Two compilations have recently been released that offer two glimpses into the religious culture of the mid-to-late Twentieth century American Protestant culture. One, entitled Hillbillies In Hell: County Music’s Tormented Testament 1952-1974, puts its focus on white Southern Gospel and country music, while Christians Catch Hell: Gospel Roots 1976-1979 focuses solely on African-American gospel of the late Seventies, through the prism of a brief but prominent Gospel record label. Both compilations are excellent snapshots of their respective cultures, and reveal a divide in perspective about faith that is quite noticeable.
Hillbillies In Hell captures eighteen slices of earnest, unique, sincere—and sometimes laughable—country and gospel-minded “message” songs from the Fifties and Sixties. A handful of these artists were known in their time, while many of them were mere one-single musicians who felt the need to express themselves on a seven-inch slab of vinyl. All of them play into the image of Southern Protestant culture—rural, countrified, with a focus on the evils of the outside world, the urban world, the Northern world—and as such, offer much preaching and moralizing.
One thing that isn’t found here, though, is praise: these songs are about the dangers of transgressions and living a sinful life. You aren’t going to hear about the glory of God; instead, you’re going to hear about the wrath of God, and, more specifically, his arch nemesis, Satan. As a point of fact, there’s more Devil talk than there is God talk. Satan even makes an appearance here on Billy Barton’s 1958 b-side, “The Devil, My Conscience, and I,” an up-tempo number with Barton conversing with the Evil One himself. If it wasn’t for the fact that Barton made his reputation as a country Gospel singer—the A-side of this single is a very fine slice of rockabilly gospel “Doorway to Heaven”—one might dismiss this as a novelty song.
That dismissive feeling will permeate your mind for about half of the songs here, but there are a handful of songs that are straightforward and don’t play into the absurdist concept. Sure, Cowboy Copas’ 1955 single “Don’t Shake Hands With The Devil” has a humorous title, but the song itself is a straightforward Gospel number that is performed to this day in churches across the heartland. The Sunshine Boys’ hit number “We Need A Whole Lot More Of Jesus (And A Lot Less Rock And Roll)” falls into this camp as well; it’s a pretty standard Southern gospel number that serves as an interesting curiosity from rock & roll’s nascent days. Margie Singeton’s “Jesus Is My Pusher” starts off in a way that makes you wince, but turns into a pretty decent country rock/gospel mix.
But the appeal of Hillbillies In Hell isn’t found in those relatively normal songs—it’s found in songs that are as clueless as they are scriptural. I have serious doubts that Johnny Price was ever in the same room with a joint, yet he sings about it with such melodramatic flare with “Marijuana, The Devil Flower.” Redneck Wendell Austin’s song about LSD spawning off a heinous murder is so horribly bad, one gets the feeling he got his information about the drug (or the inspiration for the song) from a Chick Tract. From listening to Neil Harper’s experience with hypodermic needles on “The Needle,” one can’t help but think his only experience with a needle was when he got his flu shot. While their intentions may have been sincere, they simply feel hackneyed and out of touch, promoting an absurdist image of drug culture that never really existed.
Furthermore, it’s the melodrama of these songs that makes them so appealing. The overwrought emotions of Don Bailey’s suicidal jumper on “Fourteen Stories Down” is enhanced by the hilarious sound of wind blowing into the microphone. The balladry of of“Dark Angel” by Benny Joy and the Elvis-like stylings of Jack Cook on “My Evil Mind” temper utter seriousness with some of the most laughable lyrics you’re likely to hear. One thing to remember, though: both songs were products of the era of “teen death” songs in the early 1960s. The winner of the best song—even though it’s one of the most ridiculous numbers here—is the scuzzy, hick-abilly fuzz of Wayne, Pat, and Keith’s “I’m Tired Of You, Satan,” a scorcher that’s tempered with a female voice sung in such an overwhelming Ozark accent that it’s instantly absurd and delightful.
Christians Catch Hell, however, documents a later time period than Hillbillies In Hell, with its offerings coming from the 1970s and early 1980s. Also, unlike the previous compilation, all of the artists here were signed to Gospel Roots, a short-lived subsidiary of T.K Records. While the country records dealt with the destruction of the soul through errant ways and unrepentant lifestyles, the music on Christians Catch Hell are much more upbeat, focusing on the glory of God and His goodness and mercy, as well as his assistance during times of trial and tribulation. Furthermore, the music is much more contemporary in nature—Gospel is naturally the predominant style, but you’ll also hear Blues (“Will You Save Me,” “On Jesus’ Program”) R&B (“Never Say What You Want,” “Tell Me”) and even a little Funk (“For The Children”) and Disco groove (“After The Rain”) . Though there are no names here—many of these artists only made one or two records before disappearing into obscurity—it’s not hard find yourself wanting to seek out Pastor T.L. Barrett, The Fantastic Family Aires, The Philippians, and the other artists you’ll hear here. If there’s evil in the world, it’s an afterthought; Satan may be real, but God’s glory is greater.
So, what does this all mean? Both groups, in theory, should have much in common; their core message is the same, and one would be hard-pressed to find much difference in their fundamentalist take on Christianity. Is it because the church was and is an oasis to the suffering and hardships of the African-American experience, wherein the rural experience—often ironically with the white population in the same boat financially and socially as those they looked down upon and segregated and hated—was reacting to a world that was changing rapidly. Understandable, too—young people were not only outgrowing the passion for a hellfire sermon, but running away from the dogmatic nature of Old Testament-based Christianity, aiming to be a part of the Jesus Movement in a post-Woodstock world. These messages preached to the choir, most likely convinced no young person to stay on the straight and narrow, and satisfied out-of-touch traditionalists with no clue about youth culture.
No, what both separates and connects these two compilations is sincerity. One cannot say of the songs on Christians Catch Hell that they aren’t sincere; theirs is authentic, from-the-heart, deep-seated Gospel music that’s both contemporary and tradition. As a result, the listening experience is pleasant, and the messages straightforward in a very appealing, non-preachy way. For Hillbillies In Hell, the sincerity is equally authentic; after all, you don’t spend hundreds of dollars to record a song and release a single that very few people will hear if you aren’t sincere. Even though the songs are overbearingly didactic, melodramatic, and oftentimes unappealingly absurd, there’s a charm that makes Hillbillies In Hell an equally enjoyable listen. Both records present Christianity from two unique perspectives, and both records are superior documents for anyone interested in Christianity and popular music.
Hillbillies In Hell is available from Iron Mountain Analogue Research; Christians Catch Hell is available from Honest Jon’s.