Month: March 2016

“I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow” by The Stanley Brothers – 40 Days Of Country – Song #15 – Lent 2016

“I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow” by The Stanley Brothers
40 Days Of Country – Song #15 – Lent 2016

As we get deeper into our list of forty of the most influential country music songs and artists of all time, the influence of bluegrass seems to be growing. That sentiment is certainly true for The Stanley Brothers, born and raised on bluegrass music in Virginia. While the brothers were active for twenty years, from 1946 to 1966, they are perhaps best known for the song that the film, “O Brother Where Art Thou?” reintroduced to the world in 2000, “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow.”

True to its bluegrass heritage, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” as it is also known, was first made famous by a blind fiddler from Kentucky in 1913, Dick Burnett. It was the Stanley Brothers, however, who made the song famous. The song itself is both a lament and somewhat autobiographical in nature. The lyrics mention “I bid farewell to old Kentucky, the place where I was born in raised,” as well as, “for six long years I’ve been in trouble,” (a reference to Burnett’s blindness.” As a result, the singer deems himself, “a man of constant sorrow [because] I’ve seen trouble all my days.”

A similar theme is found in Isaiah 53:3, when the prophet speaks of the “Son of Man,” or the “Suffering Messiah,” two titles most Christians associate with Jesus Christ. In Isaiah 53:3, he writes, “He was despised and avoided by others; a man who suffered (also translated “a man of sorrows”), who knew sickness well. Like someone from whom people hid their faces, he was despised, and we didn’t think about him.” Whenever we are facing trials or troubles, whenever we are up against pain and struggle, it is sometimes good to remember that our savior endured all this suffering, and even more, so that no matter what we’re going through, suffering will never have the final word in our life. Amen.

God of suffering and sorrows, never let us forget that sacrifice made by your Son, Jesus Christ, on the cross, to redeem us not only from sin and death, but from all the brokenness this life carries. We have faith that by your grace, as your Son did rise, the sun will always rise bringing hope for a better tomorrow. Amen.

(The “O Brother Where Art Thou” version is too fun not too include, enjoy!)

“Can The Circle Be Unbroken” by The Carter Family – 40 Days Of Country – Song #16 – Lent 2016

“Can The Circle Be Unbroken” by The Carter Family
40 Days Of Country – Song #16 – Lent 2016

The impact The Carter Family, who performed from the 1920’s to the 1950’s, had on the American music landscape, can not be understated. With influence from bluegrass, folk, and gospel, and recordings that infused pop, country, and rock sounds, The Carter Family could take just about any song and make it a hit.
In 1935, patriarch A.P. Carter reworked the classic, gospel hymn, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken (By and By)” into the classic Carter Family hit, “Can The Circle Be Unbroken (By and By)” by updating some of the lyrics and giving it a folk sound that allowed Maybelle Carter to showcase her signature guitar-picking style. Once June Carter joined the family singing group, it wasn’t long before her future husband, Johnny Cash, had once again adopted the song for his hit, “Daddy Sang Bass,” once again reverting the lyrics to the original titles, as most covers of the song have done ever since, and using it as an autobiographical reflection on the childhood loss of his brother.

The song is a classic piece of Americana, with heavenly oriented themes central to much of Southern Gospel. Specifically, the song addresses the hope of being reunited with loved-ones passed in the eternal life to come, with lines like, “Can the circle be unbroken, bye and bye, Lord, bye and bye? There’s a better home a-waiting in the sky, Lord, in the sky.”

This hope of heaven as a batter place to come in our life after death was central to Jesus’ message in the Gospel of John. In a passage that is as relevant at funerals as any other day in our lives, Jesus tells his disciples, ““Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. 2 My Father’s house has room to spare. If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you? 3 When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too.” As Christians, we share in this hope that this life is just a foretaste of the glory to come, when we are once again united together in and by the grace of Jesus Christ.

Graceful Savior, while we set our eyes on the heavenly future that awaits us, let us never lose sight of your Kingdom come here on earth. May we be active participants in your mission here and now, as we are assured of your presence with us for all eternity. Amen.

“When You Say Nothing At All” by Allison Kraus and Confederate Railroad – 40 Days of Country – Song #17 – Lent 2016

“When You Say Nothing At All” by Allison Kraus and Confederate Railroad
40 Days of Country – Song #17 – Lent 2016

With a career that started at the young age of ten, and a recording contract by the age of fourteen, Allison Kraus has legitimately spent her life making music. Unlike most of the other artists in this list, Kraus’s background was actually in bluegrass music, and by 1987, she had joined the band with whom she still performs today, Confederate Railroad.

Allison Kraus is perhaps best known for her 1995 cover of Keith Williams 1988 hit single, “When You Say Nothing At All.” In fact, Kraus was the second of three different artists, over a a twelve year period who took the song to number one on the charts. The lyrics speak the universal truth that sometimes, especially in relationships, actions can speak louder than words. According to the singer, “The smile on your face,” “truth in your eyes,” and “touch of your hand,” help “say it best when you say nothing at all.” Sometimes words simply aren’t even necessary.

God has a way of speaking to us without saying a word sometimes as well. This was a truth made clear to Elijah when God spoke to the prophet in a “still, small voice.” 1 Kings 19:11-13 reads, “11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the Lord. The Lord is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the Lord. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance. A voice came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?” Sometimes, God speaks to us without saying anything at all, but by the Holy Spirit alive inside of us, we are given assurance and moved to do God’s will.

God of silence, amidst the cacophony of noises in our life and the hectic busyness of our days, keep our ears open to hear your voice. Help us slow down and rest in an awareness of you so that we don’t miss out on hearing the new revelations you have for us every day. Amen.

“Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood – 40 Days Of Country – Song #18 – Lent 2016

“Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood
40 Days Of Country – Song #18 – Lent 2016

Not only is Carrie Underwood the only artist on this list who was also an “American Idol” winner, she is actually the highest earning American Idol contestant of all time. As a matter of fact, with countless awards and number one singles, according to RIAA, she is currently the top selling country artist of all time, even once breaking her own Guinness World Record for number one Billboard singles.

After her wildly successful debut, “Jesus, Take The Wheel,” Underwood too a darker and more raw turn with her third single, “Before He Cheats,” which at the time, became the most download country song of all time. The song tells the story of a woman who suspects her lover of having an affair, but instead of waiting on heartbreak, takes matters into her own hands. Of course, by, “taking things in her own hands,” what Underwood is actually saying is, “That I dug my key into the side of his pretty little suped up 4 wheel drive,” and “I took a Louisville slugger to both headlights, slashed a hole in all 4 tires…”

In the Gospel, “cheating” in relationships isn’t something Jesus looked to fondly on either. In Matthew 5:27-30, he teaches, “27 “You have heard that it was said, Don’t commit adultery. 28 But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. 29 And if your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body go into hell.” Come to think of it, the imagery Jesus employs to condemn adultery might actually be even more violent that Underwood’s song!

God of Faithful Love, let us take a moment and thank you again for the relationships you have blessed us with in life. For those who have made romantic commitments of faith to another, may we honor those vows and always be true to those promises. Amen.

“I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack – 40 Days of Country – Song #19 – Lent 2016

“I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack
40 Days of Country – Song #19 – Lent 2016

It might come as a surprise to many that Lee Ann Womack’s career has spanned almost twenty years, with six studio albums and multiple CMA and Grammy awards. The surprise is not a knock on Womack’s talent, however, as much as it is an acceptance that most fans know Lee Ann Womack solely for her 2000 mega-crossover hit, “I Hope You Dance,” which has currently sold over two million copies as a single alone.

With lyrics like, “I hope you never lose your sense of wonder,” and “I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean,” the song is an anthem of hope for children and adults alike. Meanwhile, lines such as “I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance, and “Never settle for the path of least resistance,” offer an encouraging sentiment of drive and determination to pursue one’s dreams.

Womack, herself, has stated that the song really was intended for her children. There is something beautiful about the naive innocence of youth that Jesus also picked up on. In Matthew 18:3-4, Jesus teaches, “I assure you that if you don’t turn your lives around and become like this little child, you will definitely not enter the kingdom of heaven. Those who humble themselves like this little child will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Faith truly is an incredible thing that can’t be explained the way our culture sometimes demands, but may we never lose our sense of wonder.

Lord of the Dance, may our faith be so true that we aren’t afraid to dance before you in life, a little reckless, a little carefree, and completely filled with hope in your love and grace. Amen.

“Mountain Music” by Alabama – 40 Days of Country – Song #20 – Lent 2016

“Mountain Music” by Alabama
40 Days of Country – Song #20 – Lent 2016

With a career that has spanned over five decades, Alabama is one of the most enduring country music groups of all time. Originally formed as the band, “Wildcountry” in 1969, the band’s success began almost as soon as they officially changed their name to Alabama in 1977. With a heavy dose of southern rock accompanied by dueling harmonies, songs like “If You’re Gonna Play In Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle and a Band)” and “Song of the South,” the group really came into their own during the 1980’s and early 1990’s.

One of their earlier hits was the song, “Mountain Music,” off the the album of the same name, which reached the number one position on four different charts in the United States and Canada. Randy Owen, who wrote the song, has stated that it took him three years to write as he desired to paint a picture of what growing up in the south looked like based on his experiences. The song is a celebration of youthful memories and the carefree freedoms of yesterday, as lyrics sing, “Oh, play me some mountain music like grandma and grandpa used to play.”

In the Gospel accounts, Samaria was one particular mountainous region that Jews often avoided, believing the residents to follow an ancient form a Judaism mixed with other regional religions, thus making it blasphemous in the eyes of some. Jesus did not share this opinion, and the Gospel of John records an exchange he had with a Samaritan woman at a well. “19 The woman said, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you and your people say that it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you and your people will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You and your people worship what you don’t know; we worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth…” Mountains are good. Mountain top experiences are even better. It’s good to remember them, but we can’t always stay there, sometimes we need to “float on down that river,” moving forward in faith on that path that Christ has called us.

God of mountains and valleys, keep us ever mindful of your presence, in our highest of highs, in our lowest of lows, and encourage us to praise you through it all. Amen.

“Independence Day” by Martina McBride – 40 Days of Country – Song #21 – Lent 2016

“Independence Day” by Martina McBride
40 Days of Country – Song #21 – Lent 2016

Not only is Martina McBride one of the best-selling and most successful country music acts of all time, quite simply, she may also have arguably the best voice country music radio has ever heard. To this day, McBride’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” continues to be one of my favorite live performances of the United States national anthem I have ever heard. With five #1 country singles, fourteen Grammy award nominations, and over 14 million records sold, it’s no surprise why Martina McBride is a four-time Country Music Awards female vocalist of the year.

A number of songs could be chosen as Martina McBride’s greatest hit of all time. 1994’s “Independence Day,” however, may not make everyone’s list, considering it only ever reached number 12 on the Country music charts. Not surprisingly, the music video for the song, which included the lyrics describing the victim of domestic abuse, her hometown willingly turning a blind-eye to the issue, and her eventual decision to burn her home to the ground (along with her abuser inside), didn’t exactly sit well with some of her more traditional, conservative audiences. It is, of course, for that very reason that this song was selected for this list. Truly, perhaps the most disappointing line in the song is not the retributive justice of “let the guilty pay,” but the dark reality so many experience, when McBride sings, “Some folks whispered and some folks talked but everybody looked the other way…”

The number of victims in the world today who can relate to scenario in this song is beyond a simple tragedy. The refrain of the song sings, “Let the weak be strong, let the right be wrong.” This is a sentiment that is shared by Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:8, when she sings, “God raises the poor from the dust, lifts up the needy from the garbage pile. God sits them with officials, gives them the seat of honor!” and then again by Mary in Luke 1:52-53 when she, likewise, sings, “[God] has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. [God] has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.” These unlikely biblical women found strength in their hope for a different sort of “Independence Day,” and that hope gave rise to their powerful voices of witness. Unfortunately, too many stories don’t have happy endings. Amidst the brokenness of this world, however, our God is a God of justice, who continuously sides with those who are struggling and suffering, offering mercy and hope anywhere that the goodness of creation is threatened.  And while burning houses to the ground, as depicted in McBride’s song, may not be the way of Christ, as followers of Christ, there is certainly more that can be done to shine light in the darkest places.

God of mercy, allow us never to close our eyes or turn our backs to the suffering of so many innocent women and men throughout the world, many of whom may be closer to us than we ever imagined. Give us courage to speak out for justice, a boldness to shine light that exposes darkness, and a zeal to be agents of your love and mercy for those in need. Amen.

“Friends In Low Places” by Garth Brooks – 40 Days Of Country – Song #22 – Lent 2016

“Friends In Low Places” by Garth Brooks
40 Days Of Country – Song #22 – Lent 2016

Born Troyal Brooks, “Garth Brooks,” as he is better known, is one of the most recognizable and successful country recording artists of all time. In fact, to date, with over 160 million records sold, he is one of the the best-selling artists of all time, period. He currently sits second on that list, ahead of Elvis, himself, and only behind the Beatles. Known for his uncanny showmanship and presentational live performances, Brooks fluid blend of country, pop, and rock and roll has made him somewhat of an icon in the music world.

Perhaps Garth Brooks’ best known song is his 1990 hit, “Friends in Low Places,” which spent four weeks in the #1 spot and earned Garth awards from both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Awards. The song, inspired by a song-writing duo’s experience at local diner in 1989 who ran out of money to pay their bill but happened to know the chef, was eventually originally written down on several napkins. Upon hearing the song for the first time, Garth Brooks was so captivated that he set out recording his own version immediately.

In the song, the narrator, reflecting on quite the experience, tells a time of when he “showed up in boots,” at his ex-partners “black tie affair,” (perhaps her wedding), much to her surprise. Rather than complain, however, he raises a toast in celebration of the freedom he has experienced since freeing himself from the social demands of her “high society,” life, after all, as he says, “I’ve got friends in low places.” The song then launches into a sing-along refrain chanting the joys of revelry, to which Garth Brooks once explained to a reporter, “We’ve had a lot of fun with that song, but it’s nothing to base your values on.”

Alas, while escaping to a life of debauchery is no message to be applauded, the song itself tackles a theme that is actually quite central to the Gospel message. Jesus explains to his disciples in Matthew 11: 16-20, “To what will I compare this generation? It is like a child sitting in the marketplaces calling out to others, 17  ‘We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song and you didn’t mourn.’ 18  For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19  Yet the Human One came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved to be right by her works.” 16 “To what will I compare this generation? It is like a child sitting in the marketplaces calling out to others, 17  ‘We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song and you didn’t mourn.’ 18  For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19  Yet the Human One came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved to be right by her works.”

It turns out, Jesus had plenty of “friends in low places,” but as he explained to a pharisee two chapters earlier who challenged him on this behavior in Matthew 9:13, “I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.” While it should be obvious, Christians, especially those who are quick to judge and condemn the choices and lifestyles of others, can learn a lot from these words and actions of Jesus Christ. Perhaps it’s good to have some friends in low places, after all, it isn’t by “social graces” that we are saved, but by the grace of Jesus Christ, who came to save sinners like us, and through that grace, our hope is that one day, all of us, saints and sinners alike, will be able to “slip on [up] to the Ooooooasis,” an eternity spent in heaven.
God of sinners and saints alike, while we do not celebrate our sinful nature, and we praise your willingness to meet each and every one of us where we are. Pull us out of whatever pit we may find ourselves in, and give us the courage to reach down and pull others up as well. May the friends we keep in low places be a witness to the ultimate friendship we have in the highest place. Amen.

(PS: Garth Brooks has strict policies regarding the public availability of his music…as a result, enjoy this performance from a couple years ago where Justin Timberlake surprised his Nashville audience with an appearance by the country music legend.)

“Bye Bye Love” by The Everly Brothers – 40 Days of Country – Song #23 – Lent 2016

“Bye Bye Love” by The Everly Brothers
40 Days of Country – Song #23 – Lent 2016
The steel-guitar country rock and roll sound fused with incredibly tight dual vocal harmonies gave the Everly Brothers not only a signature sound, but also earned them a place in both the Rock & Roll and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Born in Kentucky in the 1930’s to a coal-mining family, the brothers were encouraged to follow their passion for music, and by the 1940’s, they already had their own show, singing on local radio stations.

While perhaps their greatest known tune is the classic “All I Have To Do Is Dream,” in 1957, the Everly Brothers opted to a record a song that had already been declined by thirty other artists. That song, “Bye Bye Love,” became one of their greatest hits to date, topping pop and country charts. Like many country songs, the tune is a lament, the refrain crooning, “Bye bye love. Bye bye happiness. Hello loneliness. I think I’m-a gonna cry. Bye bye love. Bye bye sweet caress. Hello emptiness. I feel like I could die…”

The idea of personifying emotions like happiness, loneliness, and emptiness is a familiar concept to many of the Psalms in the Bible as well. As Psalm 25:16 writes, “Turn to me, God, and have mercy on me because I’m alone and suffering.” Meanwhile, in Psalm 13, when the Psalmist feels abandoned by God, the poet laments, “Look at me! Answer me, Lord my God! Restore sight to my eyes! Otherwise, I’ll sleep the sleep of death.” However, in any true lament, the psalmist always ends with a note of hope, such as Psalm 118:17, which declares, “I won’t die—no, I will live and declare what the Lord has done.” When we feel empty and alone, we can be confident that “God’s faithful love lasts forever,” (118:29) and that the Lord will always be here for us.

God of Steadfast Love, there are times when we feel like we have been left alone. There are times when we lose hope for a better tomorrow. Restore our faith in your promises and grant us assurance that your grace and love are always present for us, and that you are constantly at work providing us with opportunities for a future of joy and peace. Amen.

“Fancy” by Reba McEntire – 40 Days of Country – Song #24 – Lent 2016

“Fancy” by Reba McEntire
40 Days of Country – Song #24 – Lent 2016

Sometimes referred to as the “Queen of Country,” Reba McEntire is best known for her string of country music hits in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Not only has McEntire had an award-winning career as a country music singer, she has also experienced some acting success, with appearances in feature films and her work on sitcom, “Reba,” earning her a Golden Globe nomination.

In 1991, Reba McEntire released one of the most successful (albeit, controversial) songs of her career, a cover of Bobbie Gentrie’s 1969 song, “Fancy,” about a young, poor woman who overcomes her own circumstances and poverty to become a self-made socialite. While “Fancy” begins the narrative living, “in a one, room shack,” by the end of the song, through her wit, determination, and feminine charm (in truth, the song implies prostitution), she, “ain’t had to worry ’bout nothin’ for nigh on fifteen years.” While the song attempts to unravel some of the complexities and injustices faced, especially, by single women living in poverty, it has also been celebrated as a piece of feminist liberation.

Far from judging the title character of the track, “Fancy” may be surprised to find some female heroes in the biblical narrative that share her experience. First, in the book of Joshua 2:12-13, Rahab, a prostitute living in Jericho, assists Jewish spies on the following terms, “This is because the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on earth below. 12 Now, I have been loyal to you. So pledge to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal loyally with my family. Give me a sign of good faith. 13 Spare the lives of my father, mother, brothers, and sisters, along with everything they own. Rescue us from death.” As a result, when the walls of Jericho “come tumbling down,” Rahab and her family are spared. Later in the Old Testament, the book of Esther tells the story of how one young girls marriage to a foreign king eventually saves not only her own life, but the lives of her entire people. We may not always know the future God has planned for us, but like “Fancy,” even those in the most unlikely of circumstances can overcome their condition and be used for greatness.

Liberating God, we confess to the brokenness of our world, and ask forgiveness for any role we may have played, through our silence or through our action, for the injustices faced by so many living today. Help us become agents of hope for your mission of liberation to all people. Amen.