Whether it was my mother playing the soothing sound of Bach’s Arioso on her baby grand after I went to bed, Casey Kasem keeping me up late on Sunday nights for his top 40 countdown, or just church choir practice on a Wednesday evening, music was ever present in my life growing up. Like many, I can track events and eras in my life by what artists or albums I was listening to at the time. Earlier this year, this is exactly what I was doing one afternoon as I crossed the Congress Avenue bridge into Downtown Austin on a business trip.
Weary of talking, I set my cell phone on the passenger seat and began punching through local radio stations in the rental car. Doing so reminded me of Frank Sinatra’s hit by Joe Raposo, You Will Be My Music. Supposedly the song was inspired out of Raposo’s frustration with a lack of quality in popular music. This was precisely the feeling as I searched the digital dial. If not good music, perhaps at least I could find a good memory. And I did.
I quickly found myself rolling down that Texas highway singing my own little duet with George Strait… “that woman that I had wrapped around my finger just come unwound…”. Strait’s success began with this very single back in 1981. Having more CMA awards and nominations than anyone in country music history, he has had a lot of success. With sixty number one hits he has more number ones than any other artist in any other genre of music. Yet he is an anomaly in other ways. In a world of “cheatin’ songs” and celebrities with broken homes, he has been married to his high school sweetheart for over forty years.
The legacy of country music is not one of strong families. It has typically represented a chink in the armor of rural America who always had a lower divorce rate until recently.[i] As one person put it, “Country music has a somewhat limited palate, and adultery is one of its primary colors.”[ii]
Another George from Texas was much more characteristic of the ilk. George Jones too is one of the most popular country music artists since the inception of the genre, and has the song that on several surveys is rated the number one country songs of all time, He Stopped Loving Her Today. Having four marriages of his own, he could sing from the heart about broken relationships.
Country music was born out of British folk songs, but has always tapped into the theme of unfaithfulness. This theme put Earnest Tubb and Hank Williams on the map. As you roll through the history of country music, the story is the same. Almost everyone has a “cheatin’ song” and many, like Merle Haggard with his five wives, are living out the music.
Here is the point. In all of this, rural America was telling its own story over the last century. Covenant breaking was becoming rampant. Theologically, the previous century was catching up with it. The rugged individualism of early American history had drowned out much of the church’s understanding of covenant or corporate reality. Having lost touch with the Word of God, the church put doctrine on the backburner and tradition filled the void. Along with all of this arose everything George Marsden describes in his remarkable book, Fundamentalism and American Culture. The home and the state were falling apart. They were crumbling because the church was giving way. This is what covenant breakdown looks like.
Perhaps Waylon Jennings made the connection when he sang,
There’s a Bible on the dresser
and a sign hung on the door,
and a woman in my arms who shouldn’t be
…Tonight I’m crossing over
And I’ll reach the cheating side
And I’ll hate myself for coming here again.
Where the streets are paved with misery
And lives are built on lies,
The place they call the broken promise land
Waylon did not know how true his lyrics were at the time. In the very shadow of God’s Word, the heartland and Bible Belt have become a sea of shattered covenants – a broken promise land.