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Wrangling with religion in country music

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When Blake Shelton released God’s Country, he had no idea it would be such a hit. But he had a hunch that it might strike the right chord.

“I knew that there were at least some people out there that were starving for a song like that, because I was one of them,” he told PopCulture backstage at the Country Music Awards on Wednesday. “You don’t hear songs that sound like that anymore.”

You hear them from Shelton, though. And the response has been affirming: The singer left the CMAs with an award for single of the year.

God’s Country sounds like the kind of country song that would’ve been released decades ago. “The Devil went down to Georgia,” Shelton sings, “But he didn’t stick around.” It’s the kind of down-home, Southern drawling, foot-tapping hit you’d expect to see on the country charts, but it’s not all pick-up trucks and beer.

“We pray for rain, and thank Him when it’s fallen,” Shelton sings. “’Cause it brings a grain and a little bit of money/ We put it back in the plate/ I guess that’s why they call it God’s country.”

Shelton performed the single on Wednesday night to thunderous applause. And that wasn’t the only faith-based anthem the audience adored.

Dolly Parton stole the show with a religion-tinged medley, appearing on stage with Christian pop band King & Country, Christian rock artist Zach Williams, and a gospel choir. For her performance of “Faith,” Parton joined the unlikely duo of Swedish electronic dance group Galantis and Dutch rapper Mr. Probz.

“Gotta be honest,” Christian author Beth Moore tweeted before the performance, “I’d love to meet Dolly Parton.”

Shelton may say that you don’t hear songs like God’s Country anymore, he’s partially right — but not when it comes to country music. It’s probably more common to hear politics than faith invoked at the Grammys, but the CMAs remind us that there’s still a large desire in America for religious music.

Kanye West seems to have recognized it. Country music never forgot that lyrics about faith always touch on deeper themes that listeners are craving.

Even Kacey Musgraves, who doesn’t appear to identify with any religion, can’t keep it out of her music. Musgraves won female vocalist of the year and music video of the year, and she also cleaned up at this year’s Grammys.

The 31-year-old Texan sings about Christian dogmatism in Merry Go Round (“And it don’t matter if you don’t believe/ Come Sunday morning, you best be there/ In the front row, like you’re s’posed to”) and double standards in Follow Your Arrow (“If you don’t go to church you’ll go to hell/ If you’re the first one on the front row/ You’re a self-righteous son of a …”).

But no matter how much she seems to have distanced herself from faith after her upbringing, she still can’t avoid it. In John Prine she sings, “’Cause I ain’t one to knock religion/ Though it’s always knocking me.”

She gets it right on Somebody to Love when she sings, “We all wrangle with religion.” No matter where the wrangling takes us, its influence in most people’s lives vastly outpaces its representation in music. If you want more songs about wrangling with religion, just listen to country.