In the same vein as La Barba Rossa (because hey, I see the dude every week and it turns out we have similar wacky mindsets), I think it’s high time to get a look at (of all things) religion in Americana music. It’s an undeniable element that in some way has some root in the creation of all these songs. Whether it’s about getting religion, losing religion, changing religion, musing on religion, or losing your girl to religion (you think I’m joking)… one just cannot deny that the presence of a higher power is integral to American music.
One of the first and most obvious places to go looking for religion is in the heart of Americana: the Appalachians. The European immigration to the Appalachia region was in itself from deeply religious stock – think Scottish, Irish, Scots-Irish, English, Welsh. Add to this mix the relative isolation of living in a mountainous region in the 18th century, and you’ve got a class of people who are going to have a strong sense of culture and preservation. History lesson aside, this is still a region where music and religion make their most explosive collide. Take, for instance, the Stanley Brothers. The most familiar example is the song “Angel Band,” though not every song of theirs is so optimistic. There’s an element of darkness and haunting that lurks at the edges of these songs that makes this sort of music so unforgettable.
Angel Band – The Stanley Brothers
In the same vein, more modern artists in the mountain music tradition are bound to include at least one song or one reference to religion – usually through a filter of the harsh reality of mortality, or featuring the Americana artist’s other favorite otherworldly being: the Devil. The Devil and Death are the prominent elements of religion that you’re going to find in these updated takes, such as this tune by Gillian Welch.
The Devil Had a Hold of Me – Gillian Welch
And then there’s the issue of losing one’s religion, and trust me, the Americana giants were doing it long before Michael Stipe was even born. Sometimes we know why the singers of the songs lost their faith, and sometimes we’re plunked down into the middle of their particular crisis without a frame of reference. In either case, the end result is something vaguely longing and wistful – there is a sense that something is missing even when there’s an outright refusal to go back to the old religion. Johnny Cash, who was known best for shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die, is no different.
Sunday Morning Coming Down – Johnny Cash
Of course, if nothing else, sometimes the entire point of this music is to almost create a new type of religion. In the end many times it’s the songs that’ll change you – why else do you think there are always people who reverently speak of a song that changed their lives or at least gave them some sense of meaning? Americana naturally has this same power. In his biography of Gram Parsons (titled Hickory Wind), Ben Fong-Torres spoke of the times that Gram would sing hallelujah, and if you didn’t have religion before, you were bound to have it after. When a genre has such deeply spiritual origins, it’s not so hard to believe that sentiment.
She – Gram Parsons