Each week in God and Country Music, Nick Rynerson gives country music a chance and examines the world of Americana, folk, alt-country, and popular country music.
I ain’t no angel/I still got a still few more dances with the devil/I’m cleanin up my act, little by little/I’m getting there/I can finally stand the man in the mirror/ I see I ain’t as good as I’m gonna get/But I’m better than I used to be
That is how Tim McGraw’s new hit FM Country song “Better Than I Used To Be” starts out. And it is this attitude that makes radio-friendly country music what it is today, songs about the good ‘ol days, faithful lovin’ and cleaning up your act. Many of today’s top hits focus on these virtuous themes, like The Band Perry’s (surprisingly good) song “Love All Your Life” and George Strait’s “Love’s Gonna Make it Alright”, both singing of the noble goodness of faithfulness and settling down. Additionally, Toby Keith is out there singing about his model nationalism and the virtues of being a red-blodded American. There seems to be an appeal in this content for folks that are tired of Lady Gaga telling us that we are ‘Born This Way’ and Rihanna talking about S&M, folks who just want to live good lives and be good people. This strikes a chord within most of us. We all want to be good, model citizens. This overt moral conservatism has basically been trademarked by FM country music.
Yet, that isn’t all Nashville is talking about these days. Country music loves to party, and it always has! Ever since Hank Williams’ country music has had it’s own style of wild where drinking, doping and raising ruckus have been a part of the Country Music landscape. Most of it, in a sense, is innocent license, more concerned with having a good time than anything else. Take the iconic songs “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere” (Alan Jackson) and Hank Jr.’s “All My Rowdy Friends” that just want to help us get our drink on with our buddies. And with the advent of artists like Gretchen Wilson and Big & Rich in recent years, the rowdy has been turning raunchy. It should be noted that much like the more “upright” tunes, these party anthems meet the listener right where they are, unlike mainstream pop, which tends to glorify opulence over simplicity. Guys like Alan Jackson don’t want you to go to the club to party hard, just your local honky-tonk or backyard bar-b-que.
Thus both moralism and lawlessness occupy the same airwaves, reaching the same people. Not to say that there are not Christians out there in pop country, but the culture has strangely allowed it’s natural sinful tendencies (all people and cultures, including ‘Christian culture’ has them) to embrace both law and license!
Despite being somewhat comical when you think about it, this is actually a biblical picture of sin! Sin is illogical by nature, defying the Creator and Sustainer of logic will, by definition, look comically illogical. And today, the most acceptable American sin is worship of self. That allows the individual to take what they like about legalism and what they like about outright wickedness and paste them together into a bewilderingly nonsensical Mien Kampf of personal philosophy. When Paul tells the Galatians of his former life in Galatians 1, he also has a polarized sin pattern of both lawlessness and zealous moralism,
For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers (Gal. 1:13-14).
Paul was not only disobeying the law outright by persecution, but also by winning all the bible quizzes and ‘cleaning up his act’ real good! Now, don’t get me wrong here, I love country music (even FM pop-country blows any other pop-radio format out of the water artistically) and I think that aside from just preaching law and lawlessness, there is intense beauty and a window into the American spirit at work within the lines of most of these songs. But it is a great reminder for Christians that ‘cleaning up our act little by little’ is just as futile and hopeless as gettin’ drunk at the honky-tonk. As informed Christians, it is our duty to see the image of God in the aesthetic beauty of culture, while remembering that only Jesus can save us from culture’s sinful extremes.