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.”