Blood-stained Bible

Culture | Faith is a major theme in several recent country music hits-and that concerns some industry insiders

Issue: "How to fix baseball," June 21, 2003

In May a Christian record label for the first time scored a No. 1 single on Billboard's country charts. The hit song was "Three Wooden Crosses" by Randy Travis, a former country superstar now recording with Word Records.

This song-about a car wreck, a roadside shrine, and the memorable image of a blood-stained Bible-is not alone in bringing explicit Christianity into the popular culture. In the country music scene, as many as 10 of the top 60 songs refer directly to God, Jesus, prayer, heaven, or some other Christian theme and imagery. Christianity, like patriotism in the days after 9/11, has become a trend in country music, one that some celebrate and others decry.

Mr. Travis, with a rich, deep voice and hits such as "Forever and Ever, Amen," was a catalyst for the "new traditionalist" movement in the 1980s. Fallen out of favor with the pop-country radio programmers, Mr. Travis experienced a spiritual awakening and began singing in churches rather than in the stadiums that he sold out earlier in his career. He signed with a Christian label and started recording gospel music.

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"Three Wooden Crosses," a cut from his album Rise and Shine, started with limited airplay from small, independent stations, and had been released for six months until, due to word of mouth, it broke through on the big stations. It became Mr. Travis's first No. 1 record in nine years, bringing him back to the prominence he enjoyed after he willingly gave it up.

The song, written by Doug Johnson and Kim Williams, is about a farmer, a teacher, a preacher, and a prostitute. They are riding on the same bus when it is hit by a semi. Three of the four are killed, commemorated by three wooden crosses on the side of the road.

The song does not say which one survived until the very end. We are told that the preacher pushed a blood-stained Bible into the hooker's hands, implying that he is witnessing to her as she is dying, asking her, "Can't you see the promised land?"

In the song's last stanza, the singer reports that this was a story the preacher told last Sunday, as he "held that blood-stained Bible up/For all of us to see." Then comes the twist, in a classic surprise ending: He thanks God for the preacher who gave this Bible to his mama-that is, the hooker-who, in turn, read it to him.

It turns out that it was the preacher who died and the prostitute who survived. Her life was changed by his dying witness and his bloody Bible that he gave to her, leading not only to her salvation but to that of her child, who would grow up to take up the dead preacher's ministry.

The song is simple but profound, and Mr. Travis performs it in a particularly moving way. "It's a great song," said Lon Helton, an editor of the trade journal Radio & Records. "And it's a great story song. In the hands of a Randy Travis, who's one of the greatest story-song singers we've ever seen in country, it was perfect."

Not all of the songs that exhibit this spiritual trend in country music are as explicit or as unsappy. The 10 tunes cited in a USA Today story on the phenomenon by Brian Mansfield range from Clay Walker's "A Few Questions"-asking God why He allows suffering-to the out-of-favor Dixie Chicks singing "Godspeed," a lullaby with only mild references to the Divine. Diamond Rio's "I Believe" presents a generic spirituality rather than a Christian credo, while Brooks & Dunn's "Red Dirt Road" celebrates the place where the singer drank his first beer and wrecked his first car but also "found Jesus."

Arguably, this phenomenon is not as new as it is being made out to be. Country music has always featured songs of faith along with songs of cheatin' and drinkin'-sometimes with all three themes in the same tune. The bluegrass repertoire, reflected in nearly every album to this day, includes songs grounded in the Bible next to ballads about love or murder, the whole range of life depicted in a natural, unselfconscious way.

There is doubtless a new mood after 9/11 and the Iraqi war among the "red state" Americans who make up country music's audience, one in which faith, along with patriotism, takes center stage. Significantly, while most musical genres are in the economic doldrums, country is seeing a rise in popularity.

But some industry insiders are worried. Mr. Mansfield quotes Mike Moore, program director of WSIX in Nashville. He agrees that religion plays well to the core audience of country music. "But I don't know that you're really going to attract anybody new," he said. "And that's the problem with it. It's not going to give us the mass appeal that we need to attract new listeners to the party."


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