Johnny Cash became a superstar in Nashville. He’s technically considered a country singer, which means music aficionados are likely to file him under the “YEE-HAW!!!” compartments of their brains right along with John Wayne’s dead brand of American patriotism and Terry Bradshaw. Cash, though, had a powerful flair for lyrics. He spoke to the darkest corners of the soul; the areas we’re forced to deny the existence of whenever we put on our brave faces because social protocol demands we suck it up and move on. He made a career of expressing in music and lyric form the ways we’ve all felt at our loneliest and most helpless, and in doing so he turned into a transcendent singer whose work was felt by everyone, whether or not they hated country music.
Nashville itself, of course, has a long and storied history in music. Elvis Presley is such a popular figure there that his favorite sandwich can be bought at Johnny Cash’s museum. It’s even nicknamed The Music City! With a nick and a reputation like that, you would expect an explosive variety of music to be available on the local radio stations, with a load of country stations leading the charge. But when I turned on my small shortwave radio in my first morning in Nashville and started channel surfing, it was very surprising and a little disturbing to find station after station of those great dregs of music: Christian music. Constant clicking of that whacked-out, balls-to-the-wall, fire and brimstone variety of preaching. God is good; heaven will be awesome; you’re all going to hell; the end times are here and the atheists are all going to have the planet to themselves after we all get raptured.
No wonder everyone makes fun of country music. There are so many Christian radio stations in Nashville that some bigshot travel writer probably listened to all the Christian stations, mistook the music for country, and launched a satirical stereotype worthy of Mencken or Twain. Staying as a guest in the home of my good friend Christi, the first thing I asked her that morning – besides “How the hell does this coffee machine work?” – was about whether or not there were any radio stations in Nashville that weren’t screaming about the holy light and the greatness of Jay-zuz! in orgasmic overtones. She told me that she noticed that too, and that a lot of those Christian stations were going to either tread on eggshells or scare the fear of the Christian God into you.
Mindboggling is the word for this. To listen to radio in Nashville is to conclude that residents are either all crackers or religious fanatics and that no one in the city could possibly be a fan of jazz, blues, hip hop, or classic rock. The Law of Averages alone means the demographics of Nashville probably include people who like all those things. And don’t misread me here – they’ll definitely include people who love Christian music and country music too, but probably not 12 goddamned stations of it.
It’s weird to think there are 12 different demographics of people who would listen to Christian music at all. We like to toss things into broadly generalized categories and lament about how they’re all the same. This sentiment, however, doesn’t actually hold true. All those similar products are specifically made to appeal to that general audience in a different way. But, little obedient Christian as I once was, I really have never detected a difference in Christian-based mass media. All of the Christian music I’ve heard boils down to the same watered-down message: God loves you so much that he killed his own kid in order to undo a nefarious plan enacted by his arch-foe centuries in the past. They all emphasize the same Bible stories and the fact that this God character loves us and wants us to be happy without the use of beer. It’s a very straightforward message, always told in an equally straightforward manner. So how are 12 Christian music stations able to divvy up a fanbase in a city as large and diverse as Nashville and still be in business? Especially when they have to compete against all the real country music stations?
This is just… Odd. I had heard all the stories about what things were like in the South, along the Bible Belt, of course. Hell, this isn’t even my first time traveling through the South. I had traveled to St. Louis – and I am, in fact, in St. Louis again, writing this post from the Illinois side – and been to the very tip of the South, New Orleans, on the Gulf Coast. But there are people who could build a case against me ever visiting the South at all with a travel itinerary that looks like that – St. Louis is only arguably a Southern city, and New Orleans is an odd little hotbed of hedonism which is also the headquarters of New France and a dominantly Catholic city in Southern Baptist Jesusland. While Nashville fits all possible descriptions of a large city, it also fits all possible descriptions of being a Southern city. Right down to a glorification of Nathan Bedford Forest, the Confederate General who also just happened to be the founder of the Ku Klux Klan once the Civil War was over. And yes, that oh-so-slight little blotch on Forest’s resume is under gloss so thick that it gets buried altogether.
So there I was, having rejected Christianity in nearly as complete a way as can be done, being told by weird voices in my radio that I can go to hell. And there I also was, thinking the same thing about that as I’ve now been thinking for the last ten years. I don’t know whether to laugh at the absurdity of this whole situation or cry about being in it. I don’t know if I should be bemused or disturbed. I can, however, say this: Nashville was otherwise such a fun place to be that it wasn’t able to get into my head.