I have a complicated relationship with country music. As a Texan, it feels like embracing some form of the genre is almost required. My early childhood was full of listening to my parents’ records (yup, real vinyl as well as eight-tracks) of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and others who could pluck a guitar and sing you a story or two. These individuals happened to be frontrunners of the subgenre known as outlaw country. They chose to break with the conventional wisdom of the “Nashville sound” which focused on string arrangements, smooth choruses, and polished harmonies, and replaced them with a new sound influenced by the blues, honky-tonk, rockabilly, and rock and roll. It wasn’t only the sound that changed. The content did as well. Saccharine and overly sentimental lyrics were jettisoned in favor of songwriting that was edgier, raw, and full of tension. That was the country music I grew up on.
I eschew much of what constitutes today’s country music (e.g., bro-country). Most of it feels like pop music with a twang that uses country tropes (e.g., tight-fitting jeans, pickups, alcohol, jingoism) in such formulaic, soulless ways that the songs don’t actually say or do anything. They’re catchy, and that’s it. But that’s what they were designed by the Nashville machine to do because it’s not about musicality or artistry but making hits (and that’s how you make money).
I need to be careful here because my wife warned me that I’m running the risk of coming across as elitist, but what does she know? Carry on! Listen, I like songs that are just fun. (Happy, Jen?) However, for me, I need it like I need candy: in small doses or else I’ll get sick. That’s why for most of my adult life, I skipped over country to listen to rock, alternative, classical, or anything else.
But lately that’s changed.
There’s been a new wave of musicians who embrace the artistry of country music in an unironic, uncynical way. They’re proud of country music as country music. Some are from the neotraditional or New Country camp (e.g., Midland, Chris Stapleton, Colter Wall), and others are from what I might call the new outlaws, like Sturgill Simpson, Jamey Johnson, Jason Isbell, and Tyler Childers. What stands out about the latter group is the lyrical style is like that of Waylon and Willie in the 1970’s. It’s raw, real, and bringing me back to country.
Outlaw country, much like the blues, is a place where it’s common to have songs that are brutally and beautifully honest about the pain, struggle, and sorrow in life. It’s a return to the melancholic troubadourism that carries the listener into the song not to preach or give easy answers but to simply experience what the protagonist is going through. And often the backdrop against which these tunes are set is what author Flannery O’Connor called “the Christ-haunted South.” It is a culture whose familiarity with God echoes within it. These aren’t songs with a Christian message but songs with a Christian memory. Combine the struggle of life with the gnawing idea that Jesus calls sinners to himself and you have the potential for some powerful songmaking. I’ve found it incredibly refreshing, personally.
Take Tyler Childers’ Whitehouse Road,
I got people try to tell me, Red
Keep this livin’ and you’ll wind up dead
Cast your troubles on the Lord of Lord’s
Or wind up laying on a coolin’ board
But I got buddies up White House Road
And they keep me strutting when my feet hang low
Rotgut whiskey gonna ease my pain
And all this running’s gonna keep me sane
The tension is to follow the Lord or follow your nose. It’s anyone’s choice and, in Childers’ tune, the decision has been made. But he’s not singing to make you happy or volunteer to teach a Bible study. He’s singing to give you a real perspective on life. Right or wrong…and it’s often wrong, but that’s what makes it refreshingly honest. Childers’ last couple lines feel like Willie Nelson’s Whiskey River when the Texas’ version of Red sings,
Whiskey river, take my mind
Don’t let her memory torture me
Whiskey river, don’t run dry
You’re all I got, take care of me
It’s easy for some Christians to wag their fingers at lyrics like this saying how inappropriate drunkenness is as a coping mechanism. But that’s to miss the point of the song, and art in general, which is more about showing life as it is instead of as it should be. It’s more about connecting with how someone might actually lament as opposed to a disinfected, sanitized Sunday School-approved version where the struggles are short, simple, and everything comes out smelling roses. The former feels genuine to those who’ve truly suffered, the latter feels anything but. But as I’ve noted, the interesting thing about today’s outlaw country is often those struggles are mingled with a messy faith.
Listen to Chris Stapleton’s Drunkard’s Prayer,
I wish that I could go to church but I’m too ashamed of me
I hate the fact it takes a bottle to get me on my knees
And I hope he’ll forgive the things you ain’t forgot
When I get drunk, and talk to God
While the song likely won’t get heavy rotation on the radio or in the church foyer, Stapleton’s neotraditional tune has a clarity that is absent in much popular country music. The tension in Drunkard’s Prayer is palpable. The individual wants redemption but is “too ashamed” of his addiction to alcohol to run to God. And yet, his most spiritual moments are when he’s tanked because it’s the only time he can be vulnerable with himself and God. Is this the kind of counsel you would give someone? Of course not. Is the theology sound? Nope. But this song isn’t about what someone should do or believe, it’s about what they actually do and believe. There are times when this is the kind of music we need: songs with stories that don’t finish with all the loose ends neatly tied, songs about the struggle while in the struggle, songs that are honest for this season of life. When I first heard Drunkard’s Prayer it reminded me of Paul’s words in Romans 7:19-20, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” Talking about our struggles and contradictions isn’t being weak. On the contrary, being candid about our brokenness can be very cathartic.
Frankly, this articulation of life’s struggles is one reason why I deeply resonate with the Psalms. To listen to a selection of Israel’s “vinyl collection” is to soon realize that our days on terra firma can be complicated, disrupting, and disorienting. Listen to Psalm 69:20-21,
Reproaches have broken my heart,
so that I am in despair.
I looked for pity, but there was none,
and for comforters, but I found none.
They gave me poison for food,
and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.
The psalmist might as well pull out a steel guitar and don his Stetson because this song is brutally honest about the tension and brokenness the writer is experiencing. It’s raw and emotionally-charged. And yet, it’s still worth singing about! Why? Because sometimes the best songs are the ones that express the melancholy in which our hearts find themselves, when life is full of tension, not roses. It’s the power of lament. The psalms know that, and strangely enough, so does a lot of outlaw country.
That’s why I’m back with country music in outlaw form. I need places where my heart can rejoice. I also need places where it can lament. I’m thankful for music that’s honest as it tries to grapple with a messy, contradiction-filled, mysterious existence filled with hope and sorrow, joy and pain, laughter and tears, victories and defeats. That kind of art is refreshing because it’s not showing life as some might want it to be but as it is in order that we might wrestle with it too. In doing so, it beckons me to work through the bigger questions, dive into deeper waters, and arrive at better conclusions befitting one who is committed to Jesus.
What is your “outlaw country”? Where can you go to ponder deeply about life and the struggles therein? Whatever it is, I hope you use it well. I know for me, it’s often found in a bunch of hard-edged, uncensored, unsanitized songs from the South. Outlaw country rescued me back to country music partially because it reminds me that, in the midst of the mess, God has rescued me to himself in Christ.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put some music on.