Radio’s Conflicted Relationship with Religious Country Music

By Ruthanne Reid [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Ruthanne Reid [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Despite some hits making it to Top 20 charts, most religious country music has been pushed to isolation.

Country music has had a conflicted relationship with Christianity through recent years. This is even despite the fact that a number of spiritual country music hits have made it to the top charts albeit in isolated cases. Herein, lays the first case of the conflicting relationship between these two entities. A case in point is the recent rise to the top of country and Christian charts of Carrie Underwood’s hit, “Something in the Water.” Such is the success of the song that it was able to cross over to top 40 pop and Christian’s segments. However, for all its success, it has been an exception to the overriding climate in the country music scene.

This summer season, much of the music played has been on the part feel good songs laced with fast beats, and based on party themes.  Radio airplay plays an important role in pushing a song up to the top charts and also sets the subject and themes of songs that are popular at a certain time. Therefore, despite the fact that some of the spiritual songs could be receiving good reception during live performances, if the radio does not embrace them they are less likely to make it to the top sections of the chart. The recent years have seen country radio playlists push most of the spiritual songs of the genre to the periphery and while they have not disappeared, they have just been shielded from the spotlight.

There are several examples for such potential chart toppers that not only did not make the top charts but also were not released as singles becoming just part of albums with chart topping party anthems. Thomas Rhett’s “Beer with Jesus” hardly made it to the Top 20 charts while it was in the same spirit as Miranda  Lambert’s “Heart Like Mine” which as another exception went to top the charts sometime in 2010. In the case of Justin Moore, he was lucky to have a chart topping spiritual in “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away” but has failed to replicate the same success with “Outlaws Like Me” which he never got the chance to release on radio.

Country music isn’t the only genre that had trouble getting airplay for faith-based songs. Giant vocalist/guitarist Dann Huff had some success on Rock Radio with Top 20 Hits “I’ll See You In My Dreams” and “I’m A Believer” which had Christian undertones. But after rock music fell in favor of grunge, he left rock music to become a producer and session musician for more wholesome country artists such as Faith Hill, Trace Atkins and LeAnne Rimes.

Aside from radio, critics and the institutional church have offered another source of conflict between country music and religion. Much of this has been along the lines that a song is not pious enough or lacks the pop crossover potential. Another perspective has a song termed as unsophisticated posturing. All these point to why much of country music spiritual songs have voiced the alienation from institutional religion and resist the classic judgments based on middle class moralism. They are more about a personalized relationship with God, a God who watches the folks even when they are out of luck and in their individual struggles. Most of these have been dismissed as heretical by vocal minorities despite their performance in charts creating a class conflict between country music and religion.


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