The results should speak for themselves in these two examples of gospel-informed country.
Michael Ray "Real Men Love Jesus" (Atlantic)
Chris Stapleton "Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore" (Mercury Nashville)
Wouldn't it figure that not long after I gave a rundown here of recent evidences of commercial radio country music's longstanding lyrical relationship with Christianity, there would be a song climbing its airplay chart that mentions the second person of the Godhead in its title?
Around the same time, this year's favored son among critics and Country Music Association awards voters hits a confluence of television exposure and largely ignored artistic quality that sends his solo debut album (released last May) into a humongous sales uptick that renders him a nigh overnight superstar. In keeping with the traditional nature of this artist's music, there's one of the most heart-tugging faith-referencing country songs on a major label album probably since Randy Travis' "Three Wooden Crosses."
Michael Ray hit earlier in 2015 with the bro' country lite of "Kiss You In The Morning." Readers who may have missed it but know some of their way around current radio country could imagine a more clean-cut Brantley Gilbert or less menacing Tyler Farr to get an impression of Ray's musical gifting.
It seems to have taken a while for him, his handlers and label to follow up on that success, but "Real Men Love Jesus" finds him again scaling the top 40. In keeping with the style of songwriting that laid the foundation for bro'ism, loving Jesus tops a list of things about which Ray sings that comprise masculinity. "Real Men" sounds like the musical manifestation of a Buzzfeed listicle numbering the elements of manhood in an idealized rural United States.
Over a groove and melody that sounds much like a slowed down, less punchy "Kiss You," Ray commends football, fishing, cold beer, twirling a gal around on a dance floor and living on the edge among the things that a real man loves in addition to...Jesus. There's nothing about what makes Him lovable, whether obedience to Him flows out of loving Him, nor any other blessed thing about Jesus. That love simply balances out a well-balanced, manly life, apparently. Whether Ray or those around him could either rightly articulate or define "moral therapeutic deism," it sounds as if Ray is singing of the unbiblical, insufficient Lord of that theological aberration that it sounds like it could be a theme song for a post-Promise Keepers, Southern non-denominational evangelical megachurch's men's ministry makes it at least marginally less tolerable, too.
I've no idea where CMA multiple-awards winner Chris Stapleton is spiritually, but "Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore" bespeaks the reality of Christ for some. If he wrote it autobiographically, as could be gleaned from his introduction to it at a recent performance at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, this track from his chart-topping Traveller, it's all the more powerful.
But it's mighty enough without that frame of reference, too. Stapleton's burnished baritone delivers the story of a father who would intercede for his son even after heated exchanges until... let's just say that Confederate Railroad's "Daddy Never Was The Cadillac Kind" might make a good fit after it on a country gospel radio show.
"Daddy Doesn't" hasn't been singled to mainstream country radio, and it's spartan arrangement of Stapleton's voice and acoustic guitar, upright bass, snare and lone female background vocalist makes it a long shot for high rotation, But, few would have predicted his CMA sweep and the growing number of spins he's getting with his current radio offering, the outlaw-flavored "Nobody To Blame," so who knows?!; it could become the starkest thing to make the format since Willie Nelson's remake of Hank Williams "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain" 40 years ago.
It should probably be noted, too, that Stapleton was the lone party responsible for his song, whereas Ray's was one of Nashville's many songwriting-by-committee creations. There are cases where more heads are better than one, but the results should speak for themselves in these two examples of gospel-informed country.
-Jamie Lee Rake