WINDSOR TERRACE — Country music has a rich history of adding inspirational standards to the catalog of American popular music. As far back as the 1930s, the Carter Family’s classic “Gospel Ship” informed us that, “I’m going to take a trip in that old gospel ship / I’m a-going far beyond the sky.” Around the same time, country founding father Jimmie Rodgers teamed with Sara Carter for “That Wonderful City” where the streets are lined with gold.
From the 1940s through the ‘80s, country music gave us songs like Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light,” Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors,” Willie Nelson’s “Family Bible,” Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me, Lord,” and Johnny Cash’s haunting rendition of the American spiritual “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord).”
The ‘90s introduced more recent inspirational standards such as the devotional “Mary, Did You Know” by Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd, the poignant “Holes in the Floor of Heaven” by Steve Wariner, and Vince Gill’s heartbreaking “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” that he wrote upon the passing of his brother.
Country artists have continued to chart inspirational ballads during the new millennium that will no doubt become gospel standards in the years to come. John Michael Montgomery, who charted six number one hits during the 90s, ushered in the new century with “The Little Girl,” the spiritual story of a young girl who had never been to church and witnesses her drunken father coming home one night and shooting her mother before taking his own life while she hid behind a couch.
On her first day attending Sunday school, the little girl sees a picture of Jesus and recognizes him as the man who was in her house that tragic day, and who held her close while she was hiding. Written by Harley Allen, the song was a number one country hit and made the top-40 on the pop chart.
Award-winning country duo Brooks & Dunn scored a career record in 2005 with Ronnie Dunn and Craig Weisman’s “Believe,” a coming of age saga about a young boy who remembers the friendship he forged with “Old Man Wrigley.” The boy’s mother would send him over with things for the old veteran who had lost his wife and baby, but clings to the notion that he will see them again in “just a little while.”
When the boy questions him about what he means, he replies, “I raise my hands, bow my head; I’m finding more and more truth in the words written in red; They tell me that there’s more to life than just what I can see, I believe.” So, the old man taught the young boy the value of reading the Bible and having the faith to believe, as the boy ultimately applies those lessons to his own life.
After winning American Idol, now country superstar Carrie Underwood made her chart debut in 2005 with “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” a touching reminiscence about a particularly difficult drive that finds the singer in a car that’s spinning out of control, as she pleads, “Jesus, take the wheel, take it from my hands; ‘Cause I can’t do this on my own; I’m letting go, so give me one more chance and save me from the road I’m on.” By giving her life over to Christ, she is saved and the song becomes more about one’s faith and acceptance of God and how the Lord makes all things possible if you just believe in Him.
Underwood didn’t stop there, she has since recorded noteworthy covers of “Mary, Did You Know,” and “Amazing Grace.” She also scored another number one hit in 2015 with “Something in the Water,” a gospel-infused song of baptismal faith and jubilation as she follows the preacher’s guidance and pleads, “God, if you’re there come and rescue me.” After she’s baptized, she joyfully proclaims, “Got joy in my heart, angels on my side; Thank God almighty, I saw the light.” The song topped both the country and Christian record charts and won Underwood a Grammy Award for Best Country Solo Performance.
Modern country artist George Strait topped the country chart in 2008 with the ballad “I Saw God Today.” The touching testimonial was named the Country Music Association’s Single of the Year and resonated because of its message of undivided faith as the narrator acknowledges, “I’ve been to church, I’ve read the Book; I know He’s here but I don’t look.”
It culminates with the narrator’s face pressed up against the hospital nursery glass exclaiming, “She’s got my nose, she’s got her mama’s eyes; My brand-new baby girl, she’s a miracle; I saw God today.”
Rooted in Christian Faith
Two of country singer Josh Turner’s biggest hits were rooted in Christian faith. “Long Black Train” in 2003 is certainly one of the most overtly religious songs in the genre that talks about the need to resist the metaphorical “long black train” that’s coming down the line carrying temptation and evil. Instead, we are encouraged to look to the heavens for redemption, “Cause there’s victory in the Lord…Cling to the Father and His holy name, and don’t go riding on that long black train.”
Three years later Turner released the top-20 “Me and God,” that took his devotion to Christ one step further proclaiming, “There ain’t nothing that can’t be done by me and God; Ain’t nobody come in between me and God.” Both songs were written by Turner and frankly express his deep-rooted faith in the Lord.
In 2005, Brad Paisley teamed up with Dolly Parton for the number one country hit, “When I Get Where I’m Going,” that anticipates what the narrator hopes to find when he arrives in heaven. Paisley describes a place where there will no longer be sins and struggles and where joy will leave his heart wide open. He also looks forward to shedding “happy tears” upon seeing his grandfather again, hugging his neck and telling him how much he’s missed him.
Catholic country star Keith Urban recently enjoyed a number one hit with the tender “God Whispered Your Name,” a realization of the moment he found his true love through the divine grace of God. For Urban, that was the moment when everything changed and he is saved both romantically and spiritually. He admits, “Girl, it’s like I’ve been baptized by the warmth of your smile; Well, call it fate or faith or call it crazy either way, it’s amazin’, amazin’ grace.”
Blake Shelton scored one of the biggest hits of his career last year with “God’s Country,” a profound declaration of finding God’s presence everywhere within his rural “one church town,” which the narrator describes as “God’s Country.” He vividly explains that “I saw the light in the sunrise, sittin’ back in a 40 on the muddy riverside; Getting’ baptized in holy water and shine…” Shelton hit a nerve with audiences by recording a song that basically let it be known that God can be found anywhere, and small rural towns are certainly no exception.
And in its own way, a song like “God’s Country” best defines the notion that today’s country music still resonates with listeners in its directness, honesty, and ability to express universal truths. The same way the Carter Family did nearly ninety years ago when they sang “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” about a better home awaiting us “in the sky, the sky, Lord, in the sky,” as a testament to the everlasting benefits of faith, especially during the most tumultuous and trying of times.