[2 February 2009]
You know this story, right? Johnny Cash, young hick kid from Arkansas, walks into Sun Records in Memphis and plays a bunch of gospel songs for Sam Phillips. Phillips looks at the kid with the commanding baritone and says, “Go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell.”
The lesson: Jesus might save, but he doesn’t move units.
This divide in the record industry between spiritual and secular music and markets dates back to the very beginning of the industry, but some of the most compelling stories of artists forced to choose between the Lord’s work and the Devil’s music seem to be centered in the ‘50s and ‘60s. In the field of soul music, Sam Cooke began his pop career recording under a slightly altered name behind the back of his fellow Soul Stirrers and was ultimately ostracized by the spiritual music community when he began recording pop music. Both Al Green and Little Richard felt compelled to leave popular recording behind entirely when they found it incompatible with service to the Lord.
Country recording the middle of the 20th century may have been slightly more inclusive, but it was no less divided. Phillips was right to tell Cash to come back with secular songs: within the country market, it was tough to sell spiritual records by unknown artists and Phillips’ Sun Records didn’t have much in the way of connections within the religious record market. Elvis Presley expressed a similar desire to record spiritual songs early in his career and was likewise dissuaded by his handlers. Only when Cash and Presley were firmly established as top-selling artists did their labels allow them to put out religious albums, although in both cases, these albums were poorly marketed and treated more as vanity projects for the artists.
In 2000, when Cash had the star power to make decisions about his album releases, he compiled the Love God Murder box set that eschewed his greatest hits in order to put the three primary drives in his musical catalog on equal footing. Sold both as a set and as individual discs, the “God” installment (complete with introduction by Bono, one of the few artists to, for better or worse, regularly include religious content in his pop music) lagged behind the other two (with “Murder” unsurprisingly in the lead).
Perhaps the most interesting example of the spiritual vs. secular divide in country music is the case of Hank Williams. An early, if short-lived success, Williams recorded mostly for MGM Records, which, unlike Phillips’ upstart Sun Records, had marketing clout in country and religious markets (along with jazz, pop, and pretty much anything from showtunes to classical). But when Williams wanted to record spiritual material, the marketing folks at MGM insisted that he do so under a pseudonym: Luke the Drifter.
Many of these songs differed from Williams’ usual output not just in content but in style, tending more towards laconic, spoken-word preaching rather than Williams’ more energized delivery. The reasoning was that songs like “Be Careful of the Stones That You Throw” would dilute Williams’ brand image as a honky-tonkin’ heartbreaker for record-buying audiences and the result has been that a significant portion of Williams’ limited recording output has remained largely buried under the pseudonym for the last 50 years, heard only by devoted fans familiar with Williams’ biography and left entirely out of anthologies and greatest hits collections.
In October 2008, many of these songs were released under Williams’ own name for the very first time. The Unreleased Recordings (Time Life) collects 54 tracks recorded for the Mother’s Best Flour radio show on WSM-AM in the early ‘50s. Broadcasting out of Nashville, WSM was the same station that broadcast the Grand Ole Opry (which had Williams as a contracted performer for all of 1951 when these programs were recorded) and had its studios across the street from the MGM Studios where Williams did most of his recording.
The only limitations for the Mother’s Best shows were that the language be kept clean and the sponsor be plugged, and Williams’ sets here with the Drifting Cowboys include hits like “Hey Good Lookin’” nestled right up against “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”. Taken together with a consideration of the sheer scope of radio in the early ‘50s, these recordings not only present a new image of one of the most important figures in country music, but challenge the modern listener’s idea that country music reserves Jesus for Sunday morning.
Drive around in Manhattan with the radio on scan and you’ll notice that nearly every frequency is occupied. This is so much the case that it’s often impossible to get a single signal without hearing at least an interfering echo of the signals on either side of it, and certainly no clear signals manage to escape the New York City Metro area. New York is the most pronounced example, but airwaves are crowded across the country and very few signals stretch more than an hour or two drive time from their source before they’re muffled by competing signals on nearby bands.
In the ‘50s, the airwaves were relatively empty. Empty enough, for example, that Alan Freed’s Moondog shows broadcast on WJW out of Cleveland could be picked up late-night by WKBW in Buffalo and re-broadcast on a signal strong enough to reach New York City (standing for Well-Known Bible Words, WKBW was a religious station during the day and was thus allowed to broadcast a stronger signal than most other stations). If the airwaves in the Northeast were sparsely occupied, the airwaves in the rural South were practically barren. WSM, broadcasting from smack in the middle of Tennessee, would have had an almost unimaginably wide reach in the South.
It’s also worth considering that for many country music fans in the middle part of the 20th century, radio rather than records would have been their primary source of music. Recorded music was more a luxury for those with disposable income and access to places that would even sell records. In most rural areas, radio would be the only source for music and audiences’ thoughts on what constituted country music would depend more on the programming decisions of shows like the Louisiana Hayride (broadcast out of Shreveport in the northwest corner of the state) and the Opry than by the marketing decisions of even an industry giant like MGM. And while the Opry in particular was very artistically conservative, with strict rules forbidding, for instance, percussion, they saw no problem in juxtaposing spiritual and secular songs. Indeed, for the Opry and its listeners, spiritual songs were an integral part of country music.
For better or worse, though, it’s the recording industry that gets to leave the permanent record, and so the artifacts we have from the early days of country are consistently divided into discs of secular material and discs of spiritual material. Even the Opry itself, in conjunction with RCA, recently put out a collection of just spiritual songs, culled from the mixed performances Opry audiences have been hearing for decades. But these constructed dichotomies distort and obscure music that was once performed and heard as an integration of spiritual and secular.
There are many reasons to pick up The Unreleased Recordings, not the least of which is an audio quality that surpasses many of his canonical studio recordings. But the recordings also give a reason to reflect on what a broader country audience would have heard in the early ‘50s, at a time when country was blending with R&B into some of the earliest rock ‘n’ roll tracks, and realize that religious music, sometimes considered by modern audiences as more of a forefather to country or R&B, remained a central aspect of the genres for their most devoted audiences. And maybe next time you throw Cash’s Love God Murder in the CD player, it’d be worth putting the discs on shuffle. It’s probably how Johnny would’ve wanted it.