Contemporary Christian Music is, like the white Evangelical culture it arose from, very conservative politically, religiously, and socially. Michael W Smith, the Poster Boy for the industry (in more ways than one. I mean, grrrrowl, amirite?) stunted for George W Bush and his wars and policies, after all. More so, the music favored heavenly rewards and solutions and pat answers for really complex personal and spiritual problems while completely ignoring systemic abuses and oppressions. With a few exceptions (Rod covers one here), racism, misogyny, albeism, war, and poverty were ignored and shame abounded. The effect is that the theology and Jesus they presented was a Static God unconcerned with the lives of real, struggling and marginalized people.
Additionally, CCM was centered in Nashville, where Country is king. No disrespect to the genre that brought us Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and Loretta Lynn and had a baby with Rhythm & Blues to produce Rock & Roll, but it tends to favor White, conservative, reactionary rule. Even attempts to appropriate rap music into country have landed squarely in White Supremacy – take Kid Rock or “Accidental Racist,” please.
So what happens when you mash a country-leaning supergroup consisting of CCM mainstays? Well, that may depend on who the group is. But if we get Terry Taylor of Daniel Amos, Gene Eugene (RIP) of Adam Again, Derri Daugherty of The Choir, and Mike Roe of the 77s and blend them with a gritty collection of down-earth covers and some of their own throw-offs, we end up with one of the most political albums in all of CCM (at least until Five Iron Frenzy’s more Clash-inspired records and activism surface later in the decade), Scenic Routes.
It helps that all the founding members had small but devout and cultish followings. There was a target audience, and the main label decided it wouldn’t be of much use trying to tame these uncouth people. All four were already established producers and songwriters so no go sending CCM’s mainstay songwriters and producers (like Brown Bannister and Wayne Kirkpatrick) to settle them down and return to the mission of mainstream CCM – commercializing White Jesus. The resulting Scenic Routes was different than anything else coming out of NashVegas at the time – and perhaps before or after.
Before the rest of CCM was primping for a hostile takeover of Iraq and within the timeframe that most Americans were pleased with the Shock-and-Awe of the first Iraqi War; in the heart of conservative, war-heavy industry that favors a Republican God; long before the Dixie Chicks caused a sensation by apologizing for GWB, the Lost Dogs released the rambling, bluegrass-lite “Bush Leagues,” dedicated to George Herbert Walker Bush.
I’ll pack you a lunch, clear your desk
It’s going to be hell to clean your mess
All I know is that you gotta go
I don’t know what I think about it
But your bush league days are through
Will you give me a job I doubt it
Here’s a bird in the hand for you
Next time you start a storm
You better get you a mess kit, canteen and uniform
Cause we feel like livin’ so you’ve got to go
Your points of light are almost gone
So here’s your yellow ribbon-burning song
Yeah, you caught that they directly referenced Desert Storm, unemployment, Chicken Hawks, and the faux-inspiring Thousand Points of Light. And managed to give the President of the United States the bird. I know that many within CCM and Country would pretty much say the same for Clinton later and then definitely for Obama, but this was refreshing. And a bit shocking to my mind that not all Christians could be or should be gung-ho conservatives. Or, as “Bullet Train” – a more straightforward blues-rock song – showed, gun-ho conservatives. A tribute to those that have lost their lives due to the US’s gun-obsessed culture, starting with JFK, MLK, and children who accidentally shoot themselves.
There’s a lot of poor souls on the Bullet Train / but Lord knows they got more room.
How sadly right they were, before Columbine. But it didn’t stop there. Where most of white Christian culture tends to look for responsibility solely in the individual (“It’s the crazy people with the guns that kill people and they could kill with spoons!” they say. Because they don’t think about how damaging and destructive their words are.), the Lost Dogs see the responsibility lies in all of us to end the Bullet Train. At that time, to see a Christian encourage activism, I don’t think it made much sense to me, but it was a part of my destiny and helped to shape the road I’d lead – as did other songs, like Adam Again’s “Walk Between the Raindrops” about systemic oppression and homelessness in a land of means.
For the anti-violence trifecta, the Lost Dogs also wrote and performed “The Fortunate Sons.” Unlike CCR’s angry rager (one of my favorite) against the kids who would soon become presidents and vice presidents but were privileged enough to escape the conflict that killed and maimed so many young and poor, this is a song of lament and profound sorrow about soldiers of a different kind of fortune. “Bang the drum slowly,” the conflicted narrator pleads. It is a song of the sacrificed lamb, the warrior sent to die for the sins of the violent world.
Blood, thunder and fear flowing
I cry when I need you
and march when I’m told where to go
Lessons I know
Is it the way of a soldier to offer his soul?
It is a humanizing tale of a figure alternately hagiographed and demonized in the midst of a conflicting, tragic story – and could be one of Terry Taylor and Gene Eugene’s best, which says a lot from me.
One of the classics the Lost Dogs covered was the Stephen Foster-penned “Hard Times Come Again No More”: “a song, a sigh of the weary… Many days you have lingered around my cabin door.” It’s a song of and by the poor, the suffering. This in a world that largely ignores class struggles and poverty. But this can be imagined in a world where the protagonists have decided to get off of the planes and interstates that the rest of #PlanetCCM travels in and takes the scenic routes through the coal mines, small towns, passing the bullet trains and the doorsteps darkened by sorrow and suffering. It’s the Christian music of a #fleshYGod; an incarnational CCM.
It is with this context that the closing salvo strikes as not as a plea for faux unity or some false notion that the Klanner is just as bad as the lynched, but as a call for all of humanity to breath in the breath of a God who loves humanity, who understands our sufferings, who sides with the oppressed. To travel the scenic routes and recover our humanity.
Politicians, morticians, Philistines, homophobes
Skinheads, Dead heads, tax evaders, street kids
Alcoholics, workaholics, wise guys, dim wits
Blue collars, white collars, war mongers, peace nicks
Breathe deep the Breath of God
Breathe deep, indeed.
Note: The entire Lost Dogs discography and most other music listed here can be streamed on Spotify.