Ken Carter: Traditioned innovation in roots music

The preservation and newness in Americana is a model for ministry.

My vocation is pastoral ministry. One of my avocations has always been music. I’ve always lugged along boxes of albums into my parishes. My vocation (ministry) and avocation (music) were always somewhat separate. The music was most often an escape from the ministry, and yet it was still an endeavor that enriched my life.

Over the past fifteen years there has been a growing appreciation for what has been termed “Americana” or “roots music.” It includes some elements of country and jazz, bluegrass and rock, blues and gospel. It was covered most thoroughly by “No Depression” magazine (the title taken from a Carter family song, “There’s no depression in heaven”), and its genealogy can be traced to Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, B.B. King and Louis Armstrong. The geography of roots music stretches from New Orleans, through the Delta, to Memphis and Nashville and into Appalachia. It is not accidental that these areas are the most poverty-stricken and the most religious in the United States. These deep traditions are also preserved in places like Preservation Hall, Beale Street and the Ryman Auditorium.

Yet roots music remains a living tradition not only because it is preserved. It is also constantly being renewed.

As a pastor of a congregation, I have appreciated Greg Jones’s and others’ reflections on “traditioned innovation.” It is a fruitful concept, and a way beyond the impasses in debate about worship or architecture, staffing or mission. “We are the carriers of that which has gone before us so we can bear witness faithfully to the future,” Jones writes.

I have been listening recently to two remarkable pieces of music: “Downtown Church” by Patty Griffin and “We Walk This Road” by Robert Randolph and The Family Band. “Downtown Church” includes Hank Williams’ “House of Gold”, the spiritual “Wade in the Water” and a compelling rendering of “All Creatures of our God and King.” Griffin has confessed a discomfort with many aspects of the traditional Christianity of her youth (in particular the exclusively male language for God), and yet she acknowledges a power in the music. She chose the Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville as the recording venue. The range of material, the musical quality, the artist’s own voice, and the setting give “Downtown Church” a depth that defies stereotyping.

“We Walk This Road” displays the fire of a guitarist Robert Randolph who grew up in the House of God church tradition, where he learned to play the pedal steel guitar in worship services. He was discovered at a sacred steel convention in Florida, and his music caught the attention of Eric Clapton. He has been compared to Stevie Ray Vaughn and even Jimi Hendrix, and one grasps this in listening to his cover of Bob Dylan’s “Shot of Love.” On “We Walk This Road,” Randolph collaborates with T Bone Burnett, best known for his musical production of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” The road that Randolph walks is the African-American experience of faith and struggle, protest and pain, deliverance and joy. The recording itself is an eclectic mix of traditional spirituals, delta blues and contemporary gospel.

In the liner notes, Randolph writes: “My goal is to open the door for people, in the same way that musical doors have been opened for me. I want to take this musical history and make it relevant.” The juxtaposition of John Lennon’s “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Mama” with “I Still Belong To Jesus” indicates the creative tension of the best of roots music: conversant with the deepest human longings while also being firmly grounded in the indigenous spiritual tradition of a region.

And so a tradition is preserved, and yet there is clearly change. The innovation is present in the response to new challenges (homelessness for Griffin, war for Randolph), and more fundamentally, in the complexity of instrumentation and emotion.

Patty Griffin and Robert Randolph are compelling voices who have chosen to profess their faith through art. They represent a movement in American music that values the heritage and takes it to a different place.

I am wondering now how this might happen in ministry . . .

Ken Carter is senior pastor, Providence United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.