Slight OT: Cancer Country

Ron Ronsenbaum explores the lyrical complexities of country music about cancer. This is not just good writing, great analysis of lyrics, and even better culture criticism. It’s proof that good lyrics stand up to scrutiny (and that, contra some of you who become so exasperated with my “over analysis paralysis,” I’m not the only guy out there doing such scrutinizing).

Email this Post


  1. Leebob wrote:

    Personally, I don’t have a problem seriously scrutinizing the lyrics. Country music can always come up with a new angle because it encompasses ALL of life. In our particular genre things are a little different. There comes a point that any new writing for SG (or any other Christian music) is, in reality, only reflective of the day in which we live. Don’t try to pawn off on me that you have received a new revelation from God. There is no “new” revelation that is going to deepen anybody’s walk with the Lord, only perhaps a unique play on of words from today’s vernacular in the “hook” line of the song. If there is a new song out there, all I ask is that it isn’t “hokey”, makes sense in the real world, and is as Biblically accurate as possible. (We could have alot of fun here but I will use discression as the better part of valour)

    It seems there has been alot of re-making of old songs that gives SG the feel of “discover SG all over again.” Some of the better airplay lately hasn’t necessarily been new material, but a restructuring of old material in today’s sound (i.e. Booth Brothers Harmony cd). It makes for great listening, brings along the primary listener of SG (the primetimers), “Hey, they’re playin’ my song!” and has a sound that younger listeners will enjoy before they realize this song was written, in most cases, before they were born.

    Keep the constructive criticism going…SG definitely needs it if we are to ever be main stream again in Christian circles.

  2. Jim2 wrote:

    Great article! especially liked this line “I think it comes down the the question of opportunism and cynicism: Do you feel the song comes out of genuine sentiment or manipulative sentimentality? It’s sense versus sensibility again.” I’m sure it paraphrases something you’ve said over and over before. Thanks for the heads up!

  3. CVH wrote:

    Lyrics and every other aspect of the craft of creating art should be scrutinized carefully…by bloggers, reviewers, fans…and most importantly by the industry itself.

    There have always been writers whose sole domain was southern gospel and those whose writing was more inspo-oriented but who also wrote for the southern gospel market. Most SG writing was quite simplistic - heaven and the cross - oh, and the blood - not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact they’re all rather foundational to the faith. But with the introduction and acceptance of the ‘big ballad’ in the 70’s and 80’s, lyrics began to move beyond the simplistic four-line verse and four-line chorus in one or two keys to more complex lyrical and musical structures - eight-line verses, bridges, multiple key changes, big endings. The emotional and lyrical palette began to broaden as did the intellectual and artistic skills of those who used it.

    Because southern gospel has traditionally been simple lyrics married to simple music, I don’t think it was ever considered to be a fountain of spiritual depth or intellectual curiosity. But my observation is that the collective mindset of its fans has changed somewhat through the years. Fans, artists, performers are all living in a different world than they did 20 or 30 years ago; even the most ardent supporters of ‘the old time way’ (read: Inspirations fans). We’re bombarded with more information, more sensory stimulation, more commercialism, and wanted or not, more cultural expressions than ever before. While the blue-hairs and silver-hairs may be the dominant market in some parts of the country, the SG fanbase is changing, not unlike the change in NASCAR’s fanbase. To say they’re all toothless, redneck trailer trash is simply a stereotype that does not apply; not that it ever did completely, but the inference was there.

    Today’s SG universe - writers, musicians, performers, fans and industry types - are a different breed. Thus the proliferation of styles within the SG category. Songs run in trends and other than lyrics that are uniquely focused on the spiritual aspects of the genre, it’s inevitable that SG writers will attempt to tackle more lifestyle issues - songs from a Christian worldview, albeit a SG-oriented one, that address life topics perhaps at some point including cancer. I’ve heard some great songs by groups (like Triumphant Quartet’s “Across the River”, The Talleys’ “The Healer” and Legacy Five’s “Peace [When I Leave It In Your Hands”]) that speak in broad terms about healing but nothing more specific.

    There are some really excellent writers in SG today - Dianne Wilkinson, Rodney Griffin, Marty Funderburk, Joel Lindsey and others - who are beginning to explore the nuances of life from a Christian perspective and frame it in SG form. As with any topic, there’s always the danger of writing something gratuitous just to cash in on a trend and I wouldn’t put it past the industry collectively for that to happen at some point with some topic. But I’m cautiously optimistic that as trends in life and music continue their inevitable influence on the SG industry, more skilled and introspective writers will use their craft to explore every area of life with grace, inspiration, honesty and creative excellence. After all, shouldn’t followers of Christ be the true innovators and set the trends rather than following them?

  4. Marty Funderburk wrote:

    Ron Rosenbaum’s article made me think. And think some more. Not a bad thing. In regard to Country’s unwillingness to say the word, “cancer” – I totally understand leaving it out of the lyric – for a few reasons. Some words were never meant to be sung (unless you’re Ronnie Hinson – he’s the only writer who could get away with using the word, “buzzard” in a song and make it feel so right – “Oasis”) This is still music we’re talking about and “cancer” is just not a singable word. Period. Furthermore, alluding to a harsh subject like cancer is not only an effective poetic technique, but it also allows listeners to imagine any number of life-threatening illnesses – thereby making the song’s appeal much more universal. As to the motives of the industry or the writers….who knows? Who cares? I honestly got the feeling that Ron was getting paid by the word. It all seemed like much ado about nothing. Like most things media-driven, success is always followed by imitation. That’s elementary. “Live Like You Were Dying” struck a nerve. Sales proved it. Nashville loves a bandwagon. Fine. I just know that almost every week I get a report of someone else in my life who has just been diagnosed with cancer. I don’t know if it’s on the rise nation-wide, but it sure seems to be, and if others feel the way I do, well then the timing of this cancer song phenomenon is not by chance. Country does keep its finger on the pulse of cultural mood swings. There was a time when women were portrayed helpless and grateful (“Stand by Your Man”) until Martina declared “Independence Day,” and then the Dixie Chicks started killin’ folks (“Earl.”) How times change! I am glad to see Country diving into the deep end of the pond. My family needed “Live Like You Were Dying.” And I never once thought I’d have to receive a death sentence to practice what Tim McGraw preached. Maybe I’m simple, but I want some emotion for my listening dollar. But bottom line – if a cancer song can displace a cheatin’ song on radio or TV, I say let’s all go write ourselves a cancer song.

  5. Montana Man wrote:

    Of Marty’s thoughts on non-use of the word cancer, I found the best to be that cancer is not a singable word, and that by not using the C word, it lets folks imagine other life-threatening illnesses. That stirred some other thoughts. What rhymes with Cancer? Dancer, Lancer, Prancer (oh, we had that reference from Daniel Mount), And what rhymes with Big C? And if we have Cancer songs, will we soon have Heart Attack, Heart Disease or stroke songs, or Infection songs (fourth leading killer, I think it is)… And I hope we won’t get songs targeted at a younger audience that address Suicide. Enough, probably too much.

  6. Practical Fellow wrote:

    Well said, Marty. I really appreciate when songwriters post on these threads. Your comments have a unique perspective and one that I appreciate hearing.

    And I wouldn’t mind hearing a SG cancer song. You’re right. It’s everywhere. So let’s talk/sing/write about it. Sometimes it feels like there’s an elephant standing in our collective living room, but we keep ignoring it to write about dinner on the grounds.

    Great article, Avery.

  7. Grigs wrote:

    “Answer” rhymes with “cancer”.

    “When the doctor says ‘cancer’
    And he can’t find the answer…”

    Thanks to Marty, I can hear ol’ Ronnie Hinson singing that as I type! LOL!

  8. Jim E. Davis wrote:

    The first time I heard McGraw’s chart topper, I remember turning to my wife and emphatically repeating, “Why can’t southern gospel write songs like this???”. CVH is right. Many of us who are under 50 are ready for our gospel music to tackle the reality of life as we live it. Not to discard the classics of yesterday but to enrich them with classics for tomorrow.

    Great reading Avery. And as always, great comments that are equally thought provoking and genuinely interesting.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked * Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.