It's no secret that religion and the Gospels have been part of the fabric of country music since its beginnings; a connection that has continued through the veins of today's country music industry. Whether it was the straightforward pulpiteering of acts like the Appalachian preacher Ernest Phipps to gospel music showcases on popular country-themed primetime shows like Hee-Haw, to today's pop country hits like Carrie Underwood's "Jesus, Take the Wheel," country music has always had an association with the values and music of the church.
However, country music is famous for its songs about murder and drinking, death and cheating. And while plenty of country's superstars sing about Saturday night's sins, others sing Sunday morning hymns. A rare few, though, have made a point to sing about both.
So let's have a look at a few popular country artists comfortable to sing about sin and salvation:
The Louvin Brothers
Raised in the fire-and-brimstone Baptist churches of Alabama, the Louvin Brothers – Ira and Charlie Loudermilk – developed their mandolin twang and sweet vocal harmonies in the 1940s, recording and hard-touring their brand of country gospel. After gaining success in the country music industry, the duo mixed in secular music releases and gained equal acclaim for both.
However, the successes and familial bonds could not keep the brothers together. In 1963, Charlie had enough of working with his older brother, a legendary drinker, and set off to pursue his own solo career. Later that year, Ira was shot six times – four times in the chest – by his third wife. And while Ira would live through the attack, two years later he was killed by a drunk driver in the wake of a warrant being issued for his own DUI charge. The duo became members of the Grand Ole Opry in 1958, and was enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.
Gospel pick: Satan is Real (1959)
Country pick: Tragic Songs of Life (1956)
Cash's life is the greatest country music story ever told, and his fall and return to grace is well documented. The Man in Black's most recent posthumous release unearthed several of his gospel jams, and the package documents the importance of gospel music throughout his work. While many of Cash's songs were filled with murder, sex and drugs, many others put Cash's faith at the forefront.
Gospel pick: The Gospel Road (1973)
Country pick: The Legendary Sun Recordings (2005)
Examine the early '70s releases by Kristofferson, and the heralded songwriter displays two sides of the country singer. Here, you have songs like "Sunday Morning Coming Down," one of his biggest hits, which features the narrator lamenting his self-inflicted fate: "Well I woke up Sunday morning/ With no way to hold my head that didn't hurt./ And the beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad/ So I had one more for dessert." Juxtapose that with another of his chart-topping hits, "Why Me," and a decidedly more repentant tone: "Lord help me Jesus, I've wasted it so/ Help me Jesus I know what I am/ Now that I know that I've needed You so/ Help me Jesus, my soul's in your hand."
Gospel pick: Jesus Was a Capricorn (1973)
Country pick: Kristofferson (1970)
One of the biggest country music stars of all time, the late Conway Twitty released over 100 albums during his career, and watched 55 of them top the country charts and broke the record for number one singles with 40. As Twitty's official bio reads, here was a man "who never drank, never used drugs, but simply worked hard at what he loved, a family he loved deeply and the fans that cared for him." Despite his sparkling image, Twitty found one of his songs too risqué for radio when some stations refused to play his song "You've Never Been This Far Before" because of its sexually charged lyrical content. Still, the song was another success for Twitty, topping the country charts in 1973.
Moving between genres – from pop to country to rock – Twitty also delved into gospel music, recording several faith-filled songs in the early 1970s with country star Loretta Lynn, as well as on his own.
Gospel pick: Gospel Spirit (2005)
Country pick: Lead Me On (1972)
The Oak Ridge Boys
One of the only acts to win a Grammy, plus top gospel and country awards, the Oak Ridge Boys have been performing southern gospel and country in various incarnations and lineups since the 1940s. The current lineup, more or less, started in the 1970s, releasing gospel albums before crossing over to straight-up country in 1977. The Boys returned to their gospel roots with 2004's The Journey. They became members of the Grand Ole Opry in 2011.
Gospel pick: Light (1972)
Country pick: Fancy Free (1981)
There was a time when Randy Travis couldn't get a record company to give him a second look because his sound was considered too traditional. The North Carolina native persevered, however, and became one of the biggest Nashville artists of the '80s and '90s. With the dawn of the 2000s, though, Travis made the unusual crossover from country to gospel, releasing several bestselling gospel recordings.
Gospel pick: Rise and Shine (2002)
Country pick: Storms of Life (1986)
With over 100 million albums sold, there's no denying Dolly Parton's place in music history. The Tennessee native describes her upbringing as "dirt poor.... But we were also very close as a family, always had a great faith in God." Parton's faith has been on display in various recordings and projects over the years, including the recent film Joyful Noise. While Parton is often associated with her pop country hits such as "9 to 5" and "I Will Always Love You," her gospel recordings are an often overlooked, and underappreciated, part of her discography.
Gospel pick: Golden Streets of Glory (1971)
Country pick: Jolene (1974)
Johnny Cash's spiritual side shines on Bootleg Volume IV
Dolly Parton’s paradox: feminist, Christian, Barbie doll
Johnny Cash's life in four frames [COMIC]
Kris Kristofferson and the helicopter that changed everything
We haven't touched on all the country artists who sing gospel, so let us know if we missed your favourite, as we'll be rounding up a few more for a future post. Post them to the comments below, or email us at email@example.com.
on Jun 08, 2012