Gone Country aims to thoughtfully explore the country music genre and where it’s headed, with a focus on national trends and buzzworthy news of the week. For info about album releases and concerts, check out this week’s Country Music Roundup.
When Florida Georgia Line played their opening set at last weekend’s iHeartCountry Festival in Austin, they made sure to give a special spotlight to their new single “H.O.L.Y.” Standard operating procedure for any artist, of course, but the set change leading up to the song revealed a piano and dimmed lights— a significant change of pace for the bro-country hucksters.
The resulting song (the title is an acronym for “High On Lovin’ You”) sounds like Backstreet Boys-lite sung with a slight Southern accent. Like many songs that have come before, it compares learning carnal knowledge of a woman to learning spiritual knowledge of the divine. A sample lyric: “You’re the river bank where I was baptized…Get you singing babe, hallelujah/We’ll be touching, we’ll be touching heaven.”
But enough about Florida Georgia Line. what’s interesting about “H.O.L.Y.” isn’t that it’s another middling love song. It’s another middling love song that debuted at No. 26 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, and it might signal the next trend in country music.
Obviously, country music’s relationship with Christianity is nothing new; the two are closely intertwined. Certain artists have always recorded spiritual songs on their albums (Johnny Cash and Carrie Underwood are the most passionate two that come to mind). And currently, the genre’s relationship with Christianity is of the “sin on Saturday, pray on Sunday” variety, in an attempt to appeal to listeners who are religious, but also want to party (again, nothing new). But now, bro-country is waning, “traditional” country is back on the rise and everybody is looking for the next big thing to hit. That next big thing could be songs with unabashed religious overtones. Here’s a few examples:
A few weeks before FGL’s iHeartCountry performance, Blake Shelton released “Savior’s Shadow,” the first song in his career he’s released to Christian radio. He’s recorded songs that reference religion before (“God Gave Me You”) but nothing that explicitly mentioned a savior. The song wouldn’t feel out of place as an altar call at a more laid-back church, and it’s sure to be successful with Shelton’s more religious fans.
Up-and-comer Maren Morris’ lead single from her debut album “Hero” is “My Church,” a song that compares listening to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash to hearing a good Sunday sermon. It’s currently at No. 8 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.
Duetting couple Joey + Rory (sadly, now without Joey after a battle with cancer) debuted a gospel hymn album at No. 1 11 weeks ago, and it’s still the No. 3-selling album in country music right now. Red Dirt star Wade Bowen also recently released an album of hymns, “Then Sings My Soul…Songs For My Mother.”
Then there’s Michael Ray’s “Real Men Love Jesus,” which, while referencing the Messiah of the Christian faith, also lists loving Him alongside loving football, fast cars and cold beer as the litmus test for American masculinity.
All of these songs could just be flashes in the pan, or they could be indicative of a larger trend. That’s not to say country music is going to become all religious, all the time, and the genre’s relationship with religion has always been apparent. It’s just becoming more active now. Three recent hits sounds like a pattern to me.
-The 2016 Austin City Limits Festival lineup was released earlier this week, and it features a number of prominent country musicians, like Willie Nelson, Margo Price, Chris Stapleton and Kacey Musgraves. General admission 3-day passes for Weekend One have already sold out, so hurry and get tickets now.
-Justin Timberlake released a new single, “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” today. The song itself is nowhere near country sounding, but the single’s release indicates that Timberlake may be at work on a new album, which has been rumored to have a bit of country in it.
-The Band Perry’s “Live Forever” was selected as the official song for the U.S. Olympic team. Interesting…
-And lastly, it has come to my attention that Kris Kristofferson and Trace Adkins will star in a new western called “Traded,” to be released June 10. It features Kristofferson as a gun-toting bartender and Adkins as…someone with long hair.
Questions, comments, suggestions? Let me know on Twitter @jakeharris4 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.