In the early half of the nineteenth century, religion was a key driving force that affected people’s thoughts and actions. Religion permeated every aspect of society and was a common foundation of popular music at the time. The popular country music of today hasn’t deviated much from the mold formed in the early nineteenth century, religion is still a prevalent theme in a large portion of country music, and many artists incorporate religion into their lyrics.
Rural southern culture is a prime illustration of the minor transformation that country music underwent when transitioning from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. Spirituals sung at camp meetings often employed repetition of text, new refrains to existing text, and brief repeating tag lines in order to familiarize the large groups of camp meeting attendees with the lyrics quickly. A similar pattern is recognized in award-winning country artist Alison Krauss’ “Down To The River To Pray”.
The entire song is composed of two repeating verses, with different words substituted in each subsequent verse i. e. “O sisters let’s go down” becomes “O brothers let’s go down” in the next repetition of the verse. The song utilizes no instruments, but does feature a male/female choir – a style closely resembling the arrangement of camp meeting spirituals. Outside of camp meetings, religion also influenced many popular songs, laying the groundwork for twentieth-century country musicians. As stated in section II. B. of Roots & Traditions, Joseph Philbreck Webster’s “Sweet By and By” was continuously published in the rural South throughout the nineteenth-century and into the twentieth-century and was recorded by country musicians Sid Harkreaderer and Grady Moore. “Sweet By and By” incorporated themes of death, righting of wrongs, and reuniting with loved ones in heaven. Modern country music is overflowing with songs that encompass identical themes. One example is award-winning country musician Randy Travis’ “Three Wooden Crosses”, a moving song about the deaths of four people from greatly varying backgrounds.
The song is left open to interpretation and a line in the chorus reads: “I guess it’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you, it’s what you leave behind when you go”, referring to the fact that four people died, yet there were only three crosses placed at the site of their death; apparently referring to the life choices made by each individual. Overall, popular country music of today has not deviated much from its predecessor in the nineteenth-century.
Religion is still a driving force behind a majority of country music production and saturates many country lyrics. When comparing modern country songs to Southern religious country songs in the nineteenth-century, the resemblances are uncanny. Many songs share the same themes and composition, all while incorporating religious undertones. Religion was certainly an important component of country music in the past, it continues to be a fundamental factor in country music of the present, and undoubtedly will continue to hold a strong place in country music of the future.