Thursday, 24 June 2010

Theology and country music - yes there is such a thing!!

My exploration of some of the serious literature on the history and themes of country music is gathering pace. I came across David Fillingim's, Redneck Liberation: Country Music as Theology (Macon, GA, 2003), the other day and so quickly placed my order via trusty old amazon.co.uk!

In some ways its the book on country music that I've been looking for, but in others its a bit of a disappointment. The good points include it being about the whole history of country music, with a chapter on more recent developments including Garth Brooks. But too often it ends up straying from discussing the theology of country music and ends up talking in much more general terms about the music.

It starts with a really helpful chapter dealing with some of the methodology necessary for reading country music. This is very useful as is the guide to the main scholarly writing on the genre. The first chapter looks at the relationship between country music and gospel music, its nearest cousin really. In this chapter Fillingim sees the cheatin' songs so characteristic of country music as serving the same purpose as the questioning implicit in many gospel songs - both are songs that deal with questions of theodicy - the problem of evil and suffering. Gospel songs tend to reinforce the powerlessness of Southern whites with a culture of domesticity, cheating songs tend to enable them to protest against their powerlessness much more effectively.

In a chapter on Hank Williams, Fillingim looks at the dark side of country music, but the chapter quickly morphs into a discussion of Hank's more recent counterpart George Jones. The chapter is particularly good on the sense of irony in country music, the contrast between the way things are and the way things ought to be! Yet there wasn't much theology in this chapter. More interesting, if only because its dealing with more recent material is the chapter on Garth Brooks, but according to Fillingim the claim to theological content in his music rests on the apocalyptic elements in some of his songs - song like 'The River' or more obviously, 'We shall be Free'. Like most commentary on Garth Brooks' music though this discussion centred largely on whether his music is actually country music at all!

There's a better final chapter on women and country music, but again its reads a bit like a run through of some of the main highlights in the history of female country music, via Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, of course, Dolly Parton and Shania Twain, and then a mix of various slightly younger women singers, Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood, and the the Dixie Chicks - a slight odd mix really. In a short conclusion, Fillingim rounds off with a short discussion of some of the main 'theological' themes in country music: dignity, fate, responsibility, simplicity, love, hope. I don't know if it was just me, but some of these themes were/are only theological in the most general of ways really.

So quite an interesting read, if a little infuriating and actually quite poor on the theological analysis. The book has the virtue of a really good bibliography though, which has given me a lots of leads for further reading. So watch this space . . . . .

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