Jon Pardi - California Sunrise

This has been a good year so far.

There is a lot of junk on country radio, but there are significant bright spots as well. Chris Stapleton continues his unprecedented dominance — routinely topping the country album charts and receiving almost every award in which he is qualified to receive, whether from the Country Music Association (CMA) or the Academy of Country Music (ACM). He is sweeping them all! Thank you, Jesus!

In the list below, you will hear some of my favorite songs right now. We have two representatives of the great state of California: Jon Pardi and Sam Outlaw. I love both, but I am especially fond of Sam Outlaw. Texas native, Maren Morris, is a strong female vocalist with a fine sense of what’s good and how to make it even more good. Tim McGraw reminds us how to mature as an artist, with incredible dignity and grace. I love the guy. Chris Stapleton releases his first music video, “Fire Away,” about bipolar disorder and suicide. Craig Campbell has released his new single, “Outskirts of Heaven,” which is remarkably similar to Kip Moore’s “Dirt Road.” Both songs are about how heaven is not clouds and white walls. Instead, heaven is a lot like Dixie (with an implicit shout-out to Hank Jr.).

Granger Smith has released his first #1 single, “Backroad Song,” which somehow manages to elevate itself above the bro-country landscape. On a more serious side, Dan + Shay’s “From the Ground Up” is a heartwarming look at life-long fidelity between a husband and wife. This is a surprisingly mature theme from the young duo, even if the song is perhaps overly sentimental. Finally, Frankie Ballard has released his best single to country radio: “It All Started with a Beer.”

I hope you enjoy. With each video, I have provided some of the lyrics.

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“Head Over Boots,” Jon Pardi

The way you sparkle like a diamond ring

Maybe one day we can make it a thing

Test time and grow old together

Rock in our chairs and talk about the weather, yeah

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“My Church,” Maren Morris

When Hank brings the sermon / And Cash leads the choir

It gets my cold, cold heart burnin’ / Hotter than a ring of fire

When this wonderful world gets heavy / And I need to find my escape

I just keep the wheels rollin’, radio scrollin’ / ‘Til my sins wash away

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“Angeleno,” Sam Outlaw

She didn’t marry for money / A cowboy’s always broke

She didn’t marry for comfort / A cowboy’s never home

But when she looked in his eyes / She saw his soul

Stretchin’ out like a desert / Angeleno

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“Humble and Kind,” Tim McGraw

Let yourself feel the pride but / Always stay humble and kind

Don’t expect a free ride from no one

Don’t hold a grudge or a chip and here’s why

Bitterness keeps you from flyin’ / Always stay humble and kind

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“Fire Away,” Chris Stapleton

Honey, load up your questions

And pick up your sticks and your stones

And pretend I’m a shelter for heartaches that don’t have a home

Choose the words that cut like a razor

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“Outskirts of Heaven,” Craig Campbell

Lord when I die / I wanna live on the outskirts of Heaven

Where there’s dirt roads for miles / Hay in the fields and fish in the river

Where there’s dogwood trees and honey bees / And blue skies and green grass forever

Lord when I die / I wanna live on the outskirts of Heaven

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“Backroad Song,” Granger Smith

Barbed wire fence carving out a hillside

Cutting holes in the midday sun

Like a postcard framed in a windshield

Covered in dust

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“From the Ground Up,” Dan + Shay

Grandma and grandpa painted a picture

Of 65 years and one little house

More than a memory, more than saying I do

Kiss you goodnight’s and I love you’s

Me and you baby, walk in the footsteps

Build our own family, one day at a time

Ten little toes, a painted pink room

Our beautiful baby looks just like you

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“It All Started with a Beer,” Frankie Ballard

Cursed the devil and prayed to heaven

Lost it all and we rolled some sevens

Been more smiles than there’s been tears

Been more good than bad years

Ain’t it crazy baby how we got here

Oh, it all started with a beer

Evan Webb

“God is great, and God is good

But he’s never gonna save this town

The way I see it, there’s two ways out

We can dry up or drown

We’re gonna dry up or drown”

— Evan Webb

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McClure, Illinois is just another small town USA. Like most small towns, the well-being of the community is heavily contingent upon outside forces, whether government or corporate. In the case of McClure, this includes the closure of a state prison, a source of employment in a fragile economy. But then there’s nature. Nature often likes to beat a man when he is already down. In this case, McClure was hit by the flooding of the Mississippi River this winter, thanks to unusually warm temperatures.

So Evan Webb and his bandmates wrote a song:

The images in the video are from their community. Evan himself was displaced by the flooding.

It is rare to find an artist who can communicate this devastation, honestly and without an exaggerated sentimentality. It requires, first of all, a songwriter who is embedded within the community. Secondly, it requires a songwriter who is willing to write from this perspective, instead of writing from some generic, universal platform.

This was, in fact, how country music was born. As Southern men moved from the farms to the mill towns in the 1910’s and 20’s — as in Gastonia, North Carolina — they longed for the sounds of home with all of its peculiarity. Some entrepreneurial businessmen decided to fill this need, as businessmen do, and enlisted the first recording artists in this new and as-yet-undefined genre, like Jimmie Rodgers. This is a genre that has given us Merle Haggard’s “Pride in What I Am,” “If We Make It Through December,” and “Mama’s Hungry Eyes.” I only mention Haggard because he is my favorite songwriter. Others could be enlisted.

As for McClure, Illinois, we have Evan Webb and the Rural Route Ramblers. Evan is no Merle, as I am sure that he would readily agree. Most people have never heard of him or his band. Yet, he has given us something special — a reminder of what country music is supposed to be about. His hometown, with a tiny population, was devastated, and he put it into song.

God is great?

The standout lyrics, in the sense of grabbing one’s attention, are the “God is great” lines that I quote at the beginning of this post. These lines could upset some people. If God is great and good, then of course he will “save this town”? Right? That is the false piety that Evan is criticizing. It is a piety that excuses ourselves and indeed privileges ourselves.

Evan is not denying that God is great or that God is good. He is not posing a contradiction for our dialectical amusement. He is saying that God is not the simplistic and self-serving God of our common piety. Evan is calling for action. It is a call for responsibility. This has nothing to do with any Pelagian scheme. It is the opposite. It is a call to service, just as Evan and his friends worked hard to contain the flooding with sandbags.

It is an understanding of a God who is not in our back pocket, so to speak — a cheap comfort and readily at our disposal. That is refreshing.

So, may God bless Evan and his band and his town. Amen.

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Image: Evan Webb (source)

The-Blue-Album

A little levity is needed for this blog.

I could pick any time-frame from past decades, but I am especially fond of the mid-90’s when it comes to the rock radio format. This has much to do with how “alt-rock” became mainstream in the early 90’s.

Sure, the “grunge” sound was quickly made accessible through a pop-sensible retooling, but that was a good thing on the whole. It challenged and changed the radio for a generation (albeit short-lived) with a surge of creativity. It was fun and exciting.

I will limit the time-frame from 1994 to 1996. Three years — three awesome years. There are ten music videos below, in no particular order.

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Weezer, “Undone (The Sweater Song)”

Weezer’s self-titled debut album, dubbed “the blue album,” was perfect for its time in every way. In contrast to the the seriousness of the early 90’s (e.g., Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage,” Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” Alice in Chain’s “Man in the Box,” et al.), Weezer was fun and whimsical and witty, while retaining the distortion-driven dynamics of their grunge predecessors. The “true” fan of Weezer is invariably going to say that their follow-up release, Pinkerton, is their greatest album, but that is nonsense — as much as I love Pinkerton. The blue album was and remains their best work.

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The Smashing Pumpkins, “Tonight, Tonight”

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is the epitome of mid-90’s creativity and ambitiousness. “Tonight, Tonight” won wide acclaim as both a radio single and a music video. The album also yielded the now-classic songs, “1979” and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” The lead singer, Billy Corgan, is a rather intelligent guy, and he enjoys bemoaning (rightly so) the current state of the music industry. Luckily for him, Billy and his band debuted at the perfect time, with a welcoming radio market and wide audience.

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Live, “Lightning Crashes”

Throwing Copper is one of the gems of the whole decade, and “Lightning Crashes” is the most treasured and recognizable song on the album. Everybody loves a slowly building tempo, especially when the payoff is as glorious as this. There is a reverence to the song, and the vocals are captivating from beginning to end. This was a song that would bind you to the seat of your car in the school parking lot, until the song was finished.

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Goo Goo Dolls, “Name”

Goo Goo Dolls began as a punk band from Buffalo. They had already been together for almost a decade by the time of their phenomenal breakout hit, “Name,” in 1995, from A Boy Named Goo. Obviously, their sound had changed, and it is why we all know them. They released several more hits and remain a popular band, even as their heyday has long passed. Goo Goo Dolls defined the crossover brand of “alt-rock-pop” in the mid to late 90’s.

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Tom Petty, “You Don’t Know How It Feels”

Tom Petty was already a well-established figure in mainstream music, having had multiple hit songs since the late 70’s. He continued to surprise the industry with his wide appeal, releasing massive hit singles like “Free Fallin'” in 1989. In 1994, he released Wildflowers and once again released a radio single that would become one of his most iconic songs: “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” This is classic Petty. According to Tom Petty himself, they record all of their albums “live” in the studio, without any layering or subsequent polishing. I saw them in concert several years ago, and I believe it. They are incredible.

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Collective Soul, “The World I Know”

It is a little-known fact that Collective Soul had the most #1 rock singles in the 90’s. The band is anchored by two brothers who are sons of a pastor in Georgia. While they are a “secular” band, they are noted for frequently introducing spiritual themes and expressions in their songs. I saw Collective Soul in concert in 2000, and they remain one of the most tightly-structured and impressive bands that I have ever seen.

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K’s Choice, “Not an Addict”

The deeper you stake it in your vein / The deeper the thoughts / There’s no more pain / I’m in heaven / I’m a god

Needless to say, this song connected with a lot of people. It is one of the most haunting and beautiful songs of the decade. K’s Choice is a Belgian band, and this is the lead track from their second album, released in 1996.

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Alanis Morissette, “Head Over Feet”

Now available in a four-disc “collector’s edition,” Jagged Little Pill is among the most recognizable 90’s albums, thanks to its multiple hit singles and crossover appeal. Alanis Morissette was one of the few women to appeal to both the modern rock and pop audience, and I cannot think of any woman today who is doing the same. Of course, rock ‘n’ roll as a mainstream format is now in a state of turmoil, if not complete collapse.

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Hootie and The Blowfish, “Let Her Cry”

Cracked Rear View gave us one huge hit after another. In fact, most people experienced “Hootie fatigue” at some point. As a result, we have forgotten how great they were, especially this album. It doesn’t matter what genre of music you like, if you don’t like “Let Her Cry,” then you are a soulless bastard! The lead singer, Darius Rucker, is now a successful country artist. They proudly hail from South Carolina.

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Hum, “Stars”

Hum’s “Stars” was a one-hit wonder on rock radio in the mid-90’s, though enjoying spins well into the late 90’s. Their album, You’d Prefer an Astronaut, is very much representative of what college guys (and gals) were into at the time. The distortion is extra thick throughout the album, and “Stars” stood-out with its melody and infectious riffs. To quote one of the YouTube comments (forgive the language), “Best fucking riff of the 90s.” Yep! Also, check-out Downward is Heavenward.

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If we continued into the late 90’s, I would include Foo Fighters, Everclear, Our Lady Peace, Matchbox 20, and Third Eye Blind, to name a few.

Among other songs that I could have listed for the mid-90’s: Oasis’ “Wonderwall” and “Champagne Supernova.” No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak.” R.E.M.’s “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” The Cranberries’ “Zombie.” Spacehog’s “In the Meantime.” 311’s “Down.” Sublime’s “What I Got.”  And, of course, plenty of Dave Matthews Band.

The Best Music Videos of 2015

December 23, 2015

Sam Outlaw

Sam Outlaw

I did this last year, for the first time.

I enjoy it, so that is good enough reason to do it again. Here are my favorite music videos of the year. There is a mix of mainstream artists (Eric Church, Carrie Underwood, Tim McGraw) and alternative artists (Turnpike Troubadours, Lindi Ortega, Whitey Morgan, Sam Outlaw).

There are ten videos below. I did not include Chris Stapleton’s CMA performance because I already blogged about it and provided the videos there. This was the year of Chris Stapleton and nobody saw it coming. For that matter, nobody would have predicted that a traditional country album would be the #1 album in the land — with zero radio support.

Enjoy the goodness that awaits…

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“Ghost Town,” Sam Outlaw

With his debut album, Angeleno, Sam Outlaw has single-handedly marked the revival of the Southern California country scene, where Merle Haggard and Buck Owens originate and the Academy of Country Music was born. At least, we can only hope that this is something of a revival. Sam Outlaw (“Outlaw” is his mother’s maiden name) has a deep intuition about what makes country music special. I highly encourage you to watch the CBS This Morning feature on Sam Outlaw: Saturday Sessions.

Sam Outlaw

Sam Outlaw

Also, be sure to read the brilliant review of the album at Saving Country Music — “It’s the haze that creates a sepia hue over everything in the city; it’s the way the streets are so full of electricity and desperation all at the same time.”

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“Down Here,” Turnpike Troubadours

“A gritty, country-leaning roots rock band out of Oklahoma, the Turnpike Troubadours at their best synthesize the populist, political folk of Woody Guthrie and the outlaw-styled honky tonk of Waylon Jennings with doses of bluegrass, Cajun, and straight-out rock dynamics…the group celebrates and explores modern rural life with a full awareness of history, delicately avoiding being ornate revivalists,” Steve Leggett writes. That’s well said. Their fourth studio album debuted at #3 on the US Country Albums chart. Also, if you haven’t seen “Gin, Smoke, Lies,” do yourself a favor and click on the link.

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“Talladega,” Eric Church

Eric Church is a native of Granite Falls, North Carolina, in the heart of NASCAR country, so it is only inevitable that he would release a song like this. “Talladega” reached #1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay this year, and it is well-deserved. It was also nominated for CMA Single of the Year, though losing to Little Big Town.

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“Ashes,” Lindi Ortega

This Canadian native — and now Nashville resident — has some of the most captivating vocals in country music. Faded Gloryville is her fourth album with Last Gang Records, and I recommend all four albums. Once again, her voice is her calling card. Sultry. Yearning. The video was filmed in Savannah, Georgia, a perfect setting.

Lindi Ortega

Lindi Ortega

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“Waitin’ Round to Die,” Whitey Morgan

This is what happens when a Townes Van Zandt song is covered by one of the great honky tonk heroes of our generation: Whitey Morgan. I was privileged to see Whitey Morgan in concert this year, and I was stunned. His talent and the talent of his band (“the 78’s”) is not worthy of my words. Trust me. This is as good as it gets.

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“Smooth Sailin’,” Leon Bridges

This has been Leon Bridges’ breakout year, beginning with his first single, “Coming Home.” There are obvious comparisons to Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, which is like comparing a breakout country artist to George Jones and Waylon Jennings. As such, the shoes he hopes to fill are intimidating to say the least. In my opinion, there is still a lot of room for growth. He needs to make his own distinct stamp upon the noble r&b tradition. But, he has all of the fundamentals right, and he’s only 26 years old! We will hear much more of Leon Bridges for a long time to come.

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“Smoke Break,” Carrie Underwood

Carrie Underwood is the reigning vocal virtuoso of country music. She obviously tends toward the pop side of country, but she has consistently (as of late) released singles with substance. “Smoke Break” is her latest offering, and it is a welcome relief on the radio. The song recalls the long-standing tradition of working class songs in country music.

Carrie Underwood

Carrie Underwood

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“Diamond Rings and Old Barstools,” Tim McGraw

Tim McGraw is already classified as a “legend.” With two decades under his belt, he is still releasing chart-topping singles. “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools” did not quite reach the top of the charts (at #3 on Country Airplay), but I consider it as one of his best singles in the entirety of his career. This is everything a straightforward country song should be, and Tim’s delivery is pitch perfect. This is a live performance, and it sounds almost identical to the studio version.

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“Overdue,” Jillian Jacqueline

Jillian Jacqueline is a fairly new songwriter in Nashville, and “Overdue” is her first single. Her debut album, an EP, is “coming soon” according to her website. This is a lovely, simple song — beautifully sung. I hope to hear and see more of Jillian in the future. Since she did not make an official video for “Overdue,” somebody else made this unofficial video with clips of her recording. It’s so well done that it might as well be designated as the official video.

Jillian Jacqueline

Jillian Jacqueline

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“Send It On Down,” Lee Ann Womack

Few things are more embarrassing than when an established artist chases the trends in order to reclaim past radio glory. Lee Ann Womack is not one of those artists. Instead, her music is a reflection of her age and maturity, as it should be. And as a result, I am confident that her place is secure in the history of country music, alongside Kitty Wells and Tammy Wynette.

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Honorable Mentions (the ladies):

Whitney Rose, “The Devil Borrowed My Boots”

Miranda Lambert, “Storms Never Last” (Grand Ole Opry)

Ashley Monroe, “On To Something Good”

Kacey Musgraves, “Biscuits” and “Are You Sure” (ft. Willie Nelson)

Lucy Angel, “Crazy Too”

Madelyn Victoria, “He Only Loves Me on the Dance Floor”

Honorable Mentions (the gents):

Love and Theft, “Whiskey on My Breath”

Jon Wolfe, “Smile on Mine”

William Michael Morgan, “I Met a Girl”

The Cadillac Three, “White Lightning”

Tyler Farr, “A Guy Walks Into a Bar”

Kip Moore, “Lipstick”

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Whitey Morgan and the 78's

Whitey Morgan and Brett Robinson, Guitar World

 

Johnny Cash and the Gospel

November 29, 2015

Cash

Johnny Cash did gospel music right. If you observe the whole corpus of his contributions to the gospel side of country music, he manages to capture and hold together the sentimental and the prophetic. That is remarkably rare.

I have selected eight performances, not in any particular order. The first is from San Quentin State Prison and the last is a performance with his mom on The Johnny Cash Show. In between, there are a couple Kris Kristofferson songs. There is a harrowing song about drug addiction. There is a performance at a Billy Graham Crusade. There is so much good stuff here.

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“He Turned the Water Into Wine” (San Quentin State Prison, February 24, 1969)

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“The Junkie’s Prayer” (January 6, 1971)

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“Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” (Grand Ole Opry, August 20, 1962)

There is also another rendition (in color) that is well worth watching.

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“They Killed Him” (December 1984)

This was written by Kris Kristofferson, who appears at the beginning of the video. The first verse is about Gandhi, the second is about Martin Luther King Jr’s “dream of beauty that they’ll never burn away,” and the final verse is about Jesus Christ.

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“Why Me, Lord?”

This is another Kris Kristofferson song. You’ll also want to see both of them talking about another of Kris’ songs, “To Beat the Devil.”

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“It Was Jesus” (Town Hall Party 1958)

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“One of These Days I’m Gonna Sit Down And Talk To Paul” (Billy Graham Crusade, Tallahassee, FL, 1986)

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“The Unclouded Day” (The Johnny Cash Show, May 13, 1970)

Johnny Cash performs, with his mom on the piano, the first song that he ever sang in public. This is such a beautiful moment.

There is also a DVD of a 1973 documentary / personal journey of Johnny Cash in the Holy Land: The Gospel Road.

The Gospel Road

A wee bit to read

November 12, 2015

This is my current reading, by the end of the month…or year…more or less:

Exciting stuff.

I will also be listening to Chris Stapleton, of course:

I drink because I’m lonesome / And I’m lonesome because I drink

Come tomorrow, I can walk in any store / It ain’t a problem, they’ll always sell me more / But your forgiveness / Well, that’s something I can’t buy / There ain’t a thing that I can do / That’s the difference between whiskey and you

Music for the soul.

Chris Stapleton and wife, Morgane Stapleton, at CMA Awards 2015

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The most astute readers of this blog will remember that I recognized Chris Stapleton in a post back in June: “The Latest in Alt-Country.” Therein, I said that his debut album, Traveller, will be on the year-end best album lists, “I guarantee it.” To be honest, I couldn’t guarantee it; I was just being hopeful and buoyed by the critical acclaim. But, now, Traveller is the #1 album this week across all markets, and it is currently sold-out on Amazon if you want a physical copy. Forbes is reporting that the album jumped by 6,000%! What happened?

The CMA’s happened. But before I continue talking about the CMA’s, you need to watch this performance at the Grand Ole Opry from a couple years ago:

That is Stapleton singing the Waylon Jennings’ classic, “Amanda.”

Now that you have been properly introduced to Chris Stapleton, let’s continue…

The Country Music Association Awards is the longest-running and most prestigious awards show for country music. In the greatest of ironies, the current chairman of the CMA is Gary Overton, who was head of Sony Nashville at the time when he was widely quoted and scolded for saying, “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.” Tell that to Chris Stapleton. Or Aaron Watson. Or Jason Isbell. Or Blackberry Smoke. They all had #1 country albums this year without any radio support. The times they are a-changin.

I was pleasantly surprised when it was announced that Stapleton received three nominations: Best New Artist of the Year, Best Album of the Year, and Best Male Vocalist of the Year. I was pleased, but we have seen these gestures in the recent past. I am not aware of anyone seriously predicting that Stapleton would win any of his categories, with the slight possibility for album of the year. But it happened. First, best new artist. Second, best album. Third, best male vocalist.

When the hat trick was announced, I jumped off of my couch. I watched the whole thing live. I couldn’t believe it. Stapleton was clearly overwhelmed in the third acceptance speech. The widely-read SCM blog wrote:

What Chris Stapleton did was unprecedented, and historic. There have been plenty of 3-award sweeps in the history of the CMA’s, but never by such an underdog, and an unknown. …When Stapleton was accepting the Male Vocalist of the Year award, you could tell he was taking in what he knew might be the greatest moment of his life, and he promised he would take the honors very seriously.

The Chris Stapleton sweep was not the only thing that made the headlines. A few weeks ago, the CMA announced that Stapleton would be performing live at the awards show, alongside Justin Timberlake, for two full songs! The presence of Timberlake next to Stapleton is actually not surprising. They are friends, and the Memphis-born Timberlake gave his Kentucky friend a huge boost in December of last year by tweeting:

REAL music fans already know. So, mainstream:

@ChrisStapleton

Remember that name… –jt

When the CMA gave Stapleton a performance slot in the show, he called Timberlake and asked if he would join him. He agreed, and the result is already being described as one of the great moments in the entire 49-year history of the CMA’s. While there were a few other good performances on Wednesday night’s broadcast (and some truly awful performances), the duo of Stapleton and Timberlake stole the show. It made everyone else look like amateurs. They started with “Tennessee Whiskey,” the third track from Stapleton’s album:

Most of the material on Traveller is original, but “Tennessee Whiskey” was originally recorded by country legends, David Allan Coe and George Jones, in 1981 and 1983 respectively. After performing “Tennessee Whiskey,” they transitioned to Timberlake’s “Drink You Away”:

Like I said, there was nothing else that could compare to these two performances. However, I did enjoy Kacey Musgrave’s “Dime Store Cowgirl,” Eric Church’s “Mr. Misunderstood,” and Reba McEntire’s set with Brooks & Dunn. There were a couple other highlights as well. Dierks Bentley was joined by violinist Lindsey Stirling to perform “Riser,” which is a song that I blogged about in July. Maddie & Tae, considering their age, did a good job with “Girl in a Country Song.” Also, it was a big night for Little Big Town with three wins.

But it was Chris Stapleton’s night. He dominated, and the Luke Bryan win for Entertainer of the Year was merely an afterthought. You can see the commentary from The New YorkerThe Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Rolling Stone, and ABC News. Does this mean that country music has found its savior? Probably not. I do not expect a massive reversal on country radio any time soon. But these things can happen piecemeal. Stapleton is an interesting character. His own music follows the high standards of the 70’s outlaw era which he loves, but he has been writing hit songs for some of Nashville’s biggest names. He is not a “purist.” He is willing to write or co-write pop-country singles, and this is partly why he is so well-known to those in Nashville.

This was a good week for country music. It was a good week for music lovers everywhere. The cynic can find ample room to make criticisms, but this is a time to celebrate. Congratulations to Chris and Morgane Stapleton and to Dave Cobb, the legendary Nashville-based producer of Traveller. The Georgia native, Dave Cobb, is someone you should know. He has produced for Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Shooter Jennings (Waylon’s son), and Whiskey Myers, among many others. That’s impressive.

Chris Stapleton with wife and Dave Cobb

Morgane Stapleton, Chris Stapleton, and Dave Cobb at CMA Awards 2015

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Image: Chris Stapleton and wife, Morgane Stapleton, at CMA Awards 2015 – Taylor Hill, Getty Images (source)

Kip-Moore-Dirt-Road

“I don’t want to go, unless heaven’s got a dirt road.”

— Kip Moore

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For whatever reason, the topic of the afterlife has not been a common topic among students of Karl Barth.

After all, we have so many other matters which direct our attention, usually pertaining to trinitarian metaphysics, divine election, incarnation and atonement, incarnation and ecclesiology, and the perennial “knowledge of God” questions. And if you want to establish yourself in the Barthian guild, you better attend to these matters! But I am grateful that Wyatt Houtz has addressed the doctrine of the afterlife in Barth’s theology: “Karl Barth’s Argument Against Afterlife.”

I do not agree with Wyatt, and you can read my brief comments in the combox for further indications of why. I am not in the least convinced that Barth believes in such a depressing afterlife, where the temporal is absorbed and annihilated into the divine — where the individual consciousness is decisively negated. This is the very worst of Gnostic speculation, and it makes the eternal-finite dialectic the end-game of Barth’s dogmatics. If this is true, then Barth is a truly terrible theologian, scarcely worth our time and energy.

In contrast to one of Wyatt’s reflections, I am perfectly happy with a “pagan” image of heaven as a “Valhalla” where beer is on demand and abundant. At the very least, I hope that heaven is nothing less! By way of illustration, let me offer you the country-rock song, “Dirt Road,” by Kip Moore:

When a preacher talks of heaven, he paints it real nice / He says, you better get to livin’, better get to livin’ right / If you’re gonna get your mansion / he’s been saving for your soul / If you’re gonna do your dancing / on city streets of gold

But unless it’s got a dirt road / leading down to a fishing hole …

As is often the case, country music does theology better than students of theology. The existential heaven of a temporal “hope” is worthless [I sanitized my previous language!], and it is long overdue for us to call a spade a spade. Perhaps, dare I say, we should “absolutize” our temporal experience, as in the Rolling Stone interpretation of this song: “he didn’t want to enter the Pearly Gates if the afterlife wasn’t akin to his beloved South,” also in reference to Hank Williams Jr. Of course, we do not need to do this in an overly literal sense, though I am rather tempted to do so!

My point is simple, and it requires a “new creation” that is at least as good as the old creation. I am very doubtful that liberal Protestants are up to the challenge, as in Christopher Morse’s The Difference Heaven Makes, which does a fine enough job of making the Kingdom present and with moral imperatives. But it does little more.

The resurrection of the body — even a “spiritual body” — is surely good enough for a dirt road, fishing poles, and beers with a pretty girl.

Amarillo by Morning

October 10, 2015

George Strait

George Strait

“Amarillo by Morning” (1982) is probably my favorite 1980’s song. George Strait is best known for having the most #1 singles in country history, but in 1982 he was only beginning his stunning career.

George Strait inaugurated the “neo-traditional” movement. This movement decisively supplanted the pop-country of the “urban cowboy” phenomenon in the late 70’s and early 80’s. At the behest of God Almighty, I am sure, Dwight Yoakam, Keith Whitley, and Randy Travis would soon become his comrades in this traditional revolution in Nashville. At the end of the decade, we witnessed the now legendary “class of ’89” release their debut albums: Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, and Travis Tritt. This solidified the traditional orientation in mainstream country, even as it explored more “clean” and “modern” sounds. It has only been within the last five years that this stronghold has broken, sad to say.

You can find “Amarillo by Morning” on Strait’s sophomore album, Strait from the Heart. Or, you can purchase his “best of” two-disc collection, George Strait: Icon, which leads with “Amarillo by Morning.” Here is a performance of the song at the Houston Astrodome in 2002:

Amarillo by morning / up from San Antone / Everything that I’ve got / is just what I’ve got on  / I ain’t got a dime, but what I got is mine / I ain’t rich, but Lord I’m free.

It is hard to explain why I love this song so much. I am sure that the imagery and storytelling, simply as it may be, is foundational. It is part of the elusive formula that establishes songs like this in the canon of country music. In fact, it is the simplicity of the imagery and storytelling that makes it great. It connects and inspires.

It is escapism, of course, but it is divine escapism. Heaven is a honky tonk.

The Evangelical Aesthetic

September 30, 2015

Vince Gill and his father, Jay Stanley Gill, an administrative law judge and country music enthusiast who gave Vince his first guitar lessons.

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As is often said, the Catholic aesthetic is visual and material; the Protestant aesthetic is verbal and aural. Even Catholic novelists — in a verbal medium — are basically imaginative (image-making) in their orientation. Tolkien is an obvious example.

Protestants do preaching; Catholics do cathedrals. Both proclaim the gospel. It is only the small-minded Protestant who cannot admit the deficiency in the Protestant aesthetic; it is only the small-minded Catholic who cannot admit the deficiency in the Catholic aesthetic. But the purpose of this post is to highlight the Protestant — or evangelical Protestant — aesthetic in word and song. I only have one example. It is sufficient: “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”

Vince Gill wrote the now-classic gospel song, “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” which he recorded with Patty Loveless. It’s a stunning song, beautiful in a crippling sort of way. Most songwriters would die happy if they had only written, “Go Rest High on That Mountain.” Even for Vince, one of the all-time greats, this is special.

Vince Gill and Patty Loveless performed the song at George Jones’ memorial service at the Opry, a couple years ago. If this is not heaven on earth, I don’t want to go to heaven:

Let the tears flow. George Jones is crying tears of joy in heaven.

A Protestant could have never written The End of the Affair, but a Catholic could have never written “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”

This is why Catholics and Protestants need each other.

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Image: Vince Gill and his father, Jay Stanley Gill, an administrative law judge and country music enthusiast who gave Vince his first guitar lessons. (source)