Regardless of what the next craze in popular country music may be, you can guarantee that there will be one, whatever it is. The copycat nature of Music Row is more alive than ever, and whenever one label or publishing house thinks they’ve found the next hot thing, it spreads up and down 16th Avenue like a bad rash by lunchtime. Popular country music is a veritable echo chamber in the head space devoid of original ideas.
It may sound strange to consider something so reverent as what mainstream country may adopt next in wholesale fashion after the smut and iniquity of Bro-Country and its continuing incarnations and spinoffs. But even though much of that music may have been quite carnal, the performers almost all consider themselves Christians.
There certainly are plenty of examples to cite as possible signs of the emergence of a potential trend towards Christian music in popular country. After 15 years in the business, Blake Shelton delivered his very first single to Christian radio a couple of weeks ago called “Savior’s Shadow.”
I’m standing in my savior’s shadow/He is watching over me
I feel the rain/I hear the thunder/As He cries for me
And standing in my savior’s shadow/Grace will lead to where I’m free
I take His hand/We walk together/His light shines on me
Shelton said he wrote the song (with multiple co-writers of course), during a “dark time” during his divorce from Miranda Lambert. Shelton hopes to follow up the success of Carrie Underwood’s religiously-themed “Something in the Water” that became a #1 hit on Billboard‘s Hot Christian Songs chart. Meanwhile Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum is taking advantage of the band’s hiatus to release a gospel album entitled Love Remains, and she too has released a new Christian single called “Thy Will.”
I know You see me / I know You hear me, Lord
Your plans are for me / Goodness You have in store
Thy Will Be Done
But this move to Christian music might not always be so pious, and instead simply employ Christian and religious wording and phrasing when the overall message is quite secular. Consider it as switching the buzzwords of Bro-Country like “beer” and “truck” for “church” and “holy.” Take for example Maren Morris’s big debut hit “My Church,” which compares religion to rolling down the road and listening to classic country.
I’ve cussed on a Sunday / I’ve cheated and I’ve lied
I’ve fallen down from grace / A few too many times
But I find holy redemption / When I put this car in drive
Roll the windows down and turn up the dial
Florida Georgia Line does a similar switcheroo with their new single “H.O.L.Y.” Though the title and some of the language may have some thinking it is a Christian song, it ultimately utilizes religious language to describe carnal love. Calling it sacrilege is probably a stretch. More aptly it is trying to draw from the increasing popularity of religious themes, while still keeping one foot in the secular world to maximize the commercial audience.
Let me lay you down, get me to ya
Get you singin’ babe, hallelujah
We’ll be touching . . .
We’ll be touching Heaven.
Craig Campbell’s new single “Outskirts of Heaven,” which pound for pound might be the best-written Christian-tinged country song so far in the new trend is also gaining some traction on radio, and with listeners.
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.
Drawing in as many listeners as possible is what the move to Christian music is all about, just like all the crazes that grip Nashville’s Music Row with effusive and widespread penetration until that’s pretty much all anyone is doing for 18 months. That doesn’t mean that these artists aren’t expressing sincere sentiments based on their own religious beliefs, or that it isn’t a much more healthy or palatable alternative to what came previous. But don’t be fooled that all of a sudden Music Row has found religion. If it doesn’t make money, it doesn’t makes sense for mainstream music. And financial calculations are what’s driving this trend. The artists may feel a renewed inspiration to express their religious beliefs, but the industry wouldn’t be on board if they didn’t think it was fiscally wise.
Christian music may be the way some labels and producers see a way out of the Bro-Country jungle that is mired in criticism for its low-brow content and (at times) immoral bent, yet at the same time continue to broaden the appeal of country by adding a new demographic to the audience in Christian listeners. Even if this trend only lasts 18 months before it begins to become a parody of itself like Bro-Country and Metro-Bro did, the industry may be hoping some of those Christian listeners will stick around for the long run.
Christian music listeners are known as super consumers, and country music and Christian music have been very close cousins for over half a century. Many Christian labels are located right alongside country labels on the Music Row campus in Nashville, or have Christian imprints as part of their label group. Curb Records just acquired the massive Christian label Word Entertainment in March–a company the country label previously had a 20% stake in. Tapping into the Christian market with top-name country talent is a way to “unlock synergies” for many of these labels.
Another factor might be the current Presidential election in the United States, which is ready to heat up in earnest in the second half of 2016, and last into 2017. This invariably causes the population to more strongly identify with their native demographics, with religious beliefs factoring heavily into the equation. Getting on the right side of the Christian music listener is one of the factors given credit to George W. Bush securing his Presidential election.
None of this necessarily means a move to Christian music is a bad thing for country. Gospel music is at the very heart of country’s roots, and is certainly a more reasonable and healthy thing to be broadcasting out to the masses, no matter what your personal religious beliefs are (unless you’re Florida Georgia Line, and figure out how to sexualize your religious message). Many non believers still can appreciate Gospel-style Christian music, as long as it doesn’t get too preachy. Religion may be a divisive subject, but spirituality is much more universal, and many non religious country and Americana acts do quite well with Gospel material.
Whether Christian music becomes the next major country music craze remains to be seen. But if current form holds, you likely to hear a lot more of it in the popular country mix.