Kyle Boreing asks an interesting question: if songs like “Jesus Take the Wheel” can come out in secular country and then be adopted by gospel audiences – a so-called reverse crossover – why can’t it work the other way? Why can’t some songs originally released in sg be (re)released to country and adopted by those audiences given the obvious appeal there is among that crowd for gospel flavored songs?
There are probably several nuts and bolts reasons that have to do with the way different genres do (and do not) interact economically, and Kyle gets into some of those (as well as suggesting some interesting ideas for ways gospel might strategically cross over to country). But I’ll let those of you who know more about this stuff than I do weigh in on that on your own.
What I’m more curious about is Kyle’s assumption that the absence of gospel music on country radio has to do with a failure of innovative marketing or collaboration. Kyle seems to be saying that since songs with gospel themes are so popular to country audiences (and they are), then plenty of sg ought to work on country radio. But I’m not so sure.
Particularly, I wonder if the popularity of gospel flavored songs like “Jesus Take the Wheel” isn’t so much the gospel component per se but the fact that they’re being sung by artists with full-blown high-powered name-in-lights mega-star country music careers. That is, when Alan Jackson twangs on about Jesus, the appeal of this sort of song is that it shows us Country Music Star Alan Jackson has a Jesusy side.
This in turn creates a kind of curiosity piece out of the person who sings these songs: it cuts against the image of the profane beer-swiller associated with most of country music’s leading men, and a few of its leading women (hello, Gretchen Wilson); while for the Carrie Underwoods and Martina McBrides who go down the Jesus path in their music, it beatifies the stock ideas out there about the resilient, faithful female country music star who gets her strength from a higher power - an image that really hasn’t changed that much since Tammy Wynette, all things considered. There’s just less hairspray and sequins and rather than being implied (as it once was) the religious angle is more explicitly addressed these days. In both the male and female varieties, country singers showing a gospel side is just one dimension of a larger tendency in country music for stars to insist that, as Faith Hill puts it, “a Mississippi girl don’t change her ways, just ’cause everybody knows her name.” (I had lunch a while back with someone who used to work for Hill and not so politely begged to differ with this assertion, but that’s another story)
As for the penchant of country music types to find religion now and then in their songs, this image of the pious country music singer is appealing, I think, because it popularizes a more or less sincere but fairly generic brand of Christian piety, mostly involving hymnbook platitudes and church lady talk without all the blood and moralism that comes with so much of traditional gospel music. Inasmuch as entertainers become an idealized image of what their fans want to be at some level, Carrie Underwood and Alan Jackson singing about Jesus the way they do makes it ok for country music audiences to sing a little, drink a little, cuss a little, and not necessarily think they’re going to hell for it. Not so, with most southern gospel songs.
But even if this weren’t a problem (and as Kyle notes, there are songs like Gaither’s “Give It Away” that could easily appeal, lyrically speaking at least, to wider audience outside Christian music), there’s an image problem for most gospel music performers. You can easily imagine Jackson or Underwood walking into the Elks Lodge in Popular Bluff,
The bottom line: As long as country music remains a product of popular culture and its mass-market values and gospel music remains a product of a religious subculture built around the idea of separating itself from the world (and performing that separateness in their music), I just don’t think there’s going to be a lot of appeal to southern gospel among country music audiences, no matter how creatively you package it.
Update: a friend writes:
A second, and possibly related, reason why [reverse crossover] doesn’t work: Clear Channel control. Clear Channel owned country stations are “centrally” programmed. You have to first get on the central database that their stations download from. This is nigh impossible unless you are a big enough revenue source to Clear Channel. Here’s a list of Clear Channel owned country stations. You could compare it with the Billboard/BDS reporting station list and see how it matches. I think that this is also why Singing News seems to cull gospel songs by country artists from its chart … you might call it reverse retribution.
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