The George Option

 In Culture, Faith, Fred's Blog, Fred's Blog, Music, People, Theology

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 almost embarrassing. As well, it seemed so blatantly hypocritical to sing about Saturday night at the honky tonks while the next track would be “Just A Little Talk With Jesus Makes It Right.”  

But my opinion has begun to change after listening to “The King of Tears,” the latest episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, “Revisionist History.” On the way home from Dallas last week 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. 

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 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 were 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 wonder if 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?  

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Showing 6 comments
  • Jim Bell

    Fred, glad you are coming around! I’ve been listening to country music about seventy years. As a small boy I went to bed early and had a radio in my room. I’ve known and loved country music ever since. Yes, I took my grass cutting money and went downtown to hear George Jones in the mid 50’s, saw Elvis with a friend and a date the next year, and slipped in the side door of the Ryman for four years in college, a time when my budget didn’t afford the price of admission. Today, it’s Bluegrass and entertainments like the North Carolina Bluegrass Festival. Getting back to Jesus, I didn’t really know him back then either. But then and now, I think some of the best music were the gospel songs sung by family groups (the Carter Family, or James and Martha Carson in Atlanta). Today you will hear it in duets or the whole band in Bluegrass. I think the songs and sentiments are from the heart and are real. It is a part of these singers’ lives just like mine. Hope you’ll let me in at The Gathering after this confession. Welcome to the country I love. Jim

    • Fred Smith

      Dear Jim – Well, I may have to put you on a separate list for The Gathering this year with that confession! I sometimes tell people, “I love Southern Gospel but I look down on people who love Southern Gospel.” I used to watch Gaither Homecoming every Sunday night for years as it reminded me of many good things in my life growing up. It’s not the same as the primitive SG we used to sing but it’s close enough to feel right.

  • David Wills

    As it would be, I listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast ‘The King of Tears’ a couple of days ago, as well. It is one of my favorite podcasts because it takes a well known topic or event and gives a new slant on its meaning. Fred, I agree with your conclusions. In fact, I think what Gladwell does, in some ways, is what happens in culture. A group of influentials, the elites, in your and Hunter’s thinking, begins to take a different slant on various topics and even events. Gladwell points out well that ‘revisionist history’ is not always wrong and a changing culture (revisionist future), likewise, is not always bad. In fact, like all of us, the ‘influentials’ are rarely entirely wrong or right. This is a topic for another day, but I see much more to like in the ‘influentials’ we call Millennials than do most. We have brought four of them into this world. Regardless, thank you for this thought provoking post AND growing up in Wichita Falls, TX you might imagine that my love for country music started at a young age. You are getting wiser as you get older, my friend.

  • Russell Brown

    Hello Fred. I think your blog today may be the most perceptive you have written regarding the silent change in our culture and who really are the core of influence. Country music speaks to a large segment of the culture regarding “real” life experiences and faith that has been dismissed as unsophisticated and without influence. Perhaps there is a Honky Tonk Heaven.

    • Fred Smith

      I suspect heaven has as much honkytonk as opera or Gregorian chants. Not sure it will have Goth or Metallica but I am likely to be surprised. Gladwell has some great insights into the language of subcultures if you want to catch the podcast.

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