The "list song" has become so commonplace in country music it's almost a cliche — the songs that rattle off where a singer is from, how he (and it most always is a he) likes his trucks, his beer, his women, his hometown. A common lyric in those songs goes something like this:
- "I'm a little bit heaven but still a little bit flesh-and-bone" (Dierks Bentley's "Burning Man")
- "I need Jesus or I need whiskey, whatever works best to get me through" (Tim McGraw's "Neon Church")
- "Somewhere between raising hell and amazing grace is a place I keep finding myself (Big & Rich's "Somewhere Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace")
- "We live it up for the weekend, Somebody said something 'bout church on Sunday, amen" (Brantley Gilbert's "The Weekend")
- "Five card poker on Saturday night, church on Sunday morning" (Little Big Town's "Boondocks")
The sinner/saint dichotomy is a deep baptismal well that country songwriters return to often. Two sides of the same coin, it's relatable to an audience if you can trade your Saturday night bar stool for a Sunday morning pew.
But most songs that employ that rhetorical device merely rattle off binaries — church/bar, sinner/saint, lost/found — instead of actively exploring the relationship between those opposite ends of the spectrum.
George Strait's latest song, "God and Country Music," is a song that uses the binary structure, but it does so in a way that elevates the format.
Released last week as the second single from his upcoming album "Honky Tonk Time Machine" (which has more Texas ties than other Strait albums) and written by Lori McKenna (who I also though I heard as a background vocalist alongside Strait's grandson Harvey), Barry Dean and Luke Laird, "God and Country Music" is about exactly what the title would suggest.
Upon first listen, it sounds just like any other list or sinner/saint song, even though Strait's smooth, calming voice elevates the material. The more I listened to it, though, the more I lingered on how well the lyrics complemented each other.
The relationship between sin and salvation is referred to as a "dance." The biblical imagery of the valleys low and the mountains high are used to describe the range of emotions of country music. Folded hands are used to evoke both prayer and the bend of a hand on guitar strings. Every comparison actually makes sense, and evokes some strong imagery.
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That's mainly due to the songwriting (Strait still knows how to pick his writers), but the melody, steel guitar, piano, guitar and Strait's familiar delivery help it go a long way, too.
"God and Country Music" is a master's take on a tired form, and works much better than it should.