Note: the songs mentioned and shared in this post have some strong language.
Some thirty years ago, Tex Sample wrote a book called Hard Living People and Mainstream Christians. He challenged mainline churches to break the bonds of middle/upper class captivity and reach out to those who live, well, a little bit harder.
We didn’t listen very well then, but perhaps country music is calling on us to rethink our position.
The CMA best new artist of the year is Jelly Roll (born Jason Bradley Deford) whose song Need A Favor is currently number one on the country charts. In it, Mr. Roll laments that he only talks to God when he needs a favor, but admits how much he actually does need a savior.
The number one song, y’all. It resonates with people. Turns out there are a lot of folks out there who have a similar relationship with the Almighty. Jelly Roll has a host of songs that sing about struggle and faith. Son of A Sinner. Halfway to Hell. Same A$$hole. In all of them he laments his feelings of being lost, the tragedies that life brings, his hard drinking and his hope that he is still, somehow, worth saving.
In her song Smells like Smoke, CMA Entertainer of the Year Lainey Wilson affirms “heaven’s where I’m gonna go, the Bible says so on my shelf,” but then adds, “if I smell smoke, it’s only cuz I’ve been through hell.”
Both Jelly Roll and Wilson sing about faith and hard drinking and hard living, and in Somebody Save Me, they join forces in a duet about all of those themes.
My personal fav, Ashley McBryde (CMA Best New Artist in 2019), sings about all these themes as well. Her song Redemption double dips on the word as both a brand of whiskey and the saving grace of God. She penned an ode to her father entitled Bible and a 44. But perhaps the one that really hits home is a song from her concept album Welcome to Lindeville entitled Gospel Night at the Strip Club. And the story behind the song takes place at a bar about a block from the downtown church I used to serve in North Little Rock, Arkansas. The story and the song are worth a listen.
Most of our mainline churches are not places where hard drinking, hard living people feel at home, so hard drinking, hard living country music singers are stepping in to fill the void. Not that this is anything new. Country music has long had themes of Christianity, but this new faith-country hybrid is a little more real and a lot more raw than past offerings.
Who the hell am I to deserve a savior Damn I need a savior
hits a little harder than “Jesus take the wheel.”
Hallelujah, hallelujah Jesus loves the drunkards and the whores and the queers Hallelujah, hallelujah Would you recognize Him if he bought you a beer?
is a bit different from “God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you.”
We talk a good game about how Jesus always stood with the marginalized and the people on the edges, but we don’t really expect to meet Jesus at a bar. We read about demons in our scriptures, but don’t provide much of a space for people to wrestle with them. We love to post our “All are Welcome” signs, but how radical are we willing to be in our hospitality?
Maybe it’s time to give Tex’s book another look.
People who are asking the question “Who the hell am I to deserve a savior?” should have someone out there telling them “A beloved child of God, Jelly Roll. That’s who you are. A beloved child of God.”
Rev. Anne Russ is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), currently based in New York City. Doubting Believer provides tools and encouragement for the rollercoaster ride of your faith journey. Follow me on Facebook , Instagram and YouTube. You can also follow on TikTok. Get emails to keep up with all that is happening.
Because a fait that wrestles with questions is always stronger than one that never asks any