Country music and grace: Big & Rich's 'That's Why I Pray'

Even though I spent my young adulthood in the music industry and still play the occasional recording session, I do not follow trends in modern popular music. I don’t buy CDs, don’t watch any variety of music television, and, if I download anything at all, it’s probably an mp3 of some song I originally bought on vinyl in 1983. I do listen to the radio, but I’m the sanguine type who punches “search” every seven seconds if a “good song” can’t be found—which means I usually end up listening to talk shows or the news.

Once in a while, though, something catches my ear. This week it happened on the way to work when I bumped into “That’s Why I Pray” by the country duo Big and Rich (“Big” Kenny Alphin and John Rich).

In all truth, I bumped into the song twice. After being hooked by the incredibly catchy chorus the first time, though, it pretty much vanished from my consciousness. We do live in a disposable culture, after all. The second time I caught a little more of the song, enough to make me want to google the line “that’s why i pray” when I arrived at my office. I found out the tune was by Big and Rich (I’d never heard of ‘em) and watched the video on Youtube. I was pretty stunned.

I was stunned because the song (a very well-crafted number written by Danelle Leverett, Blair Daly, and Sarah Buxton) takes faith seriously. A line in the first verse stopped me dead in the proverbial recording tracks: “Don’t you dare pledge allegiance, don’t you dare speak of God,” speaking, as it does, directly to the increasing exclusion of religious discourses from the public square. In addition, the video is rich in Catholic imagery—little statues of the virgin, prints of the Sistine Madonna and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, candles, a crucifix—all arranged in a little makeshift shrine in what seems to be an urban wasteland. The video is, I have to admit, a bit predictable in its evocation of religious sentiment. It is also pretty powerful.

The message is very simple, as the chorus tells us: “Oh I’m begging for forgiveness / I wanna make a difference, even in the smallest way / I’m only one person, but I can feel it working / I believe in better days / That’s why I pray.”

I have a PhD in English literature (and religious literature, at that), so I don’t need anyone to tell me these are not the most profound lyrics ever penned. They don’t need to be. Sometimes, as in the poetry of Christopher Smart, capturing simplicity is far more powerful (and important) than achieving the sublime. That’s what country music, for more than any other popular musical idiom, does best.

Of course, the literary critic in me could not resist a little research, and I turned, as all high-powered intellectuals do, to Wikipedia (don’t judge me, people). There I found out that Big and Rich’s biggest hit prior to “That’s Why I Pray” was a piece of postmodern honkytonk called “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy).”  I have not given this one a listen.

It may be that Big and Rich, part of the Nashville establishment, decided to record “That’s Why I Pray” at least in part influenced by focus groups concerned with “God and Country” and that they are not men of complete sincerity. It may be that this song and everything in it is as manipulative and calculated as any politician’s appropriation of religious themes and imagery as ways to score points with the masses and take their money. I don’t know. And I don’t care. The Church, need I remind anyone, if made of sinners. As my pastor is fond of saying, it’s not holy because of the people: it’s holy because of Christ.

Perhaps Big Kenny and John Rich are more inclined to “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” than they are toward “That’s Why I Pray.” That may be the case. But, in situations like this, I try to remember two of the final lines of Georges Bernanos’ novel Diary of a Country Priest (made into a beautiful film by Robert Bresson): “What does it matter? All is grace.” When grace arrives, it seems a little discourteous to ask the messenger for his credentials. What’s important is that it arrives. I’ll take it any way it comes. That’s why I pray.

Spero columnist Michael Martin is a professor of English at Marygrove College in Detroit.

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