Summer is typically party-jam season in the radio-driven lanes of popular music. Lately, though, mainstream country has been playing host to a year-round throw-down. Beat-driven bangers dominated the top spot on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart for more than two-thirds of 2014. The Florida Georgia Line single “Sun Daze” — a reggae-doctored soundtrack for poolside high times if ever there was one — was released early last fall and reached Number One on the Country Airplay chart this February.
In the middle of all the carousing, however, Carrie Underwood snuck in with the surging, inspirational single “Something in the Water” and changed radio’s choice subject from good times and blowouts to baptism as a symbol of spiritual transformation and self-improvement. Besides briefly bumping boozier fare from atop the country charts, her song crossed over to Top 40 pop and Christian fields, and contemporary praise bands started playing it at evangelical megachurch services. But the success of “Something in the Water” was a devotional exception that proved the reveling rule.
In countrified musical expression, and blue-collar experience more broadly, there’s long been a dynamic balance between Saturday night and Sunday morning; room, and good reason, for downing beers, drowning sorrows and blowing off steam at the honky-tonk, as well as seeking solace in a personalized relationship with God. A God who watches over down-and-out folks, whether or not they’re in the habit of warming church pews. But when the party-hearty mood of country radio playlists pushes less remix-friendly songs to the margins of the format, as it’s done especially in the last few years, explorations of faith don’t necessarily dry up — they just recede from the spotlight.
Long before Thomas Rhett had made his mark as a congenial, soul-pop-inflected crooner with “Make Me Wanna” and his current single, “Crash and Burn,” he attempted to make inroads at country radio in the fall of 2012 with a ruminative, finger-picked tune titled “Beer With Jesus.” Intensely earnest in its depiction of a barroom heart-to-heart with the Christian Savior, it was similar in spirit to “Heart Like Mine,” the playful portrait of an empathetic Jesus who’d be cool with the smoking and drinking crowd that Miranda Lambert had released a year and a half earlier. Lambert’s single climbed to Number One, even as some humorless message-board commenters called it heretical. Yet Rhett’s single barely made it into the Top 20 on the Country Airplay chart, and it elicited enough indignation from a vocal minority that he found himself doing on-air interviews with radio DJs trying to explain what he’d really meant by the song — that he’d written it, as he puts it, “about the Jesus that I know, or I feel like I know.”
“That was a very hard moment in my life as an artist,” Rhett tells Rolling Stone Country, “because we were going out and playing this song live in front of a Toby Keith crowd or in front of a Jason Aldean crowd, and it was the biggest song we would play during the night. People’s lighters would be up in the air. Their cellphones would be up in the air. You would see bikers, like, stone-cold country dudes that could beat the crap out of you, with tears in their eyes. . . But then there was also that big percentage of people that were like, ‘This dude is the antichrist. You don’t talk about beer and Jesus in the same song, because that is straight wrong.’ But these people that are saying this are the ones that are drinking beer, and then going to church on Sunday. You know what I mean?”
But Rhett — an introspectively inclined, second-generation country singer and songwriter whose budding music career cut short his studies at a Church of Christ-affiliated liberal arts school — says he doesn’t at all regret co-writing or releasing “Beer With Jesus.” He’s even considering putting a song on his upcoming second album that raises the subject of faith. It wasn’t lost on him that the people calling their local radio stations to register complaints about his single had less conspicuous counterparts: fans who approached him after shows or wrote him on social media to say that they identified powerfully with his vision of an approachable Jesus. Besides, he wants his music to reflect a broader range of experiences and emotions than radio playlists do: “I would say that all the singles that I have put out are collectively just a small piece of the artist that Thomas Rhett wants to be.”
Justin Moore is further along than Rhett in his recording career, and pragmatic about country’s cyclical trends, aiming to bridge the gap between the modernized, down-home sentimentality popular in the Nineties — which registers as positively neo-traditional 20-or-so years later — and what’s going over at the moment. “Now we’re in the party phase, I guess,” Moore explains to Rolling Stone Country. “I’ve been really fortunate that we have been able to have hit records throughout my career on a number of different themes or vibes or topics, or whatever you want to classify it as.”
Five years ago, the cowboy hat-sporting Moore, whose vocals have a distinctly hardcore country attack, scored a Number One with “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away,” a wistful vision of loved ones in the afterlife. His most recent chart-topper, however, was the casual, cruise-around number “Lettin’ the Night Roll.” More telling is the song he introduces during live shows as being truest to his identity: “Outlaws Like Me.” Its boldfaced title belies its lyrics’ confessions of faithful and faithless impulses. Moore never got the chance to release it to radio.
“Fans have really dug that song,” he notes. “I’ve spoken candidly about the fact that at the time that I wrote that song, I wasn’t a very good person and had gotten away from some things in my life that I had been taught to keep near and dear to me. My priorities were a little out of whack — or a lot out of whack. People feel like they understand the song, what it’s all about, rather than just listening and going, ‘Oh, that’s a cool thing.’ I think the fact that they know the real story behind it has made a big difference with their liking that song as much as they do.”
Moore later takes care to point out, “I’ve said for a long time fans are not stupid. They can tell if you’re faking it.”
Brantley Gilbert began building his fan base, known as the BG Nation, with burly country-rock shows and little in the way of country radio support. So he knows the difference between cementing a connection with hardcore fans — a number of whom get tattooed with the BG Nation’s monogram logo — and capturing an audience of casual listeners perhaps just for the life cycle of a single.
Last year, he scored his biggest hit as a recording artist to date with “Bottoms Up,” a keg party kick-starter that made a nü metal-style leap to a full-force guitar attack. The bootlegger-themed video cast him as a steeled and seasoned ladies’ man of a ringleader, a Prohibition Era spin on the good ol’ biker bad boy image he’s become known for over the last half-decade. Still, “Bottoms Up” came from the same album as a gruffly prayerful power ballad called “My Faith in You.” (That would be Just As I Am, its title a defiant statement of personal authenticity that doubles as a reference to an old Billy Graham crusade altar call hymn.) Of all the songs he’s written, Gilbert often singles out “Modern Day Prodigal Son,” a raw, repentant number from his 2009 debut album, as his favorite, even though it never came close to being a single. Neither, for that matter, did “My Faith in You.”
Says Gilbert, “I think it’s important for me to cover the whole spectrum. There’s rough and tough people that like fighting songs, and they wanna come to the show and hear me sing songs about whooping people’s ass and sing songs about partying and drinking. They wanna hear those songs live. But when they get there, they get a taste of something else.
“If they listen to the whole record, they see that, ‘Man, this dude can be pretty rough at times, but really the core of what he does and who he is stems from something a whole lot deeper.’ And that is the one place that’s always been a safe place for me to show weakness, to show strength, to find it, to ask for it, and that’s the Man Upstairs. It’s important to me to write about my faith, because it is such a big part of who I am. It doesn’t always reflect in the way I speak sometimes. He who is without sin can throw the first stone anytime they’re ready, and I’ll be glad to take it.”
It’s understandable if Gilbert sounds defensive. In presenting himself as a guy with a past, a wayward Southern Baptist and recovered addict who’s skated close to death and lived to write and sing about it, he’s grown accustomed to hearing that his music doesn’t meet churchly standards of pious respectability — or from another angle, that it lacks Underwood’s Christian pop crossover potential. (Though the association between country and gospel looms large in the popular imagination, in reality, country also has an important tradition of songs that voice feelings of alienation from institutional religion and resist being judged according to its middle-class moralism.) On the other hand, Gilbert’s seen many a music critic dismiss his music as unsophisticated posturing, another perspective with classist undertones. (Hardly surprising, then, that Gilbert, along with Rhett and Moore, is grateful for an interview that devotes serious attention to how his faith confessions fit into the big picture of what he does.)
“In the church sometimes,” says Gilbert, “I’ve had preachers preach while I was in the room about some of the content that goes out to today’s youth and things like that. If I started writing songs just based on what other people think and what other people feel, I feel like it loses every bit of what it’s about. I think as long as I keep it honest and I share my opinion, I have a platform to do that, and people that feel different, they have a platform as well, whether it be their laptop or whether it be a pulpit. They’re entitled to their opinion, and I respect their opinion, but it’s not gonna change what I do.”
At a time when the country radio audience dwarfs that of every other format — thanks in no small part to the way that bro-country jams, with their breezy come-ons and hip-hop and EDM-influenced production, nail the listening tastes of a broad, 20-something listenership — maintaining mass appeal is more of a priority than ever. The thinking is that party anthems, and maybe the occasional empowerment anthem, help the cause.
Gilbert’s latest single, “Hell of an Amen,” is neither of the above. The red-blooded eulogy for a soldier and a cancer patient who faced death with courage — full of references to the Good Lord and “fighting the good fight” until you meet your maker — seems to have stalled at the bottom of the Top 20. “It’s not a party song,” Gilbert says. “It’s a little bit of a slower tempo. But I felt like it was an important song to release. And if it doesn’t do well on the charts, it’s not so much what this song does on the charts as what it does off the charts.”