast bombings, "Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)." By inference, Jackson may also be commenting on the growing matriarchal nature of Christianity as it's practiced throughout much of the U.S.  

For Tim Mc Graw, the choice is both easy and extreme; it's "Drugs or Jesus" (from Live Like You Were Dying, Curb).  Just as he did on his preceding single, "Back When," wherein he (unconvincingly, methinks) hankered for things he was probably hardly old enough to recall when they were current, McGraw evokes small town mores and atmosphere. This time, however, all said burg's residents crave salvation either through the One who truly provides it or whatever ingestible artificial stimulation they can muster.He's right in noting that life's road really does lead only in one of two possible directions. It's just that McGraw imbues the journey with a touch too much bluster, j just as he evades life's substantial gray spaces. 

Neither does it abet McGraw's cause to sing that, "everyone just wants to get high." With that line he summarily recalls the old Cheech and Chong skit about the hippie who tells a bum, "I used to be all messed up on drugs. Now I'm all messed up on the Lord." But he's still all messed up, yes? 

The song's video bespeaks the seriousness McGraw feels for the tune, too. Forsaking his oil slick of a black leather cowboy hat, he dons a woolen cap to complement a sweat shirt, the combined effect of which must be to make him look "street." That, along with most everything else about the song down to its choral hallelujahs, just isn't working. Close, but not quite.

For the record, Jackson isn't always so consistent, and McGraw doesn't always stink up the airwaves with pretension and/or preposterousness. Jackson's cover of  "If We Make It Through December" can't top Merle Haggard's brave-face-keeping original no how, no way. And though Jackson has long been passionate about automobiles, when he sings about cars, be it longingly while remaking David Lindley's "Mercury Blues" or reminiscing-ly on his own "Drive," it usually doesn't resonate as strongly as when he's singing more directly about people.

And though I'm no fan of much of his headwear, McGraw has it in him to excel. "All I Want Is A Life" articulates blue collar anxiety as well as anything by Haggard or Johnny Paycheck; and the titular track to his current album (given a rebirth on pop radio likely due to his success dueting with rapper Nelly on "Over  and Over") harnesses a bombast similar to that in "Drugs" while creatively saying something important and fairly original. He can even win me over with some of his dumber ditties, such as "Real Good Man" and "I Like It, I Love It" (sorry, but "Indian Outlaw" still bites it  major-ly).    

Neither Jackson's nor McGraw's  songs fit the templates other gospel-flavored country biggies from the current decade, such as Randy Travis's O. Henry-esque "Three Wooden Crosses" nor Josh Turner's anthemic "Long Black Train." As drinkin' and cheatin' make radio comebacks (e.g., any number of Toby Keith tracks and Lee Ann Womack's conflicted "I May Hate Myself In The Morning," respectively and among others), it's good to hear overtly godly sentiments from big names in country. 

Though the genre's gatekeepers may promote it as a genre ready for family consumption, country primarily deals with adult concerns. Neither McGraw nor Jackson are  cheerleading for youth group teens. Thank God for that. 
Jamie Lee Rake  


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