Our family was at a house concert last weekend of a songwriter whom I really admire. He is a Christian and a d*** good lyricist who sings about everything from seeking to hear God to confessing a murder to your wife. He says his songs fit into three categories, "God, women, and geography." I'd say that just about sums it up.
Anyway, before we had to leave because of overtired kids, he took a break from singing to answer some questions. Someone asked him what he thought of the Christian music industry, and he didn't have great things to say. He said that it started out as a good thing for musicians who wanted to be able to mention Jesus in their songs but that it has turned into reverse censorship. In other words, musicians have to "go and stick in a few more Jesuses" in order to get their album recorded. For the record, he is not signed with a Christian recording agency, and he is not connected to that part of the music industry. But his songs are some of the most profoundly spiritually true songs I have heard.
So on the way home, as Calvin screamed that he would "never get to do anything fun ever again!!!!!" in the backseat, my husband and I tried to discuss where people like this singer fit in. Most popular labels won't take a guy who sings about Jesus and God in a reverent way, and the Christian music certainly wouldn't have gone for his murder ballad (which was our favorite of the night).
I started thinking about other singers who fit this mold. Nearly all of them were in my list of favorites, and nearly all of them fit in the ambiguous "folk" or "bluegrass" category. (The other categories that have this blend of the spiritual and troubling sides of life are the traditionally African American styles of music like the blues.) I hardly have to ask why this is. Separating spiritual life and "real" life was never even an issue for me growing up where I did. In rural Appalachia (and other poor, rural parts of this country) the rhythms of life and death, planting and harvest, marriage and childbirth are bound up in the spiritual truths that they represent. There is no sacred and secular. There is just life, and Jesus and God and the devil and the kinfolk all inhabit it in some way. That is why I loved that house concert the other night. The artist sang from a holistic life, where a murder ballad could stir my soul just as much as a song about Jesus.
On that note, here are some other musicians I love. Some of them are Christian, some are not. Some sing of explicitly Christian themes, and others sing and write of truths that are deeply spiritual because they are real life. There are many more than I list here. And I am always looking for new artists to add, now that I have entered the 21st century and use iTunes!
She may have been born in Hollywood, but that was a mistake. This woman looks and sings and writes like an Appalachian mountain girl. I never miss a concert if she is near. My favorite song is Barroom Girls, but there are so many good ones.
Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs
My boys have already been to concerts by both of these legends of bluegrass. A highlight of my summer was hearing Doc sing Nights in White Satan at an outdoor concert at our art museum. That voice is so good!
He is part of the Christian music industry, but he tells a good story. Many of his songs are sacramental looks at everyday life without being overtly "Jesusy."
He will always be my favorite songwriter. I have yet to find someone who matches him.
The Cowboy Junkies
They will haunt you. Their music is often dark. But it is an honest look at life. Black Eyed Man has been a favorite album of mine for years.
I love him. What else can I say? Calvin and Hobbes' current favorite song is The Truck Song.
The Indigo Girls
They are here if for no other reason than The Wood Song. I listened to them nonstop in my melancholy college days, and my devotion has cooled. But they still rank up there in my list of people who get it.