September 2, 2014

What About Country-Western, Southern Gospel, and Bluegrass Music?

Tim Fisher

Historic musical art forms are known to us in these familiar terms: classical, folk, and popular (pop). An understanding of these terms is essential to grasp the full picture of what is happening in our culture today. The first term, classical, refers to music or art that has intrinsic value or worthiness based on objective beauty. A phrase used to describe classical art is “art for art’s sake.” The term “classical” refers to works of high culture (e.g., classical music, classical art, classical drama). In order to write classical music, composers had to be thoroughly educated—training for years while studying their art. This is why classical music stands the test of time. It is still heard in concert halls because it is built on objective principles of excellence. In a broad sense, this music was written for beauty and symmetry of form, not merely to please an audience.

“Folk” refers to music with a social emphasis. There is a clear social bond among the musicians and the audience, a common bond of belief or outlook—fellowship. It has been described as music or art “made by people who know each other for people who know each other”[1] and is used in a social sense to bring the community together. Folk music is characterized by its simplicity. It is the music of the common people, which historically have not had the benefit of formal or extensive education. Folk music is written and performed with the audience in mind; its ultimate goal is wholesome community rather than artistic beauty. Folk songs endure as an art form even though they reflect the cultural changes taking place on a broad scale. Folk music is simple and honest—both in secular and sacred music. (The gospel song is the most common sacred folk style.)

Both classical and folk are art forms that provide examples of worthwhile music to enjoy and inspire. Leonard Payton contrasts them by saying,

It is important to recognize that high culture [classical] has its roots in aesthetics; folk culture has its roots in sociology. Comparing them is like comparing apples and oranges. They are both good when done well, and the canons of what is “good” are quite different for the two types. The Bible has a good deal more to say about folk culture than high culture, because folk culture is inextricably based in interpersonal relationships.[2]

But when we come to the third term, popular (pop) music, we find “an imposter and a parasite because it is based in deceit.”[3] Pop music borrows liberally from classical and folk forms, but it is grounded in covetousness. It is a product, produced to sell for financial profit—its value is not intrinsic, it is commercial. “The artist is not held accountable to God for a transcendent standard of beauty, nor to a local community with ethical responsibility.”[4] His only accountability is marketability.

Pop music is neither written nor marketed to make us better people. Rock idols are not selling their recordings for the “good of the community.” Since whatever sells is the goal—the lust for money finds its market in the lusts of consumers—ultimately, selfishness is the motive. Thus, pop performers reject appeals for propriety or restraint in their music. They cry “censorship” at the first hint of objective judgment, and refuse any standard that makes them accountable to anything but sales figures.

In this context let’s address the question: What about country-western, southern gospel, and bluegrass music? Whatever style of music we refer to, it is essential to clarify whether we mean the original folk style or the pop style. For example, there is a folk style that has existed for generations which has been identified by the term “country” or “country and western” music, and there is much that is wholesome about it. But today there is a hybrid form of original folk music infused with the prevailing pop style: rock. The result is pop country, which represents a huge segment of the pop music market.

There is a simple southern folk gospel style that has existed for generations. There are many examples of this folk music in our hymnals today such as “Amazing Grace” and “Brethren, We Have Met to Worship.” But worthwhile folk gospel music is far removed from the southern gospel style that exists today—again a hybrid form of the original folk style mixed with the prevailing pop style: rock.

One college music appreciation textbook states that “rock [music] should be understood both as a style (with many substyles) and as an era in popular music—an era in which a diversity of musical types have flourished.”[5] It is appropriate, therefore, to speak of rock in a specific sense as a style of music, but also a form that has invaded virtually all prevailing styles in this era. The rock idiom has invaded jazz, country and western, gospel, southern gospel, and bluegrass. Even though there is historic and legitimate folk music in these styles, we must discern the corrupting influences of rock.

The rock idiom is hard to define. Not many textbooks will tackle the subject. A reasonable description of the rock idiom includes: (1) a unique use of and emphasis on the dance beat, especially utilizing the backbeat or breakbeat; (2) an emphasis on the amplification of the bass/rhythm instruments, including the trap set and bass guitar; (3) a performance style which emphasizes the performer more than the song; and (4) a style of singing which is built on sensual clichés (e.g., scooping, sliding, wailing, screaming, or cooing). There are several offshoots of these elements which apply to a broad spectrum of popular music, whether we call it country, rock, southern gospel, or jazz.

The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll describes the evolution of country music to rock.[6]

This is not to say that everything is okay about “old” country—discernment is essential with any style of music. But when a Christian chooses to listen to today’s pop country hits, he must not only tolerate questionable and even wicked lyrics, he also subjects himself to the fleshly influence of the rock backbeat—the same incessant throb of mainstream pop. Traditional country really wasn’t “cool.” Only when it became country rock did it begin to enjoy its modern popularity. The following quotations made mostly by country performers, or others describing country music, explain this. Notice the comparison of country with rock and the prevailing theme of sensuality. In each quotation, emphasis has been added.[7]

As a country artist, I’m not proud of a lot of things in my field. There is no doubt in my mind that we are contributing to the moral decline in America. (Conway Twitty; People, 3 September 1979, p. 82)

Many rock performers grew up with country-andwestern music, and its characteristic forms and sounds are close to the ensemble sound of rock— instrumental combinations and techniques are closely parallel . . . . The division between country- and-western and urban pop has now blurred almost to vanishing. (William J. Schafer, Rock Music [Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1972], p. 92)

Today rock [is] inescapable. Country music? Middlebrow rock with pedal steel veneer: Reba McEntire could use the same sterile jackboot drum tracks as Aerosmith or Snoop Doggy Dogg. (David Gates, “Twenty-Five Years Later, We’re Living in a Woodstock Nation,” Newsweek, 8 August 1994, p. 44)

Most of the [Country Club band] have played with Tritt since the honky-tonk days, and the contrast between those dives and this space-age stage is as great as that between the bluegrass they played then and the country rock they pound out now. (Claudia Glenn Dowling, “Travis Tritt Takes Country Into the Future,” Life [Collector’s Edition: The Roots of Country Music], 1 September 1994, p. 78)

Country lyrics have always intimated sex and promiscuous affairs. The backstreets to romance have always been a part of country music. (Charlie Monk, head of April-Blackwood’s Nashville division; Billboard, 11 October 1980, p. 32)

The country music of today is really the ’50s rock and roll—the music we had back then. (Little Richard, Live With Regis and Kathie Lee, 10 November 1994)

[Conway Twitty’s] burly voice combined a trademark growl with a seductive purr, promising a behind-closed-doors blend of sensitivity and sensuality. (Rolling Stone, 5 August 1993, p. 27)

I used to be a heavy drinker, drinking my way from middle-class bars to Skid Row. I always listened to country music. And with that self-wallowing twang, it’s a natural mood depressant. The correlation is there—country western music and drinking go hand in hand. (Dr. James M. Schaefer, Director, University of Minnesota Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Programming; Us, 31 March 1981, p. 12.)

One word, the only way I can describe it—and I apologize for this—it’s sex. (Garth Brooks’s answer to “How do you describe what you do?” Barbara Walters Special, ABC, 29 March 1993)

If Chet [Atkins] hadn’t married twang to a drum kit, producing a far more commercial sound, where would the industry be today? Well, it would be someplace that might make hillbillymusic puritans happy, but it sure wouldn’t be on TV, on radios everywhere, in department stores, on Letterman and in special commemorative issues of national magazines that are published by big multinational corporations based in New York City. For all this we can thank, or blame, Chet. (Charles Hirshberg and Robert Sullivan, “The 100 Most Important People in the History of Country,” Life [Collector’s Edition: The Roots of Country Music], 1 September 1994, p. 22)

Is this really what we want to expose ourselves or our children to? Is it any wonder that so many Christian teenagers refuse to give up their rock when their parents won’t give up their country? Teenagers recognize that the basic sound and presentation of rock and country vary little. Both are pop styles which have been inundated with the rock idiom.

The same answer applies to the present gospel or southern gospel music. No matter how pure its roots may have been, southern gospel has succumbed to the same market-driven philosophy. It has borrowed from the rock idiom and has become just another subset of pop music. Yes, it does sound different from other rock genres, and the words (at times) may be good, but its reliance on sensual rock idioms is evident. Sensuality in any style is incompatible with the Christian walk—walking in the Spirit.


This article was excerpted with permission from Harmony at Home by Tim Fisher, president of Sacred Music Services in Greenville, South Carolina. For more information about the book or the services of SMS, see http://www.SMSRecordings.com.

(Originally published in FrontLine • September / October 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. Leonard Payton, “How Shall We Sing to God?,” taken from John Armstong, ed., The Coming Evangelical Crisis (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), p. 197. Note: The author is indebted to Mr. Payton for many thoughts contained in this explanation. []
  2. Ibid., p. 198. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. Ibid., p. 199. []
  5. Ronald Byrnside, Music, Sound and Sense (Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown Publishers, 1985), p. 334. []
  6. Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, ed., The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (New York: Summit Books, 1983), p. 124. []
  7. Thanks to David Warren who assisted in compiling these quotations. []

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