A revolution has hit the international music world and it's one few pundits would have predicted. Country music is breaking all sales records. Tony Cummings looks at the new country explosion, the music's origins and how America's CCM industry, after decades of neglect, is rediscovering ITS country roots.

Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash

Last year in America Garth Brooks sold more albums than Madonna, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen put together. In this week's Billboard pop charts Tim McGraw, Reba McEntire, John Michael Montgomery, Clint Black, Confederate Railroad, Faith Hill, Alan Jackson and a dozen more country artists are there lodged in amongst the Nirvanas, Pink Floyds and Mariah Careys. The rise in popularity in country music is one of truly gargantuan proportions. The US record industry is still pinching itself as it seeks to come to terms with it. Where once the country music market was perceived as a deep South phenomenon, where a working class audience bought the Nashville outpourings of broken marriages, staring into beer glasses and raising hell on a Saturday night and where the Grand Ole Opry tourist traps peddled sequins, smaltz and showbiz for moms and dads, a new wave of hipper, younger country artists have emerged to turn the country music market demographics on their head. For a mass American pop audience alienated by the excesses of rock or the robotic beat of dance, have turned to country - where songwriters still craft songs about ordinary people's feelings and concerns and where the music echoes, however remotely, the gritty honesty of a nation's folk music roots. When in the 90s 'new country', as it was initially marketed, found its huge, young, cosmopolitan audience - aided greatly by the emergence of country music television as a less abrasive alternative to MTV - it was only a matter of time before the international music market began to succumb too.

In Britain it took a while. Country music has since the 60s, had a staunch, largely working class following. But that audience was small, often middle aged and tended to consist of pockets of followers - those of Irish descent who liked their country mixed with MOR Irish music; those with a strangely European musicologist's fascination for roots (ala Carter Family, bluegrass, Hank Williams et al); and, oddest of all, those who frequented British country clubs and indulged their Hollywood western fantasies by dressing up in cowboy suits. But now a youth audience in Britain is, in sizeable numbers, beginning to turn to country. No greater evidence of country's growing popularity in Britain being the establishment in Europe of the country music TV satellite channel and the launch of several new country music publications, including even a full colour weekly magazine. There are still large swathes of British music culture ignorant of country music's newfound popularity. In Britain one will still encounter many music buffs talking about "country and western" even though the western element has ceased to be an important element in contemporary Nashville music for several decades. But now, with their designer jeans, Vidal Sassoon hairstyles and well-crafted "positive message" country pop purveyors are selling in America in vast numbers, British country enthusiasts seem at last about to lose their anachronistic cowboy suit fetish.

Back in America, the new wave of country artists have brought with them a welcome new lyrical and lifestyle wholesomness to an increasingly jaundiced pop/rock industry with its grunge, gansta rap et al. The 90s country best sellers contain few of the songs majoring in on country music's lyrical obsessions of the 60s and 70s - hard boozing and extra marital affairs. Romantic love and even lifetime fidelity have become major themes in a lot of 90s country music hits. In fact an increasing number of today's mainstream country stars are committed Christians: Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire, Randy Travis, Ricky Skaggs, Ricky Van Shelton and several other country chart makers openly profess faith in Christ. Garth Brooks includes gospel songs on his albums and recently called for prayer to be reintroduced into schools in the States. And in the latest issue of 'Country Weekly' country's biggest female star Reba McEntire was at pains to speak about her Christian faith. "My personal faith in God has seen me through when nothing else could help," she said.

In the same way as R&B and the black church, there has always been a close correlation between the country music industry and the church. Some of the origins of country music can be traced back to the churches of rural America. Pre-war pioneers like the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers included gospel songs in their repertoire while the father of the post war country scene Hank Williams wrote and recorded numerous gospel songs - many still in circulation today. But with the drug abuse related death of Williams in 1953 demonstrated the beginning of a strange parallel between country and R&B where singers would speak God talk and even record gospel songs but who were unable to live consistent Christian lives.

But today's new wave of mainstream gospel stars seem a different breed. Not for them a fondly remembered folk religion and the recording of albums to plug into a long understood marketing niche for the old Southern hymns. Ricky Skaggs who, with his bluegrass-orientated music, is now heralded as one of the seminal figures in rescuing country music from its over-produced, easy listening aberrations of the 70s and back to its more musically honest roots; is a nationally recognised propagator of the Christian faith. Recently he spoke about how he wrote his Christian testimony in Voice, the magazine of the Full Gospel Business Men's Fellowship International. "No other single article has generated such an overwhelming response. The Lord's word has touched many people: 25 to 30 told me they accepted Jesus as their Saviour after reading it. In addition, my office received nearly 300 enthusiastic letters. Others have called radio and TV talk shows to say, 'Man, I read that article in Voice and gave my heart to the Lord.'"

Equally upfront about his faith is Paul Overstreet who on several occasions has been voted country songwriter of the year. When asked in US magazine 'Country Music Roundup' what he had learned from his years in the music business Paul responded, "I learned that you can't draw your happiness from how the business goes because it'll really throw you in the dumps. You have to get your happiness from inside yourself. I think my business was my god for a while; I thought that once I was a success in my business, everything would be okay. But I found out, around 1983 or '84 that I was miserable, and so I finally found out that God was the most important thing in my life - to get that relationship straight. Once that was straight, then everything else kind of fell into place."

Paul Overstreet recorded a highly acclaimed gospel album with top CCM producer Brown Bannister in 1993. It has only really been in the last two years that the contemporary Christian music industry has realised that Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire et al's crossover to the pop mainstream weren't some momentary market aberration. Belatedly they opened their doors and their artist rosters to country-gospel. More than one CCM commentator has expressed astonishment that the CCM industry, based as it is in the Home Of Country Music Nashville, should have been so painfully slow in responding to the 1990's country crossover revolution. One possible reason for this slowness is the way that in the past country music, or the male harmony vocal group variant known as southern gospel, so dominated America's religious music industry. When in the 70s Christendom's musical revolution occurred with the introduction of pop and rock music and country music's power base was, after decades, finally overturned, country-gospel was marginalized there were undoubtedly record executives who ever after perceived country as yesterday's music.

Songs about faith in Christ are in fact as old as country music itself. The birth of country music when in the 18th and 19th centuries English and Irish folk song became transformed by its exposure to black, Mexican and other musics and its absorption of aspects of popular music through vaudeville and medicine shows has long fascinated historians. But all agree that the hymnody of the rural churches, particularly those following the songs and system of harmony singing marketed in the 19th and 20th centuries by the Sacred Harp Company played a significant part in giving country music its peculiarly plaintive sound. Another religious influence in country music's evolvement were the hymns and old gospel songs (like "The Old Rugged Cross") which were popularised in the 1920s by Southern States music publishers like Vaughan, Stamps-Baxter and Rodeheaver. Some of those publishers set up colleges to teach vocal and instrumental religious music. These publishers/colleges were the birth of today's southern gospel style. Back in the 1920s the publishers formed male vocal harmony groups like the Stamps Quartet and the Vaughan Quartet to promote their songs. The sound of these gospel quartets, with their intricate harmonies and deep, rhythmic bass singers layed down a sound today which is heard in both a religious (the Gold City, the Kingsmen, the Blackwood Brothers, the Cathedral Quartet and hundreds of other groups) music and in southern gospel groups who switched to CCM (the Imperials) or secular music (the Oakridge Boys).

Equally influential in country-gospel's early days were male/female groups like the Chuck Wagon Gang and the Happy Goodman Family whose cornball inspirational music today is a musical museum piece but who found vast popularity in rural America (and in the Chuck Wagon's case across the whole of the States). By the post war years 'gospel music', at least as far as America's music publishing and record industry understood the term meant either black gospel music or the myriad of country-orientated harmony groups who toured the Southern states and broadcast and recorded for a church-going audience. This niche, despite being a huge musical influence on rock 'n' roll pioneer Elvis Presley (his vocal group the Jordanaires had started off as a southern gospel outfit) was profoundly insular and resisted musical change and particularly the raucous beat of 50s and 60s pop music. When California's Jesus music revolution swept away country-tinged southern gospel's near stranglehold over gospel recording and broadcasting, the music retreated into an even more insular cultural ghetto. Southern gospel still has pockets of support today in many Southern states. But it has been the new wave of country-gospel artists which have made the CCM industry rethink their attitude towards country music. "This ain't your granny's gospel music" was how the promotion pack of a new syndicated radio show 'Gospel Country' toted its wares to potential radio stations at this year's Dove Awards. Their publicity makes illuminating reading. "Twenty years ago country gospel music meant quartets and square dances. The new gospel country combines today's hottest country sounds with timeless gospel messages to produce an unprecedented musical mix." The format is one of the fastest growing in American radio history. In one market a gospel-country produced a 300 per cent ratings increase within one ratings period while the leaflet points out that "in a recent survey of 17,000 country music fans, 63.7 per cent professed Christianity as their proclaimed faith."

Today, all the major Christian record companies have in the last year signed new country-orientated performers. Country gospel in 1994 still has its myriad of southern gospel harmonisers, its exponents of bluegrass (always a tradition rich in faith and hymnody) and its still popular 'living legends' like Johnny Cash whose faith insured his mainstream career has long been interspersed with gospel releases and who only recently has been signed as spokesperson for Franklin Electronic Publishers' Holy Bible project. But now its the 'new country' image gospellers who are breaking through into the various subsections of American Christian radio. There are even established CCM artists like Russ Taff and Kim Hill despite having previously recorded albums with no country content, who are in the process of moving over to mainstream country. Even Amy Grant whose first hit "Father's Eyes" was penned by country-gospel songwriter Gary Chapman (now of course her husband) has recently made a step or two back towards country. On the new Mel Gibson and James Garner movie 'Maverick' Amy and Gary sang a version of "Amazing Grace" in the company of Reba McEntire, Billy Dean, Clint Black and others. Christian music has then embraced country. But who are getting country music back on religious radio? We profile five of them.

The winner of this year's country Dove Award Susie is the sister of mainstream star Reba McEntire. Susie's album 'Real Love' for Integrity Music has already produced several US Christian radio hits. It wasn't in fact her debut. Susie recorded numerous albums under Psalms Ministries, a travelling, singing and sharing ministry she has with her husband Paul.

As a seventh grader, Susie sang in a country/western school band with her brother and sister, Pake and Reba McEntire. This cowboy band stayed together throughout high school, travelling across the nation as the Singing McEntires before Reba began her own career a few years later. Susie then expected to get out of singing and lead a normal life. "I didn't think that singing was gonna be a part of my life, but after I worked for a while in Oklahoma City, Reba called me and asked me to be her companion on the road and sing back up for her."

A year and a half and her "dream husband" later, Susie ended her full time road trips with Reba to devote to her growing family. "The Lord dealt with us about our lifestyle when a pastor told us that the Lord doesn't want us to go separately anymore - me going off singing and Paul steer wrestling. Our life at home was a wreck, but the Lord began a healing process in our family. We don't need to compete to see who's gonna make the most money or go the most miles, but God wants me to go and sing for him."

Singing in Christian services at rodeos, cowboy camp meetings or churches, Susie and Paul continue to travel a wide circuit of Christian and country audiences. "Instead of just going to churches, we try to get two or three churches to sponsor a night away from the church where people will come that won't go to church. But, I'm not going to leave Christian music at any cost because I want to minister to the body of Christ, to encourage one another."