“Country music really is the music of a marginalized people.”
“Country music can serve as a window to the working-class worldview.”
These are among the central claims of David Fillingim, assistant professor of religion and philosophy at Shorter College, in Redneck Liberation: Country Music as Theology.
In this concisely written volume, Fillingim provides a brief, useful history of country music and sketches its relationship to other types of music such as blues and Southern gospel.
Following an introduction called “Honky-Tonkology: Taking Country Music Seriously,” the book’s four major chapters explore four significant strands of tradition in country music and four corresponding theological traditions.
True to the subtitle of his introduction, Fillingim avoids facile appropriations of country music common to academic analyses and steadfastly resists the temptation to assume an elitist understanding of this art form.
Fillingim adopts his understanding of the term “redneck” from Will Campbell, who argues that they were victims of “a more sneaky kind of slavery” in the American South. This group has been and still is marginalized both socially and economically.
In the first chapter, “The Gospel Songs and the Cheatin’ Songs: Suffering and the Failure of Redneck Theology,” Fillingim compares and contrasts country music with Southern gospel music.
Songs about heaven and songs about romance-gone-wrong are both expressions of disappointment with the order of things in this world, and both function as a means of survival. Whereas the former promotes a kind of escapism based on a dualistic understanding of mind and spirit, however, the latter accepts the embodiedness of experience.
“Economic deprivation raises the stakes of romance to the level of ultimate concern. Yet an encounter with the ultimate carries with it the potential either to redeem or to destroy. Honky-tonk music–cheatin’ and drinkin’ songs–seeks to ameliorate the destructive power of romantic love,” he writes.
Country music resists the dehumanizing forces of society, but ultimately fails to liberate because it does not examine suffering critically or seek to address its root causes.
The second chapter is called “The Gospel According to Hank: Country Music’s Hillbilly Humanist Core.” This essay both examines the life and music of country music’s central figure and seeks to understand why Hank Williams is the touchstone for all country singers and songwriters.
Like country music as a whole, Hank’s repertoire included both gospel and “secular” music. This combination signifies the tension that seems to have torn Hank’s own life apart. The earthiness of the blues, which influenced his music so powerfully, stands over against the escapism of most gospel music and its emphasis on heaven. Hank’s tortured existence was taken up after his early death by George Jones and a long line of artists extending to the present day.
Country music’s polar appeals to the joys of the simple life and the suffering of those near the bottom of America’s socio-economic spectrum create the opposing forces that threaten to rend the industry. Can it continue to appeal to its core audience and develop the kind of upward mobility that modern economics demand?
This last question leads into the subject of Chapter 3, “The Apocalypse of Garth: Riding Toward the Postmodern Roundup.” Garth represents a significant turn in the mood of country music toward a more positive outlook. This shift fits the drive to market country music to the upper middle class in the 1990’s. According to Fillingim, Garth’s most important theological theme is “the exhortation to live with passionate engagement in whatever life brings.”
This is not a utopian vision of life, however. Garth realizes that heartache happens, but, unlike Hank Williams, Garth promotes “celebrating rather than cursing the fate that dooms romantic relationships.” This balanced fatalism leads Fillingim to label Garth “a latter day Qoheleth,” while musician and humorist Kinky Friedman calls him “the anti-Hank.”
The dualism of Garth’s music reflects the two kinds of responses to him. He is either the savior of country music or its destroyer. Yet Garth’s call to passionate engagement is accompanied by a call to community. His “Friends in Low Places” may be an attempt to answer Hank’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
The fourth chapter, “Stand by Your Man and Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: The Emergence of Honky-tonk Feminism,” is potentially the most controversial part of the book. This is the longest of the four major chapters, but should women be treated separately? The other three chapters have been almost entirely about men.
This is a tough choice. Male voices have dominated country music until fairly recent years. There used to be a rule in country music radio that two songs by women should not be played consecutively. The contributions of women might have been too-well hidden in an integrated treatment.
This uneasiness about how to listen to female voices is indicative of the sometimes hesitant movement of women’s country music. Its big stars, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynnette and Dolly Parton, have been reluctant to make connections with the feminist movement. The character of this movement seems distant from the concerns of the poor, rural women who were the pioneers of women’s country music.
The relationship between feminism and women’s country music, however, is as complex as what may be the latter’s best known song, Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man.” Does this song preach female submissiveness or condemn masculine immorality?
Female country’s biggest star, Dolly Parton, is equally confusing, as the often progressive themes of her music and movies is in sharp contrast with the physical image she projects.
Fillingim locates many subtle complexities as he traces the path of women’s country music from these earlier performers through the Dixie Chicks, “the standard bearers of the new honky-tonk feminism.”
As country music follows its winding path, Fillingim identifies dignity, fate, love, work, responsibility and hope to be its enduring themes. “Country music’s affirmation of basic human dignity stands in tension with the lived experience of marginalization.”
We could easily say the same thing of the gospel, and speaking about this tension is the primary task of theology.
Mark McEntire is assistant professor of religion at Belmont University.
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