As the old saying goes, the secret to country music's appeal is that it can deal with what happens on Sunday morning as well as Saturday night. Or, as Naomi Judd once told me, if you're going to write songs about sinning, it helps to have some listeners to still think that sin exists. You don't hear many cheating songs on MTV because cheating songs imply that there is something holy called marriage to cheat against.
The religious side of country music -- this is not a "ghost," because it's right out there in the open -- is one of the subplots in my friend Chris Willman's new book entitled "Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music." He is one of the senior music writers at Entertainment Weekly and when it comes to the smart side of popular music, he has been there and done that for, well, ages and ages.
By all means, rush out and buy the book. But if you want to sample it for free, the Dallas Morning News recently featured a chunk of it in its Sunday Points magazine. Here is one section that I found especially interesting, in a GetReligion-ish sort of way. Why is country music the true "folk music" of the modern American mainstream?
... (Consider) the varying musical responses to 9-11. In the world of rock, Paul McCartney, one of the great songwriters of the 20th century, delivered a spirited new anthem called "Freedom." It really did unite a wounded nation, if only in unanimous declaration that this was the suckiest composition of his storied career.
Neil Young might have seemed better equipped for such a topical task. Three decades earlier, the mercurial rocker had written a song about "four dead in Ohio" and released it within two weeks of the actual event. But 45 dead in Pennsylvania seemed to vex him. "Let's Roll," a tribute to the heroic passengers who fought with terrorists on doomed Flight 93, was well-intentioned, yet curiously unmoving.
So who did step up to the contemplative plate and become America's poet laureate at the end of 2001? A guy whose last single was "It's Alright to Be a Redneck": hat act Alan Jackson, whose reflective "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" caught the attention of even a lot of non-country fans, who whispered to themselves: Out of the mouths of rubes ...
You remember that song, don't you? That's the one that had a chorus that would have turned an MTV programmer into a pillar of salt. Let's see, it went something like this:
"I'm just a singer of simple songs. I'm not a real political man. I watch CNN, but I'm not really sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran. But I know Jesus and I talk to God and I remember this from when I was young. Faith, hope and love are some good things he gave us, and the greatest of these is love."
And all the people said: Amen.
You know, I think that Johnny Cash guy understood this stuff, too. Somebody ought to make a movie about that.