Austins Bridge, with its new album Times Like These, is something I don’t see often on the Christian pop culture beat: an aspiring Christian country band.
It’s not unheard of, but even with some outstanding acts like Alathea, which eventually steered its career to the mainstream Americana market, Christian country has never taken hold.
Frankly, it’s unnecessary.
Since emerging in the 1970s, contemporary Christian music has primarily been an adult contemporary and rock genre. Those are genres that have widely been regarded as unfriendly to songs of faith, though every few years we get an I Can Only Imagine or Jesus Freak on the mainstream charts to challenge that notion.
But flip on country radio, and they have no problem talking about Jesus.
A few years ago at my church, I was asked to do a series of Sunday school classes on contemporary Christian music. One day we played two songs: Unbreakable by Christian rockers Fireflight and Jesus Take the Wheel by country star Carrie Underwood.
Despite Unbreakable being based on an actual biblical story – Jesus saves the adulterous woman from stoning – the consensus of the class, made up mostly of people who are not into Christian rock or country music, was that Underwood’s song seemed to be the most Christian.
Alan Jackson had one of the top gospel albums of 2006 with Precious Memories, a collection of traditional songs like What a Friend We Have in Jesus and The Old Rugged Cross.
One of opener Chris Young‘s big hits is The Man I Wanna Be, essentially an open prayer from a guy trying to mend his ways.
And that is a tone of many country songs that address faith: an appeal for help, either in crisis or to repair a broken life. That makes some sense considering that along with the frequent songs about God, country music also gives us a lot of sex, drinkin’ or violence – sometimes you can get all of those plus God in one song.
David Letterman credited Billy Currington with writing the quintessential country song in People Are Crazy – whose chorus is “God is great, beer is good and people are crazy.”
Retiring duo Brooks & Dunn might have put some of country’s contradictions – depending on your perspective – in starkest relief in their hit Red Dirt Road:
It’s where I drank my first beer.
It’s where I found Jesus.
Where I wrecked my first car: I tore it all to pieces.
I learned the path to heaven,
Is full of sinners an’ believers.
Learned that happiness on earth,
Ain’t just for high achievers.
I’ve learned; I come to know,
There’s life at both ends,
Of that red dirt road.
If you come from a legalistic background – particularly, teetotaling – you probably still will find plenty to offend your sensibilities on country radio, no matter how many songs they sing about Jesus. To some, it could be seen as a stark example of Sunday Christianity.
But frankly, it is easier to imagine a band like Austins Bridge opening for a mainstream headliner than playing, say, the Ichthus Festival. And as long as country music openly embraces Christianity, which many artists did last month while accepting Academy of Country Music awards, you probably are not going to see a Christian country genre take off.