Now, there's another wave of faith-based, Nashville sounds. Whether it's Carrie Underwood's prayerful "Jesus, Take the Wheel" or Brooks & Dunn's nostalgic "Believe," country charts are sounding like Sunday morning.
While popular culture - from television to books - has seen a resurgence in all-things-spiritual since 9/11, country music's upsurge is more Christian-specific."There have been a lot more songs that are just kind of straight gospel songs, that a few years ago would have only been played on the Christian radio stations, and now they're being recorded by the biggest country singers," says David Fillingim, author of "Redneck Liberation: Country Music as Theology."
The reason, says Fillingim, who teaches religion and philosophy at Shorter College in Rome, Ga., is pretty simple: That's their audience. "Country music is not going to look anywhere else," he says. It's also the faith background of many of the artists, who tend to come from the Bible Belt. Ronnie Dunn, who co-wrote "Believe", grew up in Arkansas and went to Bible college before becoming one-half of Brooks & Dunn.
Underwood, the "American Idol" winner who recorded "Jesus, Take the Wheel," used to sing in a her church choir in Oklahoma. "Even those who don't (have a Christian background), they learn pretty quickly that they need to pretend like they do," Fillingim says.
Longtime country music journalist Alanna Nash has done the math. According to her calculations, offered up in a recent edition of Country Weekly magazine, there have been a record-setting 11 religious-themed hits since 2005. Three of the five songs nominated for this year's country music Song of the Year were among them - and the winner was "Believe."
The magazine suggests this new God squad got kick-started three years ago with "Three Wooden Crosses," by well-known country artist Randy Travis. The song is a testimonial from a former prostitute's son whose mother survived a terrible bus crash and was redeemed by a dying preacher who gave her his bloody Bible. "Three Wooden Crosses" also was a crossover hit in the contemporary Christian music market.
Last year, the rush was on with songs such as Craig Morgan's "That's What I Love About Sunday" and Martina McBride's "God's Will." That said, however, Nash thinks the new music transcends any particular religion. "These are songs that are spiritual in nature, but they do not beat you over the head with religiosity so that, indeed, even non-religious people can relate to them and draw strength from them," she said. "Jesus, Take the Wheel" is about a woman asking for Jesus' help after nearly crashing her car with her baby in the back seat. Isn't that message a bit religiously specific?
"I think everyone can relate to being in a situation and you're scared to death and you don't have anybody to call on," counters Nash. "That was like calling on any higher power."
If there is one thing marketing research has revealed, it's that listeners love these songs.
"The level of passion that we see on these songs, especially like 'Jesus, Take the Wheel' and 'When I Get Where I'm Going' (Brad Paisley's heavenly hit), is overwhelming," says Mike O'Brian, program director for US 95.7, one of San Diego's two FM country music stations. "I think these songs offer people hope - like blessed assurance."
Record companies have discovered that there's money to be made in that blessed assurance. Country superstar Alan Jackson's gospel CD, "Precious Memories," sold more than 100,000 copies in the first week it was out earlier this year.
In a diverse country like the United States, crossover fans might get uncomfortable with this public religiosity. But country's core audience is more homogenous.
US 95.7's listeners are predominantly Christian, according to O'Brian. "If they're not Christian, they would probably lean that way. That's probably the real unique aspect of this format."
Ditto for rival station KSON/97.3. "Country music is a values-based music," says KSON's program director, John Marks. "Those who share those values gather around the format because it's safe for the children, it's lyrically driven and it's about things that people in real life deal with every day - losing a love, finding a love, breaking up, dating, everyday life."
Neil Haislop, a veteran county radio producer and writer in Los Angeles, points out that the audience isn't just Christian, it's pretty conservative Christians. "They believe in a Christian God and a fairly strict one."
He adds: "I think if Alan Jackson or someone were to come out in a song and say, 'God bless Buddha,' it would fall like a balloon because that's not something they know about in terms of spirituality."
On the other hand, this genre also gave us such memorable tunes as "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off" and "I'd Love to Lay You Down." Then there's the patriotic crush of country songs - like Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (the Angry American)." Among the lyrics: "And you'll be sorry that you messed with the US of A / 'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass / It's the American Way."
Fillingim, the religious scholar and country music fan, offers this explanation: "I think what happens in times of anxiety and uncertainty, all the emotions wrapped up in patriotism and religion and whatever prejudices people have, I think, they all get mixed together. That's why the same audiences can cheer at hearing Toby Keith sing about how America's going to kick somebody's ass and follow with 'Amazing Grace.'"
Ask Nash about Hank Williams, who sang soulful ballads about God and heaven as he was drinking himself to death, and she'll jump to his defense. "Those gospel songs were absolutely straight from his heart. ... I think people who are alcoholic and have major drug problems are certainly looking for deliverance in one way or another."
But Fillingim is troubled about the theology in some of the songs. "I see a danger any time that religious connotation gets reduced to shallow sentimentality. When you appeal to people's emotions, it's easier for demagogues to come in behind you and manipulate that." He finds more honesty in the 1950s classic "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels." The theological message: You can't blame God for the choices people make.
"Jesus, Take the Wheel" goes in another, more simplistic direction.
"In real life, there are people who want Jesus to take the wheel, but guess what? Things turn out rotten anyway," he says. Haislop credits the newest resurgence of spiritual messages to current events. "I think it's part of a national awareness of 'We better be OK with God because we don't know what's going to happen.' Religion in times of crisis just seems to come along in the forefront."
And the beat goes on.
"I think it (religion) will be a part of the matrix of country music probably forever," Haislop says. Maybe when peace breaks out and the economy gets better, the wave will wane. "As times are good, they forget their religion a little bit and slide until another crisis comes along."