In this reissue of his study first released in 1995, eminent Southern studies scholar Charles Reagan Wilson takes us on a tour of popular faiths and iconography in the South. The book is wide-ranging, insightful, and well-written, and it will satisfy the curiosity of any reader interested in such common phenomena as roadside crosses, football as Southern secular religion, and Elvis relics. Wilson takes as his objects of study a range of popular texts that are both well-known and of interest in their own right, including literary figures such as William Faulkner, painters and visual artists such as Howard Finster, and country music legends like Hank Williams.
One real strength of Wilson’s book is that he combines careful accounts of Southern religious history with his analysis of these iconic cultural texts. He notes that Southern popular religiosity involves a merger of civil and religious imagery in a range of cultural expression. Tracing the influences of evangelical Protestantism, Calvinism, and popular folk religion (and supernaturalism) historically in Southern regional culture, Wilson establishes the complex ways in which popular religion informs Southern expression.
From the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame and Museum at Dollywood to the Bear Bryant sports myth, Southern religious-inflected practices and artifacts are a crucible for such region-shaping ideas as nostalgia for a Jeffersonian agrarian ideal. Wilson establishes how his popular and literary texts reflect racial tensions and negotiations as well as unifying mythologies that are constantly being questioned. He also shows how the influence of religion in Southern rituals illuminates ways of dealing with everything from mortality in the practices involving communal observances of deaths to the ideals of beauty circulated in beauty pageants.
One particularly fine chapter on themes of death in country music scrutinizes familiar recurring tropes and concerns in this mass media form seen as, as Wilson notes, “one of the clearest expressions of southern working-class culture.” Wilson notes numerous songs about accepting death as a fact of life (given historically high mortality rates in the South) or as a daily part of a working class existence. He draws out the association between the “live hard, die young” tragic lives of country stars such as Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers to their cult of personality and songs about celebrity deaths, but also frames them as iconic examples of a regional culture that expects death.
As Wilson catalogues, other country songs address tragedies of unrequited love and death (“He Stopped Loving Her Today”), the impact of death on family units, the need to square one’s accounts before going to meet your maker, or even the on-going influence of folk religion supernaturalism (“The Devil Went Down to Georgia”). He underscores a recurring trope stemming from some of the biggest early country music standards (coming out of early Gospel), in which lyrics focus on the hope of the promised land (“I’ll Fly Away”).
Throughout his study, Wilson offers smart arguments about the links between Southern worldviews and Southern popular religious history. He engagingly details a mass expression of spirituality in key popular culture artifacts and practices. He cites Flannery O’Connor, who noted that “the South was Christ-haunted”, and he succeeds in his goal of explaining how this observation holds true and plays out in Southern cultural expression.