For all its mega-churches, giant crosses, ubiquitious McCain-Palin signs, and soft-brained emphasis on “family values,” the Christian South evolved from a barbarous past. To put it in the parlance of a drive-by church marquee: A Bible Belt can’t hide dirty Britches.” In the eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries, the preferred way to settle disputes among gentlemen was by dueling. I suppose you could see this as a realization of the Old Testament law, “An Eye for an Eye,” (though to intentionally remove a challenger’s eye in the process would necessitate a crack shot), instead of institutionalized, ritual murder, but that’s a matter of semantics. Settlers who lived among and trafficked with Southeastern Indian tribes frequently had multiple wives, and their “weddings” were conducted not by a preacher in a church, but usually in more pastoral settings, like by moonlight after a pow-wow in a nearby rhododendron thicket. The pledges of troth were brief; the ceremony probably briefer.
In 1809 Tennessee’s foremost Presbyterian minister and evangelist to the Cherokees, Gideon Blackburn, was indicted in a whiskey-smuggling ring, when a raft filled with contraband liquor was confiscated in Indian territory by Creek chiefs en route to ports in Mobile. Blackburn, like any self-respecting man of the cloth, claimed he was a federal agent working undercover, closed his Indian missions, moved to the Nashville area and became a personal adviser to Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel. The issue would be moot within five years, after Andy declared war on the Creek Nation and took virtually all their land for the American government. By the late 1820’s, a lawman in Georgia was more likely to imprison a
clergyman than listen to his sermon. The crime of a white man ministering to the Cherokees within the borders of Georgia netted four years hard labor in a penitentiary.
It is my belief that Jesus holds such sway over the South because it is essentially a pagan place. It is, and has always been, an American Arcadia, for the first Scotch-Irish making their dull, dangerous Atlantic crossings; for Northeastern intellectuals who befriended Cherokee chiefs in Washington; for the Georgian opportunists who stole Indian plantations at gunpoint; and for the Reconstruction-era carpetbaggers who sized up the war-ravaged forests, smiled, and stayed. But as Robert Graves notes in his two-volume history of Greek mythology, Arcadia (the actual region in Southern Greece) was the home of the most savage, bloodthirsty rites…
To one who suffered through a childhood of pious Sunday school lessons and solemn, hell-mongering sermons, there has always been something refreshing, vital and scary in the South’s submerged evil. It is a land where revenge, jealousy, ignorant hatred, misunderstanding, superstitions and ill omens rule. Where petty grudges amass into generational clan warfare. It is a passionate, wildly heated, heavy place; but yet, simultaneously, a deeply soulful, reflective, compassionate one as well. The South is ruled by the heart, above all else, both for good and bad. Its capacity for cruelty is matched by its capacity for guilt, its desire for forgiveness. To be set free. To be made clean. To be washed in the blood… Baptism has an almost mystical hold on the Southern imagination, which is fitting for a region that, while landlocked, is defined by its lakes and mighty rivers (once wild and unpredictable, now mostly tamed by the TVA), its hard rains and flash floods, waterfalls and streams that wind back into deep, dark, mythically old mountains, always looming at the far edge of the Eastern horizon.
It is from these mountains that the Appalachian folk music we collectively call “bluegrass” descended and made its way on foot across the Cumberland Plateau to Nashville. Southern Soul from Muscle Shoals, AL, and Atlanta excepted (to which I will devote future virtue-extolling reviews), it is this bluegrass gospel music about Jesus that is the South’s great redeemer, not Jesus Christ himself. When I was a kid growing up, I had no taste whatsoever for sacred music. The chorus of smiling, well-off white people in blue gowns that singing tastefully-arranged versions of songs like “How Great Thou Art” and “My Eye Is On the Sparrow” accompanied by an effusive, effete piano played by a closeted gay choir director with a distractingly red, sweaty face and a black tidal wave of pomaded hair, did nothing to stir my soul. It was the musical equivalent of a pet gerbil.
But bluegrass speaks the truth. It’s the perfect vessel for capturing the stark duality of the Southern mentality, its cruelty and compassion. In bluegrass a murder ballad sits side by side with a gospel hymn, both equally enthralling, engrossing, beloved, necessary. The little country church or meeting hall or tavern where the bluegrass fiddler plays is an oracle, of the lineage of that far-flung ancient Arcadia, a remote temple to which a penitent pilgrim arrives with some difficulty. For me, that journey is a climb up the windy W Road to the sticks of Walden Ridge to visit the Mountain Opry, a free Friday night jamboree that’s been open rain or shine for nearly thirty years running.
Church choir music is all about grandeur (“Mine eyes have seen the Glory…”); bluegrass is all about humility (“Pass me not, O' gentle Savior…”). Who cannot be moved by the shattering stillness of a plaintive, frail, trembling voice (in the “High Lonesome” style, as it’s called) pouring out his confession to an invisible Spirit, begging for mercy? And when that single voice is met by another in close harmony, is there anything on this earth more heartfelt, pure and life-affirming? Not enough is made, I believe, of the spiritual importance of harmony singing. It is the most basic, intimate good thing one can do. It’s finding a common ground with another; it’s getting along.
All sinners come to the chapel where bluegrass is played: murderers, drunkards, liars, idlers, gamblers, coldhearted fools—in short, all of us. There they face themselves with honest, startling clarity, make their reckoning and find grace. The Stanley Brothers hail from Virginia, but their sound is universal and timeless. Listening to their voices is akin to hearing a transmission from a long-departed ghost scrawled by a medium on scratchy wax in the velvet-walled parlor of a lonely mansion. On the cover of their album For the Good People we glimpse a vision of this “bluegrass chapel.” An unadorned pure white steeple, not too far removed from an obelisk, rises above a small church, barely visible behind a brilliant, blazing orange tree, the image at once wholesome, autumnal, rural, mysterious and accessible. It is reminiscent of that idealized South of the mind, where the crueler passions of the heart are kept blessedly at bay in the surrounding woods, but not banished entirely. Where, for at least the span of two spins of a record, one can unstopper and be washed in those deep emotions and words that soften and rectify a broken spirit.
I gave up churches and salvation and preachers and shame a long time ago, and I’ve never regretted it. You need Jesus and the Devil, the dark and the light, to be whole and complete, and bluegrass understands this. Sitting alone in the small hours, with the Stanley Brothers singing their guts out and a glassful of Tennessee whiskey (preferably George Dickel No. 12, where available) in front of me, is the kind of communion this well-intentioned sinner understands best.