I have heard the following remark, or something similar, made about country music on numerous occasions in my life: “You know, it’s kind of hard to take a guy seriously when he sings about loving Jesus one minute and drinking and cheating the next.”

It is always uttered by someone who is not a big country music fan, and it is usually during a conversation about gospel music performed by country artists (or “spiritual music,” as a lot of country folks put it).

To these folks, “Christian country music” seems like a contradiction in terms. The idea of blending worship and honky-tonk seems inherently inappropriate.

Allow me to pause here for clarification about a very important matter. When I speak of “country music,” I most certainly am not talking about what passes for country on most standard radio stations today. Just as political movements can be hijacked, so can music. It is crucial for the reader to realize that the monotonous pablum spewed from airwaves today by the sissified, skinny-jean-wearing, scantily bearded, “bro-country” nancies is most definitely not country music. Don’t even get me started on that grotesque innovation called “country rap,” appropriately known by traditional country music stalwarts by its abbreviation, CRAP.

Christianity has played an important role in country music since its inception. It could also be argued that there is no genre of music that more closely identifies with America, and the South in particular, than country. The values associated with religion, family, and hard work blend together with themes of regret, loneliness, and despair because country people lack the pretentiousness that might otherwise lead them to muddle or mask certain areas of their lives.

“Do you know why you never read about me in the tabloids?” country music legend Merle Haggard once asked his audience. “Because I tell everybody first.” Haggard later related that part of the allure of his music was its relation to the values and experiences of the people who love it, and what they really want from their country music singers is the “most rare commodity in the world—honesty.”

True country music is religious, revealing, transparent, deeply patriotic, and to the point. It is brutal, in-your-face honesty sung by and about the salt of the earth, the proud: hardscrabble, blue-collar, conservative, hard-working men and women who love God, family, and country.

Being so partial to country makes it difficult for me to compare it to other music. But I think that’s typical for country music fans, who seem to have a stronger identification with and attachment to their music than do other kinds of music fans who dabble with other kinds of music. I believe that this is because really loving country music coexists with actually being country. All kinds of people enjoy, say, Eric Clapton or Lady Gaga. Many people like jazz, the blues, and rock and roll. Country people love country music.

Country culture places a high value upon home, family, and religion. Upon the death of Haggard in 2016, the late Chronicles editor Aaron Wolf wrote in these pages of Haggard’s fans:

Among them was great diversity because of their connections to particular places…. Yet, at the same time, they had many common traits. They were largely Celtic…the self-conscious purveyors of ‘Cracker Culture’…. They’d been here since colonial times, fought alongside Yankees in big wars, and against them in one. They were low-church Protestants, believed in heaven and hell, sin and forgiveness, the ‘Old Bible’—their speech was inflected with King James—and were fiercely loyal to family.

Real country music, that hybrid of righteousness and sin, is about life—all of it. Therefore, I see no contradiction between Christian belief and country music that others might perceive. Both cover highs and lows, triumphs and defeats, without hiding warts. Painful and embarrassing issues are not avoided; putting all your cards on the table is a defining element of country culture.

There are some I know who favor popular music with lyrics containing sexual immorality, drug use, and violence—ideas that I find absolutely reprehensible. These same people claim that country is “just as bad” because so much of it is about sin and bad living.

Yes, there are a lot of country drinking songs. But, as with so many things, the Bible does not prohibit alcohol consumption, only its abuse. And, yes, much of country music is about cheating, going to prison, and such. But, with a few regrettable exceptions, and in notable contrast to other forms of popular music, country music treats adultery, alcohol abuse, incarceration, and other sins and low points in life as lamentations, not celebrations. Haggard’s song “Worried, Unhappy, Lonesome and Sorry” is not sung by a man pleased with or bragging about his situation.

Despite its reputation for wallowing in misery, country music is filled with plentiful examples of uplifting songs. The emotions ebb and flow. So Tom T. Hall can sing both “I Like Beer” and “Me and Jesus.” Country fans don’t find it unusual for Ricky Skaggs to follow a song about adultery, “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown,” with an inspirational Christian ballad, “Little Mountain Church House.” Brooks and Dunn can sing about lost love and drunken regrets in a “Neon Moon” as well as look back with fondness down that “Red Dirt Road” to memories of not only “where I drank my first beer” but also “where I found Jesus.” Confederate Railroad can recount saving foolish pride by treating their bar buddies to “Black Label, White Lies” and also tell us about the love of “Jesus and Mama.”

The state of the church in America has steadily deteriorated to such a point that people are looking elsewhere for genuine spirituality. Christian researcher George Barna reports, “Every day, the church is becoming more like the world it allegedly seeks to change.”

Young country men, especially, are increasingly turned off by the effeminate characteristics associated with most churches. Country culture is about ruggedness and protectiveness, and it can be taxing trying to have your cup filled by a twenty-something metrosexual “worship minister” or “praise and worship” music sung by someone with their hair gelled to a rooster point.

Although the decline has accelerated, it is nothing new. “I am persuaded that one reason why our working men so universally keep clear of ministers is because they abhor their artificial and unmanly ways,” the Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon once asserted. “If they saw us, in the pulpit and out of it, acting like real men, and speaking naturally, like honest men, they would come around us.” Amen.

So a lot of those “working men” turn to country music. A growing trend is the infusion of country-rock, also known as “alt-country,” with Christianity.

On the first Saturday evening of August 2019, some friends and I attended a country-rock concert inside the mouth of a cave in a secluded area of Pelham, Tennessee.

The opening act was a young man known as Tennessee Jet. His set included the mournful song “What Kind of Man,” the story of the devastation of alcoholic despair but with the redeeming, culminating verse:

Now I’m here on bended knee And I’m doing my best just to believe I just called your name and my debt is paid What kind of God loves a sinner that way?

Jet then closed with the Hank Williams gospel classic, “I Saw the Light.” He sang the last chorus a cappella, with his hands and eyes lifted toward heaven. The headliners, The Steel Woods, took the stage shortly after Jet, opening with “The Rock That Says My Name,” a narrative from an undertaker’s perspective. The chorus begins: “Well I ain’t afraid to die ’cause I know where I’ll go/There I’ll live forever on the streets made of gold.”

This was not a church event, nor a Southern gospel revival, nor even a bluegrass show. This was a country-rock concert in a cave in the woods with hundreds of blue-collar roughnecks singing along. Yet I was deeply moved at how sincere, humble, and reverent these performances were. On the drive back to our home in Alabama, my friends shared the same feeling with me.

Tom T. Hall once sang, “Ain’t it funny where a man can find Jesus?” Maybe so. If country music has a contradiction between its Christian soul and its honky-tonk heart, it’s one borne from its honesty. Country music is about life, where we find ourselves alternately in highs, lows, and somewhere in the middle—somewhere between right and wrong. Hank Williams, Jr., called it a “Country State of Mind”—being “somewhere between raising hell and amazing grace.”