The George Option
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,” the latest 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 the 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?