The George Option

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Listen to “The George Option” by Fred Smith

 

I’ve made light of country and western music for as long as I can remember. The titles like “I’ll Be Over You When The Grass Grows Over Me” are catchy but embarrassing. As well, it seemed so blatantly hypocritical to sing about carrying on Saturday night at the honkytonks while the next track would be “Just A Little Talk with Jesus Makes It Right.”  The world of country music is filled with paradox and contradictions.

But my opinion has begun to change after listening to “The King of Tears,” an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, “Revisionist History.” On the way home from Dallas I listened to Malcolm discuss the reasons some music is deep and compelling, bringing tears to our eyes while other music attempts the same but fails to touch us.

He interviews songwriter Bobby Braddock who wrote so many sad songs – mainly because he has had a sad life. One of the songs Malcolm features is the one that gave a new career to George Jones – “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” I’ll agree with him. This song can make you tear up because it tells the melancholy story of a lost love along with a melody that won’t leave you. Of course, the best of country western is that way, isn’t it? The tunes are easy to remember and the words are as well. Even though most of us think the top lyrics are about drinking, women, bars, trucks, shame, cheating and back roads, there is more to it than that. The stories they tell let you know there is something real and reflecting a life that people understand – whether it is theirs or not. The songs tell a tale that slips under the radar somehow. They are specific about situations that people recognize in their lives or the lives of someone they know. They are songs of loss, change, love, friendship, unfaithfulness and, in the end, belonging.

Then, as he does so well, Gladwell takes a comparison of country western lyrics with rock and roll and comes up with a bigger theory about why there is a split in the country between the elites who don’t understand the lives and values of country western people and the rest of the nation.  Our music is not just entertainment.  It reveals who we are and how we see the world. Harlan Howard described country music as, “Three chords and the truth.”

For many years I’ve leaned toward the argument of James Davison Hunter (To Change The World) and others that the real influencers in culture are the “elite networks” at the top where the “deepest and most enduring forms of cultural change nearly always occur… Even where the impetus for change draws from popular agitation, it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites.” As well, I’ve been open to Rod Dreher’s argument in “The Benedict Option” that, “American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a culture, one in which our beliefs make increasingly little sense. We speak a language that the world more and more either cannot hear or finds offensive to its ears.” According to Dreher, we are part of a culture much like during the fall of the Roman Empire. It is going to be small communities of faithful Christians preserving the faith through the coming dark times.

But, maybe there is another choice. I call it “The George Option” after George Jones. After listening to Malcolm’s podcast, I watched a YouTube of George’s funeral at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and row after row of wooden pews filled with the stars of country music. It was clear that many of them, like George Jones, had led rough lives but there they were in church because they still understood what that meant. There was something absolutely genuine about their roots.

So, I doubt it is really the cultural elites or the few that will turn to intentional Christian communities that will keep the core beliefs intact through the coming storm. Maybe, on the other hand, it will be people for whom I have no understanding or, until now, appreciation. It could be those whose stories are in a language the world will hear and is not offensive. Perhaps purity does not survive on its own and needs the protection of seeming impurity wrapped around it. Yes, it is dross and, yes, it will be burned away when the time comes, but what if the people who live with loss, change, love, friendship, unfaithfulness, and belonging are those who will preserve what is most precious?

Art by Luis Jimenez

This an excerpt from “Where The Light Divides

 

 

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Showing 14 comments
  • Avatar
    Terry Parker
    Reply

    There is nothing like the truth in a song, and Country music’s stock in trade is truth, however it moves you. One of my favorite lines in a country song is “If I’d shot your sooner, I’d be out of jail by now”. Not a nice thought, but for the singer, it tells the “truth” about how he was feeling.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      I have a secret dream. I’d like to title CW songs. I think I have the skills.

  • Avatar
    Michael Meadows
    Reply

    From the time I was 13 years old until I turned 56, I played in a rock band as a lead singer. During my more youthful years, I detested country music. But thanks to Garth Brooks in the mid 80’s, I discovered the simple but often profound truths embedded in so many country songs. The lyrics to “Unanswered Prayers” particularly resonated with me. As I aged, “Jesus Take the Wheel” by Carrie Underwood touched me deeply and helped me lean into my faith. “I Saw God Today” by George Strait brought tears to my eyes when my daughter was born. Once I opened my ears (and heart) to country music, I discovered so many songs that really spoke to me and actually helped strengthen my faith. While I still prefer rock music, I am hard pressed to think of a single rock song that has had that impact on me and none of them brought me closer to God. (Not casting judgement, just being honest about my experience.) So yeah, I understand your point and am grateful for the reminder. As always, thank you for sharing your thoughtful insights.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      “Highway to Hell” and “Stairway to Heaven” did not impact your faith? I love your comment.

  • Avatar
    Toni S Hibbs
    Reply

    I love music! Wish I could sing better … but I sing anyway. There are so many great lyrics out there. I thought this was a message of hope; THANKS, Fred. And go ahead … title some CW Songs for us. ❤️

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Don’t worry about singing better. Just make a joyful noise.

  • Avatar
    John Castle
    Reply

    Fred, have you watched the Ken Burns documentary, “Country Music.” It is wonderful and reinforces some of the points you are making. I loved it. Good segment on Bobby Braddock, George Jones, Billy Sherrill and the writing and recording of “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” widely considered the greatest country song ever recorded. Also a poignant segment on Kris Kristofferson and how he came to faith and why he sings “Why Me Lord” at each of his concerts. My love of country music may reflect my East Texas roots. Thanks for this posting and for all you do.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Yes, I did watch it and recorded it as well. Those are my roots as well as my family is originally from rural Tennessee and Virginia. I love old time gospel music as well – but have trouble with some of the descendants! If you have not watched the Ryman service for George Jones you certainly should.

  • Avatar
    David Galloway
    Reply

    I am presenting a Sunday School class tomorrow at a church in Austin, via Zoom. I’ve been asked to present faith development theory in 50 minutes which is always fun. But it’s been on my mind. I am grateful for the chance to revisit notes and stories from my time with Jim at the Faith Development Center. It came to my mind, reading your article, that music and lyrics form an image of how we see life, in a word, our faith. At the very least, it informs how we see the lay of the land we inhabit. Just like religious symbols and stories, we take in and use our imagination (einbildungskraft) to form a cohesive sense of how things are. Surely, popular songs of any genre can provide images to support or challenge our world view. And in the wake of Black Church, and James Cone, the hymnody of the black church has been a powerful force of faith to propel those people through a variety of trials.
    I am going to begin the class with the lyrics of one of my favorite songs from Guy Clark, The Cape: Well, he’s one of those who know that life is just a leap of faith, Spread your arms and hold your breath and always trust your cape. Pretty good image.
    I will end with another song lyric, from Jason Isbell. White Man’s World: I’m a white man living in a white man’s nation, I think the Man Upstairs must a took a vacation, I still have faith but don’t know why, Maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eye. Maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eye.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      I wonder if there are songs that reflect every one of the stages? It would be fun to try, I think.

  • Avatar
    Jeff Kahler
    Reply

    My wife and I were just talking about country music lyrics yesterday. I have never been much of a fan because of style, but so much of the lyrics are compelling. I joked that “Live like you are dying” is my new theme song. 🙂

    He said
    “I was in my early forties
    With a lot of life before me
    And a moment came that stopped me on a dime
    I spent most of the next days
    Looking at the x-rays
    Talkin’ ’bout the options
    And talkin’ ’bout sweet time”
    I asked him
    “When it sank in
    That this might really be the real end
    How’s it hit you
    When you get that kind of news?
    Man, what’d you do?”
    He said
    “I went skydiving
    I went Rocky Mountain climbing
    I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu
    And I loved deeper
    And I spoke sweeter
    And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying”
    And he said
    “Someday I hope you get the chance
    To live like you were dying”
    He said
    “I was finally the husband
    That most of the time I wasn’t
    And I became a friend a friend would like to have
    And all of a sudden going fishin’
    Wasn’t such an… More

  • Avatar
    Robin Blakeley
    Reply

    Powerful piece Fred! Thank you so much for beautifully expressing things which deeply stir the heart. Was struck by Gladwell’s “King of Tears” a couple of years ago and the George Jones funeral/tribute is so moving – “Go rest high on that mountain”. I am a huge Josh Garrels fan (more folk/pop than country) and his lyrics cut like a hot knife in butter. Bless you today and keep up the anointed writing!

    Just one example – https://youtu.be/xcGLFX-X4JY

    Farther Along
    Josh Garrels

    Farther along
    we’ll know all about it
    Farther along
    we’ll understand why
    So cheer up my brothers, live in the sunshine
    We’ll understand this,
    all by and by
    Tempted and tried,
    I wondered why
    The good man dies, the bad man thrives and Jesus cries because he loves em’ both
    We’re all cast-aways in need of ropes
    Hangin’ on by the last threads of our hope
    In a house of mirrors full of smoke
    Confusing illusions I have seen
    Where did I go wrong, I sang along
    To every chorus of the song
    That the devil wrote like a piper at the gates
    Leading mice and men down to their fates
    But some will courageously escape
    The seductive voice with a heart of faith
    While walkin’ that line back home
    there’s so much more to life than we’ve been told
    It’s full of beauty that will unfold
    And shine like you struck gold my wayward son
    The deadweight burden weighs a ton
    Go down to the river and let it run
    Wash away all the things you’ve done
    Forgiveness – alright
    Farther along we’ll know all about it
    Farther along we’ll understand why
    So cheer up my brothers, live in the sunshine
    We’ll understand this, all by and by
    Still I get hard pressed on every side
    Between the rock and a compromise
    Like the truth and a pack of lies fightin’ for my soul
    I’ve got no place left go
    Cause I got changed by what I’ve been shown
    More glory than the world has known
    Keeps me ramblin’ on
    Skipping like a calf loosed from its stall
    I’m free to love once and for all
    And even when I fall I’ll get back up for the joy that overflows my cup
    Heaven filled me with more than enough
    Broke down my levee and my bluff
    Let the flood wash me
    And one day when the sky rolls back on us
    Some rejoice and the others fuss
    Cause every knee must bow and tongue confess
    That the son of God is forever blessed
    His is the kingdom, we’re the guests
    So put your voice up to the test
    Sing Lord, come soon
    Farther along we’ll know all about it
    Farther along we’ll understand why
    So cheer up my brothers, live in the sunshine
    We’ll understand this, all by and by

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Robin. I had never heard Josh before he came to our town a couple of years ago. I agree. I hope he comes back!

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