Country and gospel music have always shared a special kinship. Both genres are rooted in an unwavering commitment to faith and family. There are countless examples of country artists who have quietly cut one-off faith-based songs through the years. Yet recently, high-profile country artists have unashamedly crossed over. Carrie Underwood’s smash single “Something in the Water” took Christian radio by storm in 2014 and has sold 1.1 million downloads. Meanwhile, superstar Blake Shelton released a song to Christian radio this year—“Savior’s Shadow”—calling it his most personal work to date.
“Country artists don’t always have a platform to share that part of their lives, and the majority of country artists are Christians,” shares music journalist Deborah Evans Price, who serves as author and founding partner of “Country Faith,” a line of books, CDs, live events, jewelry, and more that spotlight the faith of mainstream country artists. “‘Country Faith’ is a link between the two genres,” she explains. “It’s where America’s music meets the timeless message of the Gospel.”
“American Idol” alum Scotty McCreery released a book to Christian retail last spring through a partnership with Zondervan. “Scotty McCreery is the real deal—talented and gifted, polite and full of integrity. The stories he tells of his rise to fame show that he stayed grounded, true to himself and his faith as a Christian, which isn’t always easy in the life of a performer,” says David Morris, publisher for Zondervan Trade. “We felt that the example of his story would inspire readers of all ages to step out on their dreams and know that God is with them all along the way.”
Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott made her Christian debut with Love Remains (EMI Nashville/Capitol Christian Distribution), alongside her family, in July. The singer entered the CCM market with a bit of trepidation but quickly found the Christian industry to mirror the genre in which she’s accustomed. “It’s been comfortable,” she says of her crossover experience. “The roots of country music are in gospel, spiritual songs. The lines are blurred there.”
Scott notes that behind the scenes the two genres are similar in that personal connections are key. In support of her No. 1 radio single “Thy Will,” she spent a great deal of time meeting Christian radio promoters across the country, whom she says were extremely welcoming. In addition, Scott found that the songs also connected with listeners in a similar, albeit deeper, way.
“I feel like fans really want to hear the stories behind the songs and what you were feeling when you wrote it,” she says. “That connection with fans feels very similar, because your hearts are connected.”
Gaither Music Group/Spring Hill Music Group has capitalized on this unique relationship for years releasing successful Gospel projects from The Statler Brothers, Alabama, and The Oak Ridge Boys, among others. This circle of tried-and-true country artists seamlessly fits the label’s core “Gaither Homecoming” audience. “We’ve tried to create a brand that allows the stores to have an anchor for these products and helps the consumer know what they are getting and where to find it,” says VP Gaither Music Group/Spring Hill Music Group Paul Sizelove, adding that their offerings are filling a gap at Christian retail.
“We’ve found there’s an enormous group of music lovers who enjoy traditional gospel singing and country music who may not find that on currently-trending outlets,” he says, “and we’re honored to be able to create products and platforms to meet their needs and wants.”
Their strategy is working. With 275,000 units sold to date, Joey+Rory’s Hymns That Are Important To Us (Gaither/Spring Hill) is the sixth bestselling album of any genre, the second-biggest country release (behind Chris Stapleton’s Traveller), and the only Christian/ gospel album to sell more than 100,000 copies in 2016, according to Billboard.
Like any crossover, the road between genres goes both ways. Artists like Aaron & Amanda Crabb have found success in the secondary country market with full support from their label, Difference Media. The couple attributes it to listeners’ ability to be drawn to a great story. “I like songs that can relate to people in their everyday life,” Aaron shares. “Music is powerful. A message and a melody sometimes can do what a sermon can’t.”
Difference Media’s Sandy Parker believes Christian retail needs to embrace artists from both sectors who wish to cross over, because in the end, it’s a win-win for everyone. “I think we need to do a better job as an industry of allowing people to just make music … We limit ourselves by not giving these songs a broader platform when people who would otherwise never turn on a Christian station [or walk into a Christian bookstore] might miss out. What if that song was the song that did it for them?” Parker asks. “In the same way that secular artists have the latitude to cross genres, I think we should be supportive and excited for the Christian artists who are afforded the same privilege, because that means they are truly going into the world with the Gospel.”