We’ve just interrupted our latest WorldbyBike motorcycle jaunt around the country roads and trails of the Deep South of America for a week taking in the CMA music festival in Nashville. Multiple stages going all day and then 60,000 of us in the LP stadium each night to soak up the best of country music whose roots lie in the Deep South of the USA.
Probably the most startling revelation is how the whole crowd knows the words for each and every tune dished up by the artists. This music is pretty niche everywhere but in the Bible Belt where the contradictions in every song completely bewilder those not from this region. Where else can you hear about getting laid and saved in the same song, or downing copious quantities of bourbon on Saturday night before driving the truck home and then to church the next morning. Clearly here it’s okay to sin as much as you like as long as you eventually come back to the fold. Ethical atheists have no place here – which is why I enjoy it so much.
In New Zealand we’re bemused and bedazzled by America, and pretty much bear a grudge to the country as a whole. But despite its obvious contradictions it remains by far the biggest external influence on our lives. Nowhere more is our bemusement greater than trying to get our heads around our perceived hypocrisy of US religiosity and military activism.
Country music has never been as big as it is these days in the Deep South, it’s changed and evolved for sure – acts of the past like Tanya Tucker and the Oak Ridge Boys play to small audiences here compared to the stars of today – Luke Bryan, Eric Church, Keith Urban. And the music is way different, but the themes remain the same. Christianity is diluted and dumbed-down compared to what the most pious would prefer. Gospel music it certainly is not. The songs are of small towns that have a preacher man in a cowboy shirt and a little white church in the middle of town, populated with God-fearing folk that are normally associated with people living in the country. Hard liquor, trucks and women (in that order), dominate the lyrics.
Each night the concert starts with a rendition of Star-Spangled Banner and salute to ‘Old Glory’. The flag here means something; it represents a rejection of British superiority that the pilgrims on the Mayflower were fleeing. That much is reminiscent of the settlers who escaped to New Zealand. Pity our flag doesn’t reflect the same.
And the tributes to the military flow all night, the love and respect for the armed forces here is deep and inviolate. Each night we’re reminded numerous times that freedom is a hard fought right, it doesn’t just happen. America, we’re told will stand tall and firm, no matter which allies waver, which enemies emerge.
All staunch stuff for a music festival, albeit one with a 44 year history.
Religion, mainly Protestant, in the Bible Belt began with a period of mass revivalism that flew through the South between 1799 and 1820. Country music upholds these religious roots of the Southern United States, and is a way of people connecting to the rural past in an urban present. In the 1980s it began to be noted that country music was being moved to a suburban sound, reflecting this new demographic of the South. Banjos became less common. This music then still allows people to remember what things used to be like, and take some of those early roots beliefs for themselves. It also encourages people to have faith in things such as eternal life, so that they can deal with death more comfortably. As well as being the capital of country music, Nashville is headquarters of several Protestant church groups including the Southern Baptists and United Methodists.
The kiss of death for a country singer’s career is to declare themselves aetheist. Bad behaviour and sin is fine, all is forgiven on Sunday. It’s this compromise that has enabled the genre to stay in touch with the public and indeed thrive. The far-too-serious Gospel music genre on the other hand, is marginalised in this good ‘ol boy belt. And atheism is just not an option for a comfortable life down here.
So best keep quiet and enjoy these wonderful people. I understand the population here is 30% African American. That’s certainly not reflected in attendance to the CMA festival. Back on the bike tomorrow to go find where they all are.