My life wouldn’t make for much of a country song. I have lived in a series of big cities, have never owned a pick-up, spend most of my time learning and teaching, and have no one in my family named Conway, Waylon, or Dolly. Whatever it is that a country boy will survive, I probably won’t. And yet, when my ears itch for music, they itch for twang. I sometimes worry that there is an inauthentic air to my preference for country music. When I got married, I wanted to have Merle Haggard’s ‘Mama Tried’ for my dance with my mother, but “I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole” isn’t an accurate description of my life trajectory. Merle on the other hand did end up in jail, saved from a life of crime by hearing Johnny Cash play San Quentin and thinking: ‘hell, I want to do that.’ I haven’t shot a man coming at me with a knife (Billy Joe Shaver), been arrested for pot smoke coming out of my bus (Willie Nelson), or blown up a bowling alley for not paying me (Waylon Jennings). Mostly, I do what I am doing now: read books while wearing a cardigan or write essays while drinking tea. I just do this while listening to Kris Kristofferson sing “my thirsty wanted whiskey, and my hungry wanted beans.”
I know, in part, why I am hung up on classic country, trucker country, cowboy country, outlaw country, western swing, and the Bakersfield sound, and why I hate most of the suburban music that passes for country these days. I grew up painting houses for Tim in rural New Hampshire. At the end of each day, he would drive me home. We would hurtle down dirt roads with ladders rattling on the roof rack with the same music we listened to while slinging paint on old houses. This music was usually sung by someone named Hank (Sr., Jr., III, or even Hank Snow). At first I hated it, but I came around. As Lyle Lovett sings “redneckness has got to be a disease, catch it on your fingers, it just crawls right up your sleeves.” Over time, I found myself loving all the necessary features of a country song. As David Alan Coe sings, a writer needs to mention something about “mama, trains, trucks, prison, or gettin drunk” if they want to write “the perfect country and western song.” A lot of what I have learned in this life, I learned on a ladder listening to those perfect country songs and shooting the breeze while took layers of paint off of houses. I now I find myself teaching philosophy but still listening to Jerry Jeff Walker’s homage to a redneck mother whose son is “kicking hippies’ asses and raisin’ hell.”
Augustine addresses God and says: “what is it that I love when I love you, God?” What is it that I love in Loretta Lynn or Margo Price, in Gary P. Nunn or Hayes Carll? I love the sound of fiddle, pedal steel, and dobro. I love the look of a 1978 Chevy pick-up and of cowboy boots made by Charlie Dunn. I love the dreams of El Paso, Luckenback, and Tulsa even if I have never been to those places. Country is rich with storytellers who know as well as anyone how to break your heart or make you smile. A friend of mine once claimed that Shakespeare—if he lived now—would listen to country for its comedy, its tragedy, and its innumerable puns and double entredres. Like any good country fan, I have gotten drunk singing along to Hank Jr.’s “Family Tradition,” danced to Asleep at the Wheel’s “Ain’t nobody here but us chickens,” and cried to Red Sovine’s song “Teddy Bear.” Is my love authentic? Now that I think of it, I don’t really care. I love the music and Shiner Bock beer. Sure, if I followed David Alan Coe’s line “if that ain’t country, I’ll kiss your ass,” I would be doing a lot of kissing. But I don’t plan on turning off the music, and I don’t plan on kissing your ass either.
It is not only those summers painting houses and my general proclivity for storytelling that draws me to country. It is a desire for music that is Christian but that shouldn’t be played at church. We live within a contradiction, that of being sinners and saved. We need a music that dwells in this contradiction, that expresses a life of living in sin and living on grace. Music, at least the kind you blast while climbing a ladder, should express both. Hell, maybe even God likes country. I can imagine the Trinity listening to Hank up there in the sky. The good news: if Hanks in heaven, then I have a shot at it too. And if I paradise isn’t in the cards, then I with Tanya Tucker: if I can’t get to heaven, I hope I make it to Texas.
Country music runs deeper than just “guitars tuned good and firm feelin’ women.” It is about sin, the wages of sin, and ultimately grace. You can read Augustine and Kierkegaard for a theology of grace, or you can listen to Hank Sr. and Johnny Cash. All four of them understand St. Paul’s outrageous claim, that “where sin aboundeth, grace aboundeth all the more.” When I was in college and hung over on Sundays, I couldn’t find myself at home with the good smiling Catholics over at the chapel. I am a mediocre sinner and didn’t turn out to be the “only hell my momma ever raised,” but I am no saint. The gentle Christianity I have so often encountered never seemed to be able to account for what a sinner like me was doing lurking in the back of churches. Nor can it explain how it came about that I am still a sinner but now sing in a choir on Sunday and ring church bells during the week.
I couldn’t learn about grace from gentler forms of Christianity, but I could learn from men and women who sang about sin and sang about Jesus. Too often we think Christianity is for good, decent people. It probably is, but it is also for sinners. The reason for this is Kierkegaard’s claim. “The opposite of sin is not virtue, but faith.” Faith isn’t something the virtuous earn or do; it is something that sinners receive as a gift. Jesus spent his time with soldiers, prostitutes, and tax collectors, the kind of people who end up in country songs. Hank Williams Sr. did an awful lot of drinking, but he was also graced enough to sing “praise the Lord, I saw the light.” Knowing this gave me the solace that the smell of stale beer might go well with the smell of incense. It meant that hungover, I could still go to church.
Country musicians sing about getting drunk, cheating, stealing, and “kicking and a gouging, in the mud and the blood and the beer.” They sing about sin. Anyone can sing about drugs and sex. But singing about them as sins requires a certain insight. Sin isn’t just doing wrong, knowing that we are doing wrong before God. The country musician, like Kierkegaard, knows that “right where he is, he is before God.” When they sing about sin, they know that is before God, or at least they realize the next morning. This living in contradiction—sin before God—is why their sins do not stop them from praying. When David Allan Coe sings about adultery, he intones a prayer: “now I lay me down to cheat /on the woman I love so, /and if I die between these sheets, /I pray to God she’ll never know.” Crazy old Coe knows something about sin that good Christians too easily forget: sinners pray. This side of Paradise, it is only sinners who pray. The only sin that makes prayer impossible is pride, and country music is not the music of the proud.
Country albums can feature some terrible behavior alongside calls to repentance. But why sing about repentance if there isn’t terrible behavior? Billy Joe Shaver—who shot someone—asks musicians to: “Sing me more songs about Jesus, for I am a big Jesus fan.” Me too, Billy Joe, me too. It isn’t that these songs mean we will stop sinning anytime soon (we won’t). Rather, we know our wrong deeds aren’t just ‘problematic’; they are sins. We know they are sins because we affirm God’s law and know that even sinners are saved by God’s grace. To paraphrase Augustine, country musicians pray: ‘Lord make me chaste, and sober, and honest, and decent… but not yet.’ We need to get past this ‘not-yet,’ but none of us fully will, at least on this side of the Kingdom. When we think we have, we step out of the contradiction of being sinners before God. But this stepping out does not mean we stop being sinners, it just means we try to step out of the space before God try to claim that we are wheat instead of recognizing that we act a lot more like the chaff.
Dwelling in this contradiction means we can still aim for heaven even when we sin. Christianity is the hope that God does send “honky-tonken angels unto the promise land.” Country music can hope this because knowing that you are sinning means that you still remember God even in your depravity. Country knows what Augustine, the Doctor of Grace, knew: God brings sinners home. We should quit sinning, knowing that the quitting is a grace. Even the knowledge that it is sin, that it is wrong-action before God, is grace. Grace always runs before my conversions. There is a lot more to say about all this grace and redemption stuff. A lot more about heaven and hell and getting to one and avoiding the other. Country music doesn’t resolve it though, the resolution is in God’s hands. And so Johnny Cash sings “why me Lord… what did I ever do that was worth love from you or the kindness you’ve shown?” The song doesn’t answer the questions, doesn’t resolve the tension. Instead, Cash prays “help me Jesus, my soul’s in your hand.” The best we can do is pray and share the story of “what I have been though myself on the way back to You.” Country is about sharing stories, stories that tell about nights of whiskey and heartbreak. Sure, I tend to delight in the telling as much as in the redeeming and I am too comfortable with all that sinning. Augustine would probably not endorse this essay. All the same, Augustine and Hank Sr. were both gifted with the knowledge that what we need above all is grace.
I would like to close with some holy writ from Kris Kristofferson. In his song “Sunday morning coming down,” the singer tells us about waking up Sunday morning depressed and hungover. He groans, “the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad, so I had one more for dessert.” In short, he ain’t doing well. But he is not just hungover. He suffers from the sense that “there ain’t nothing short of dying half as lonesome as the sound… of Sunday morning comin’ down.” Kierkegaard would say that the singer knows he is in despair, which puts him in a better position than those of us (including some in church pews) who don’t know how far we are from God. The singer describes seeing a boy playing in the street and a father with his child; he smells frying chicken. All of this “took me back to something that I lost somehow along the way.” What has he lost? What anyone in despair has lost. He has lost Sunday. He has lost being in relation to God and to others. Even if he looks for ways to get high, he does so in a prayer: “I’m wishin’ Lord that I was stoned.”
In college on Sundays, when I walked the streets around Providence College between St. Dominic Chapel and St. Pius church, I felt “there is something in a Sunday that makes a body feel alone.” Sometimes I still feel that way. But I too hear the music of a Sunday choir, and hear “somewhere far away, a lonesome bell ringing.” When you are far from God, the sound is as likely to “echo… like the disappearing dreams of yesterday” as it is to make you feel good. But either way, it reminds you of Jesus. The point of the song is not that getting back with Jesus is easy. It ain’t. The point is that we must not forget that Sunday is worth more than Tom T. Hall’s litany of “faster horses, younger women, older whiskey, and more money.” We need each other, we need God, and we need the grace to receive both. We need Sunday.
So sure, country music isn’t exactly pious or moral and I ain’t exactly driving a pick-up truck (yet) or drinking white lightening. But country music’s my music, and when I need to learn about grace, I don’t just pick up Paul’s epistles or Augustine’s The Spirit and the Letter, I turn on the record player. John Prine wrote about meeting a stripper and knowing that “that topless lady had something up her sleeve.” Country music is full of sin, but it has something up its sleeve too. What is that? The lesson that we “should blow-up our TVs… and try to find Jesus.” For me, I found Jesus mixed in with songs about guitars, Cadillacs, and hillbilly music. Maybe that isn’t the best path, but it is the one that I know—even if my neck isn’t red.