Why God & Gospel Are Re-Emerging in American Music

April 8, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  36 Comments

From the tale of blues godfather Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads, to The Louvin Brothers’ singing about how “Satan Is Real”, to Hank Williams III screaming the dark lord’s name out in “Hellbilly” country, Satan, or the devil is the most recurring folk character American roots music has ever seen.

You would think in a country founded by puritans, whose percentage of population identifying itself as “religious” in a traditional manner hovers around 70%, God and Jesus would also be big players in popular music. But due to the secularization of American culture, God and Jesus have been mostly segregated into gospel and contemporary Christian music world. Mention the devil all you want in songs, in either a negative or positive context. But talk of God, or especially Jesus in a song typecasts it as “religious” content and limits the audience. Or at least that’s how it used to be.

The Country Music Hall of Fame duo The Louvin Brothers for example started out as a gospel act, but to appeal to a wider audience made the move to secular music, so the could “sell tobacco” as Charlie Louvin said. Hank Williams developed the “Luke The Drifter” persona to sing his gospel songs under, afraid gospel would hurt the standing of the Hank Williams name with disc jockeys and the commercial crowd. Even in the 1950′s, religious music was a hard sell to the masses.

One of the reasons the devil makes such a good folk character or icon in music is because the term “devil” itself has become secularized. The devil is not always a religious figure, though it can be, it can also be simply a personification of evil.

Slowly over the past few years we’re seeing the re-emergence of both God and Jesus in roots music content, and the popularization of gospel. Why? Possibly for the same reason the devil works so well, because God and Jesus are beginning to re-emerge as “folk” characters too, that even non-religious people can identify with as personifications of good. This has taken some of the polarizing edge off of these religious terms, and opened them up as useful tools to songwriters.

From mainstream country and R&B where God is now more regularly referenced than ever before, to underground roots where it’s re-emerged after years of overuse of the “devil” and “Satan” terms, Jesus, God, and gospel are hot right now. You can see this everywhere. Shooter Jennings’ new album has a cross prominently displayed on the front. Ray Wylie Hubbard’s new album “Grifter’s Hymnal” has religious connotations throughout, and culminates in a Gospel song called “Ask God”. McDougall, a folk musician from the Northwest has a new album out early next week called A Few Towns More with a song “When God Dips His Love In My Heart”. Eric Church’s has a song called “Country Music Jesus” (possibly about yours truly), and the “Jesus, take the wheel” theme is very popular in popular country music at the moment.

Examples of Jesus, God, gospel music and elements of gospel being used in traditionally-secular music by believers and non-believers alike are everywhere. Why is this? Here’s a few ideas.

The Power of Gospel

With the renewed interest in roots music, more artists and fans are understanding what an important role gospel played in the formation of country, bluegrass, folk, and other roots art forms, how the use of harmony from gospel is an essential sonic element to American music, and how gospel can be an uplifting and enjoyable component to add to both recorded and live performance.


Beginning in the middle of the last decade and trending upwards from there, the use of the devil and Satan in lyrical content became hyper popularized, to the point now where the trend is beginning to reach parody and burnout. However the battle between good and evil is such an eternal theme in music, new ways must be found to communicate the good/evil struggle. The nature between God and Satan is such that the terms can almost be interchangeable in certain contexts, where you can take a negative song about Satan, turn it into a positive song about God, yet the underlying theme of the song never changes. This gives artists the ability to still say what they want to say, but not use Satan, whose name as a lyrical element may be becoming outmoded.

Irony and Trend

As with nearly all elements of American culture today, people could be using God and Jesus and religious symbols and language to be ironic instead of literal. It’s funny to sing a song about Jesus in a band that is otherwise secular or even counter to religious or Christian beliefs. However that could have unintended ramifications and alter meanings depending on the audience. A religious person could still listen to these songs and identify with the message, and it could also desensitize an audience to the use of such religious terms that for years were kept at arms length for fear of religious typecasting.

And God and Jesus just might be cool right now. Just like pink is the new black, Jesus could be the new devil. The trend may be towards these benevolent religious figures as hip terms.

Johnny Cash

The imagery, songs, and legacy of Johnny Cash which is laden heavily with his religious beliefs may be one of the primary reasons God, gospel, Jesus, crosses, and other religious elements are trending up in roots music. Cash’s continued popularity even nearly a decade after his death, and his cross-genre, ageless appeal makes him a great ambassador for re-integrating religious content back into American music. Remember, Johnny Cash isn’t just a Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, he’s also in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

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Whatever the reasons, religious content is re-emerging in American roots music, and it’s hard to not get excited, whatever your religious beliefs are, to see what artists do when a whole new set of terms, themes, and modes is added to their creative palette.

36 Comments to “Why God & Gospel Are Re-Emerging in American Music”

  • Jesus sucks at power chords (Stryper) so he fails at Metal but sometimes he sings harmony behind Bluegrass bands and does a bang up job of it. I kinda like the guy and if I had a twitter account I might follow him.

    • I follow Jesus on Twitter, but I have a feeling it’s a fake account!

  • I’ve always found it interesting how artists balance God and the devil in their music. Hank Williams did it best of course with his slew of gospel songs mixed in with his honky tonk songs. I’ve always enjoyed albums that are very secular and than all of a sudden there’s an old time gospel tune thrown in. It gives these albums a nice balance.

    • Thanks man, this reminded me that Hank Williams created his “Luke The Drifter” persona to release his gospel songs under because he was afraid doing it under “Hank Williams” could hurt his popularity, just another example how God and gospel used to be taboo, even in country music back in the 50′s.

    • I’m a devout Heathen but I love churchy vocals and organs. That stuff carries some serious power.

  • the first line of the first song on my new album is “said my prayers to the old black gods” and the album ends with the line “when death comes a knockin’, ask God to open the door.” the reason i mention this is not only to validate your thesis but by doing so, there’s a chance i might sell a few more records. rwh

    • Ha! “Grifter’s Hymnal” was good enough that I think you have already sold me at least your next three albums…Good work man, much appreciated!

  • Either way, you are all singing to the Annunaki.

  • I think the battle to overcome evil is the most important struggle in any persons life. I am glad its being put back into music and I love the way Rev Dead Eye does it. haha.People are too politically correct to even put God in a conversation or in music. God has became an irrelevant thing in western civilization unfortunately. What I like best obviously is when they talk about God rather than a particular religious figure so any one can relate to it who adheres to any religion or philosophy. Like instead of mentioning an exclusive deity like Jesus, Rama, or Budha, you just mention God.

    I think what draws me to older music is the way they talk about real struggles and God and battling their demons. Its a deep and human topic. Instead of just ,death kill, step on hamster and do drugs cause Im cool.

    • “What I like best obviously is when they talk about God rather than a particular religious figure so any one can relate to it who adheres to any religion or philosophy. Like instead of mentioning an exclusive deity like Jesus, Rama, or Budha, you just mention God.”

      Hmm.. Oddly enough the one Rev Dead Eye youtube video posted above is titled “Drunk on Jesus”..

  • Surprised to not see any mentions of Those Poor Bastards, seeing as most of their lyrics revolve around the devil, God, churches, heaven and hell. But still a good, well written piece

    • Those Poor Bastards are a study all to their own. The way the transpose good and evil, God and Satan is spellbinding. Lonesome Wyatt is a genius. The dichotomy of religion is his canvas.

  • I’m not a religious person at all, but I love old-time gospel songs. Excluding Contemporary Christian music, songs about God can be very powerful and beautiful.

  • If you’re looking for a perfect example of ironic use of religion, check out “She Left Me for Jesus” by Hayes Carll. Pretty funny tongue in cheek song.

  • Am I going to have to brag about how Christian I am on facebook to constantly prove how legit I am now, like all the tough guys have to do? Good God.

    • Jesus hates Facebook! It’s true! And so do I!

  • I am a Christian but I’m not perfect. I have survived a horrific childhood. I overcame a drug and alcohol addiction of 14 years. I let God/Jesus back in my life and it changed me. I need the music of Johnny Cash and Hank 111 to remind me where I came from and where I want to go. I can’t relate to the new artists so much because alot of what they are saying they have not experienced personally. Cash was real and he knew God/Jesus and struggled with his own demons too. Being a Christian means I’m forgiven, not perfect. I listen to I Saw The Light by Hank Sr. everyday to keep me grounded. In Cash’s and Hank’s music God/Jesus was not a folk character, he was a real person, he was their savior and Father in Heaven. I struggle everyday with my old self, at times I miss the drugs and raising hell…………Cash struggled the same way with living for God or satan, in the end he chose God. God and satan will always be in country and blue grass because most of the artists are Christians. And if you are a Christian you know God/Jesus and you know satan as well. Satan is the backslider in all of us, hence the term ” The devil made me do it”.

    • Amen, brother. I don’t see why “the musician is actually a believer” isn’t an option up there.

      • When I started Saving Country Music, one of the rules I put in place was to never discuss politics or religion unless it was strictly in the context of music. They are just too polarizing of issues to get involved in. I have personal political and religious beliefs, but I will never discuss them here. I have wanted to write this article for a while, but to do so I had to walk a very fine line and post it on a religious holiday for further context to not make it blow up into some polarizing religious discussion where people can get their feelings hurt. Instead what I was attempting to do was bridge differences by making people see the history of religious figures in music, where music is headed now, and how as music fans we can all benefit from this opening up of themes and characters. I think in general I accomplished this. And I think if any side of the religious coin is winning from this new trend, it would be the believers who for years had to hide behind pseudonyms and segregate their religious material in side projects.

        • I get ya, that’s a good policy. It’s a good thought-provoking post, and I didn’t realize Jesus was becoming more popular in roots music what with all the Satan stuff going around. It was more fun to sing about my beliefs before I had to worry about if people thought I was being trendy, or ironic, reacting to the Satanists, or ripping off Cash. I thanked Jesus on my first album and somebody thought I was joking! I have a lot of religious themes in my music because I got saved after I spent my 19th birthday in the loony bin after I ran down our dirt road buck naked on acid trying to find my angelic soul mate in Chicago so I could become God (seemed like a good idea at the time) and my failures and faith experiences affect my outlook and song writing more than anything else.

          I think another reason you get gospel type stuff in roots music is because it doesn’t automatically become a lame sub-genre when you throw Jesus in there. A punk or metal band starts talking about Jesus and they become a Christian punk or Christian metal band, and only Christians buy it. A roots band does it, and they stay roots because it’s always been part of the genre.

          • I see you said most of that last paragraph up there already, never mind.

          • Yep, look at David Eugene Edwards, he’s a very serious, devout Christian who writes religious lyrics all the time, but you never see 16 Horsepower or Wovenhand thrown into a Christian subgenre.

        • Thanks for this article and what you do for country music

  • Thank you Triggerman. I’m very religious & I love MOST of the rootsy gospel being made today. I recently descoverd the song Only Jesus by Scott H. Biram & loved it. Ray Wylie Hubbard has at least one gospel song per album & his last two albums have had several. I think some artist take it too far (Hayes Carl’s She Left Me For Jesus, GD Gallows’ Ya’ll M.F.r’s Need Jesus), but I think the vast majority of artist who use Jesus & God in there songs do it respectfully. I was suprised when Robert Earl Keen inclueded Soul Of Man on his lastest album, & I think one of the greatest modern gospel albums is Billy Joe Shaver’s Everybody’s Brother, & one of the only good songs to come off the Three Hanks album was Where The Soul Of Man Never Dies.

    • The God Damn Gallows name should be a dead give-away that the song “Ya’ll Mother Fuckers Need Jesus” is going to include a little satire.

      I think alot of it comes from these newer roots bands coming from a punk and metal upbringing. In stark contrast to traditional country, these new bands come from musical backgrounds that see Satan as a symbol of all that is truly sinful and in turn fun. It becomes more of a symbol than a literal interpretation of any religion. Look at all the Jesus and Satan references in heavy metal and punk rock!

  • So far and no mention of Marty Stuart yet.. Man him and the Superlatives can play a great gospel number. Do yourself a favor and look up Marty Stuart and Dailey and Vincent’s rendition of Big Mon’s Get Down On Your Knees and Pray.. It is amazing.. Also I have absolutely 0 respect for any of the musicians who make a mockery of religious beliefs or of anyone who holds them.

    • Recorded this in legendary Gruene hall almost a year ago today.

  • some of the best music elvis made was gospel. i will always remember johnny cash on local L.A. TV back when i was a kid. the sweaty amped up speed freak ‘walking the line’. amazing. even then i knew something wasn’t right with him. thankfully, he found some good and got cleaned up. elvis? had it and lost it.

  • Oddly enough, I’ve always found a great deal of comfort in the more gothic type of country gospel, like the Louvin Brothers “Satan Is Real” album or songs like “The Angel of Death” by Hank Sr. Not that I’m obsessed with death or take comfort in the idea of people burning in Hell, but just the idea that someday all of the wrongs are going to be made right and those who cause suffering in this world are going to suffer, themselves, and those that suffered will be comforted. Even some songs from Those Poor Bastards can be comforting, if not in their subject matter, at least in the simplicity of the music, itself.

  • Great article!

  • Timing. Next week I’m headed out to shoot and record a Southern Gospel Revival session with Jamie Wilson, Drew Kennedy, Courtney Patton and Ben Hester. we’re going full upright bass and everything. Just doing something fun with all these gospel songs I’ve seen musicians putting in their sets.

    The interesting thing is that every single person I’ve talked to about the project from industry to fan is pretty excited. There’s something to it.. whether it’s nostalgia or the power of the Gospel itself. Should be fun regardless.

  • I just thought of this scene from Walk the Line that goes along with this article perfectly http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dYP2EJb1nTQ&feature=related

    • Walk The Line was inaccurate as most Hollywood films are on real people, please don’t let that movie form your opinion of Cash. Read the biography A Man Called Cash which is authorized by Cash, family, and friends. There you will find the true Johnny Cash and his life’s work.

      • Don’t worry I take everything that happens in that movie and movies like it with a grain of salt. I just thought that one scene applied to the article about how back in the day singing gospel could hurt your career or wouldn’t sell. Or at least it made some people think that (Hank Sr. for instance).

    • That’s a great clip, fiction or not, it does a great job illustrating exactly what I was talking about. Great advice for artists as well.

  • Great article! Country music has always understood the Saturday Night/Sunday Morning dynamic better than any other genre. Martin Luther said, “We are simultaneously Saints and Sinners.” No one knew that better than Johnny Cash. His music, his books, and his life’s work have been a major influence on my faith life. Hell, I don’t know that I’d be in seminary without the work God did through that man.
    However, I wish that my fellow Hoosiers from Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band would have gotten a shout out in the article. They did a whole Gospel Album!

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