There’s always been a close connection between country and gospel music. Most of the country-loving public also loves gospel, and a large portion of gospel lovers are also fans of country & southern gospel.
Most country artists themselves are Christians who aren’t hesitant to share their faith in a song. In recent years, some of the top-selling Christian albums have come from country stars such as Alan Jackson whose 2006 collection Precious Memories has sold more than a million copies, and Alabama’s 2006 Songs of Inspiration was so successful, the veteran county band released a second volume.
Award-winning American Idol alum Carrie Underwood launched her multi-platinum career with the faith-based anthem “Jesus Take the Wheel” and the Country Music Association’s reigning entertainer of the year, Brad Paisley, has always included a gospel tune on his country albums since he debuted with Who Needs Pictures in 1999.
Here watchgmctv.com takes a look back at some of country gospel’s classic tunes.
1) “Why Me” – Written and recorded by singer/songwriter/actor Kris Kristofferson, this poignant ballad topped Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart in 1973 and peaked at No. 16 on the Hot 100. A beautifully written song of faith and redemption, Kristofferson’s emotional performance made “Why Me” his biggest hit as an artist. Over the years, the song has been recorded by numerous performers, including Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, who routinely sang it in his live shows.
2) “Go Rest High on That Mountain” – Written and recorded by Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill, this beautiful eulogy is among the songs most often sung at funerals. Vince started writing the song in 1989 after the death of country artist Keith Whitley and finished it after losing his older brother to a heart attack. Vince recorded “Go Rest High on That Mountain” on his 1994 album When Love Finds You. The song, which features beautiful harmonies by Ricky Skaggs and Patty Loveless, won two GRAMMY Awards and was named CMA Song of the Year in 1996.
3) “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” – The lyric to this country gospel classic was written in 1907 by Ada R. Habershon, with Charles H. Gabriel contributing the music. It became one of the signature hits for the legendary Carter Family and has been recorded by numerous artists over the years, including Bob Dylan, The Black Crowes, The Staple Singers, Joan Baez, Bill Monroe, and John Lee Hooker. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band used it as the title track for their landmark 1972 album that brought together legends such as Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Doc Watson and Merle Travis. The Dirt Band has since recorded Vol. II and Vol. III Circle albums. Considered by many to be one of the greatest country songs ever recorded, the words “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” are inscribed in the rotunda at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
4) “Three Wooden Crosses” – Penned by Doug Johnson and Kim Williams, Randy Travis recorded this on his 2002 Christian album Rise and Shine. The song, about an ill-fated bus trip for a "farmer and a teacher, a hooker and a preacher,” became Randy’s 16th No. 1 hit and won Song of the Year at the CMA Awards in 2003 and was named Country Gospel Song of the Year at the Dove Awards in 2004.
5) “I Saw the Light” – This 1948 gospel song written and performed by the legendary Hank Williams wasn’t a hit when it first released, but has come to be known as one of Hank’s most revered classics. "I wandered so aimless, life filled with sin...I wouldn't let my dear Savior in” are among the powerful lines Hank wrote that have continued to resonate with music lovers for decades. The song has been recorded by countless artists, including Charlie Daniels, David Crowder*Band, Crystal Gayle, Etta James and Roy Acuff.
6) “One Day at a Time” – This inspirational classic, written by Marijohn Wilkin and Kris Kristofferson, became an international hit for Cristy Lane. First recorded in 1974 by Marilyn Sellars, the song has been recorded by more than 200 artists and won the Dove Award for Song of the Year in 1975.
7) “Peace in the Valley” – Originally written by Thomas A. Dorsey in 1937 for Mahalia Jackson, this powerful ballad became a major hit for Red Foley in 1951. It became one of the first gospel songs to sell a million copies and went on to be recorded by such artists as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Ronnie Milsap. Foley sang this song at his friend Hank Williams’ funeral.
8) “Jesus Take the Wheel” – This is the song that started it all for multi-platinum country phenomenon Carrie Underwood. After winning the American Idol title in 2005, it was Carrie’s first No. 1 hit and remained at the top of the chart for six weeks. Penned by Brett James, Hillary Lindsey and Gordie Sampson, the song earned two GRAMMYs, including 2007’s Country Song of the Year, and also won the Dove Award for Country Recorded Song. Carrie hasn’t been reluctant to share her faith on subsequent hits, such as last year’s heartfelt “Temporary Home,” which she co-wrote.
9) “Wings of a Dove” – Written by Bob Ferguson, this classic hit has been recorded by Dolly Parton, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride and many others, but Ferlin Husky’s 1960 hit remains the definitive version. Husky, 85, passed away March 17, 2011, but his contributions to country music will live on.
10) “Long Black Train” – Written and recorded by Josh Turner, this song was the breakthrough hit for the deep-voiced South Carolina native in 2003. Josh grew up singing in church and formed a gospel group called Thankful Hearts, which he performed with before moving to Nashville and landing a deal with MCA Records. A devoted Christian and father of three young sons, Josh travels with his family. His wife Jennifer plays keyboard in his band.
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About the Writer
Deborah Evans Price has covered Christian/Gospel music for Billboard magazine since 1994. She also contributes regularly to CountryWeekly, CMA Close Up, Devo’Zine, Christian Single, HomeLife, BMI Music World, and other publications.
A Nashville resident since 1983, Deborah has held editorial posts at Radio & Records, Country News, American Songwriter and Billboard. Amy Grant, Trace Adkins, Brad Paisley, Charlie Daniels, 3 Doors Down, Third Day, Don Henley, Bon Jovi, Chris Rice, Sandra Bullock, Mercy Me, Alan Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Carrie Underwood and Steven Curtis Chapman are among her many interviews. Additionally, she's a sought-after music industry analyst who has been interviewed on CNN, MSNBC, TNN, The Today Show, and ABC PrimeTime Live, among other outlets.
Deborah is a member of the Gospel Music Association's board of directors and a graduate of Leadership Music. She resides south of Nashville with her husband, Gary, and son Trey.