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Musical cities of God

We are aging soldiers in an ancient war
Seeking out some half-remembered shore
We drink our fill and still we thirst for more
Asking, 'If there's no heaven, what is this hunger for?'

Our path is worn, our feet are poorly shod
We lift up our prayer against the odds
And fear the silence is the voice of God
And we cry Allelujah, Allelujah
We cry Allelujah.

Thousands of singles and couples, many bearing the symbols of affluent Austin suburbia (collared shirts tucked in, and caps connected to high-tech, venture capital, or financial services firms), listened on Sept. 29 to that sung question and plea from Emmylou Harris, the 55-year-old grande dame of American music. She was a finishing touch on a two-day Austin City Limits music festival that drew over 50,000 to stand or sit in green fields with rock outcroppings, six fully equipped stages, an artists' bazaar, and a bajillion port-o-potties.

High-school and college students abounded, but so did 40- and 50-something singles and couples. Some in this cross-section of Austin sported bikini tops and tattoos, and others were in blue-jean shorts and T-shirts. But they all seemed enthralled as Gillian Welch sang,

I am an orphan on God's highway, but I'll share my troubles if you go my way.
I have no mother, no father, no sister, no brother. I am an orphan girl....
But when He calls me I will be able to meet my family at God's table.
I'll meet my mother, my father, my sister, my brother; no more an orphan girl.
Blessed Savior make me willing and walk beside me until I'm with them.
Be my mother, my father, my sister, my brother....

To hear and sing lyrics like those is edifying, emotionally moving, and truly helpful. Where people are making, shaping, forming, and listening to words, people are also thinking, communicating, and sharing. The content of the songs was not often "Christian," and yet, some was decidedly so: Wherever words are dealt with deliberately, Christians tend to do well and to learn well.

Buddy and Julie Miller flanked Emmylou Harris during her whole performance. They sang Julie's "All My Tears":

When I go don't cry for me
In my Father's arms I'll be.
The wounds this world left on my soul
Will all be healed and I'll be whole.

It don't matter where you bury me.
I'll be home and I'll be free.
It don't matter where I lay.
All my tears be washed away.

Gold and silver blind the eye.
Temporary riches lie.
Come and eat from heaven's store.
Come and drink and thirst no more.

So weep not for me my friend
When my time below does end.
For my life belongs to Him
Who will raise the dead again.

Even when the content was not explicitly or implicitly "Christian," songs still connected to deeper issues, as when Emmylou Harris sang Lucinda Williams's ode to those who took their own lives:

See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world
The breath from your own lips, the touch of fingertips,
A sweet and tender kiss
The sound of a midnight train, wearing someone's ring
Someone calling your name
Somebody so warm cradled in your arm
Didn't you think they were worth anything?

The ancient wisdom of Proverbs reminds us, "A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver." One of the benefits of a poetic setting is that because something is aptly described people who normally wouldn't give attention do so willingly. For instance, several lesbian couples and one homosexual couple near a Christian group were attentive to the songs, even singing along.

Perhaps God uses popular culture to remind us of the opportunity we have to speak and live thoughtfully, even poetically. God's Word can go forth through a multitude of means, remaking, reshaping, reforming not only words but lives. As Emmylou Harris sang,

Like falling stars from the universe, we are hurled
Down through the long loneliness of the world
Until we behold the pain become the pearl
Cryin' Allelujah, Allelujah
We cry Allelujah


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Haggard & cashed out

Commercialized country stations fade into irrelevance as the influence of Americana music continues to grow

More and more radio listeners feel like the Dixie Chicks in their hit single "Long Time Gone," lamenting the state of country music. "They sound tired but they don't sound haggard / They got money but they don't have cash."

Merle Haggard, that is. And Johnny Cash. Two legendary performers still making stunning music who cannot get on the radio, so filled are the airwaves with photogenic hat acts and country-fried versions of Britney Spears.

The soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou, with its mix of bluegrass, depression-era folk tunes, and sharp new performers, sold an astonishing 6 million copies. The "Down from the Mountain" tour, featuring O Brother performers and their fellow travelers, sold out venues across the country, making it one of the summer's most successful concerts. And yet, even though mainline country music keeps losing market share, country stations still refuse to play that kind of genuinely country music.

Nevertheless, the music that does sound Haggard and does have Cash is looming ever larger, establishing its presence in the music industry, which it is even beginning to influence.

They call it "Americana music." The genre embraces legendary performers like Mr. Haggard and Mr. Cash, but also a new generation of from-the-heart musicians, such as the acclaimed singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams. Old-time forms such as bluegrass and mountain music are classified as Americana. So is the more cutting-edge, contemporary "alternative country," featuring young bands, including root-rockers and ex-punkers who, in their search for authenticity, found themselves going country.

What the whole range of Americana has in common is that it is distinctly American music, not a commercialized product of the pop culture, but an expression of the folk culture, grounded in American history and values.

The genre garnered attention with the first Americana Music Awards, which were given in Nashville last month. Mr. Cash received the Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award. Jim Lauderdale, who has penned some of the best country tunes of the last decade, won Artist of the Year, and his duet with the legendary Ralph Stanley, "She's Looking at Me," won song of the year. A lifetime achievement award went to Emmylou Harris, who progressed from flower child to country girl.

Americana music can get pretty wild, especially from the alternative country crowd, but it is completely open to explicit Christianity. This is true not only of bluegrass but for many of the newer performers as well. Nor do these singers, unlike many Contemporary Christian musicians, feel constrained to use hidden meanings or "is this Jesus or her boyfriend" ambiguities. Patty Loveless sings "Rise Up, Lazarus!" Gillian Welch sings about hell ("Tear My Stillhouse Down"), heaven ("Orphan Girl"), and Jesus on the cross ("By the Mark").

Many of the Americana Award winners are outspoken Christians. T Bone Burnett, producer of O Brother and winner of the Executive of the Year award, had been involved in the contemporary Christian music scene, as was Julie Miller, who with her husband Buddy won Album of the Year for Buddy and Julie Miller.

Billy Joe Shaver, winner of a lifetime achievement award for songwriting, wrote the songs Waylon Jennings turned into the Outlaw movement of the 1970s. Mr. Shaver lived a hard life, from his own degradation through substance abuse to the tragic death of his wife and son, but he became a Christian and wrote heart-rending songs of faith in albums like Victory.

Americana's newfound visibility and respect in the music industry is making it actually influential beyond its borders. One of the pioneers of the alternative country "No Depression" movement, Jeff Tweedy, has a movie out, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, a "rockumentary" about his band, Wilco. Ryan Adams, former frontman of alternative country group Whiskeytown, has become a bonafide rock star. He even appears in a Gap jeans ad-with Willie Nelson.

And if it is true that country radio does not play Haggard and Cash, they certainly play the Dixie Chicks. The trio started as a bluegrass ensemble, dressed in cowgirl outfits and singing on Texas street corners. Then they became one of the biggest-selling groups in popular music, switching to designer gowns and crossing over into the pop marketplace while managing not to sacrifice their country integrity.

Now their latest album, Home, takes them back to their musical home, with skillfully played bluegrass-infused acoustic instruments, traces of the O Brother aesthetic, and that complaint about country radio, which is now played on country radio stations throughout the nation.

In a musical landscape dominated by criminal rappers, suicidally depressing rock, disco nostalgia, and low sales in the recording industry, America may be ready to rediscover Americana.

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Best Albums

The Top 5 CDsfor the week ending April 27, according to Billboard magazine



2 weeks on chart


Catchy urban pop.


"Leaving," "Scared," "Over" (obscenities), "Rescue," "Movies" (frank sexuality)


"Dreams are real all you have to do is just believe ... Don't follow no one else just do what's good 4 you" ("Dreams").


Ashanti has a nice voice, sings well, and attracts talented collaborators who regrettably see nothing wrong with helping her hawk herself as a heavy-breathing courtesan.

Celine Dion

3 weeks on chart


Lavishly produced, Las Vegas?friendly pop.




That life is a wonder best expressed by religious metaphors (prayer, miracles, heaven, angels).


Technically impeccable, morally unassailable, musically predictable, commercially indomitable.
Now that's what I call music! 9

Various performers

4 weeks on chart


Urban, disco, boy-band, hard rock, alternative metal.


"Get the Party Started" Pink, "Rollout" Ludacris, "Just Push Play" Aerosmith (muted obscenities), "Lights, Camera, Action!" Mr. Cheeks (explicit sexuality), "Family Affair" Mary J. Blige (audible obscenity), "I'm a Slave 4 U," Britney Spears, "Caramel" City High (implicit sexuality)


You can fool some of the teenagers all of the time.


K-Tel, or Ronco, for the digital age.

Goo Goo Dolls

1 week on chart


Melodic hard rock with alternative flourishes.


"Sympathy" (casual profanity)


"Now you think you found something real / When it's all about money and the things that you need / Live a big lie and they all believe / Now, I just find that somehow obscene" ("What a Scene").


Immaculate engineering and rousing hooks serve as camouflage for lyrics that say little or nothing.


2 weeks on chart


Overtly sensuous, aphrodisiacal soul and R&B.


"My Place," "Best Friend," "Oops (Oh My)," "Call Me" (frank sexuality), "Make UR Move," "Motel" (casual profanity)


Happiness comes from having lots of sex (adultery, too, if you're the instigator) and partying.


Tweet has a nice voice, sings well, and attracts talented collaborators who regrettably see nothing wrong with helping her hawk herself as a heavy-breathing courtesan.


Cultural conservatives can be forgiven their overenthusiasm for Celine Dion. Dignified, classy, and talented, she embodies public virtues long absent from mainstream pop. Married, maternal, and monogamous, she embodies private virtues too. And her lyrics are as free of expletives as her flesh is of tattoos and piercings. What more could Republicans want in a diva? In a word, art-performances that meaningfully integrate form and content instead of perfecting the former at the expense of the latter. Except for the standards "Nature Boy" and "At Last," the material on A New Day Has Come (Epic), Ms. Dion's first new album since the birth of her child, consists of clichés inflated to proportions that even by the standards of Epic Records are pretty epic. References abound to prayer, faith, miracles, heaven, and being "touched by an angel," but the generically "inspirational" contexts in which they occur rob them of their specificity and, hence, their power.

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