Exploring how a Jewish upbringing in the South shaped my relationship with country music.
I didn’t develop an interest in country music until my teenage years, but its familiar twang was constantly present throughout my childhood. Born in the southern coal-mining region of West Virginia and raised in a coastal Florida town that bordered rural neighborhoods, I grew up surrounded by the sound of Southern drawls and acoustic melodies in the backgrounds of everyday places like restaurants, grocery stores, and waiting rooms. But that was the extent of my childhood country music exposure. Growing up with two Jewish parents and attending Hebrew school with most of my friends, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to acquire a taste for this predominantly Southern music genre.
However, my attitudes changed during my first year of high school when I made a new group of friends who were obsessed with country music. At first, I was skeptical and continued to listen to Taylor Swift’s Reputation Album, like many other 2018 teenagers. But, as my friends continued to obsess over Luke Bryan and Thomas Rhett, I decided to give the soundtrack of their lives a spin.
While I instantly fell in love with the genre, I feared that it made me less Jewish. Many of my favorite singers allude to Christianity in some of their lyrics, causing me to question whether it was acceptable to listen to them. I can name a handful of country songs with Christian intentions. Tim McGraw’s “God Moves The Pen,” Morgan Wallen’s “Don’t Think Jesus,” and Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” But I can also do the same thing for many other genres of popular music. George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” The Beach Boy’s “God Only Knows,” and Chance the Rapper’s “Child Of God.”
Many English-speaking music artists produce songs about their religion, usually Christianity. But does that make the rest of their work exclusive to Christian listeners? I don’t think so.
It is not surprising that there is a perceived connection between country music and Christianity, as both are widely embraced in the American Bible Belt, where country music has its strongest following and Christianity is deeply rooted in the culture.
I believe these Christian connotations that underlie country music are why it isn’t as popular in Los Angeles — where I now live for college. My new friends seemed shocked when I obsessed over Luke Comb’s new album and confused at my frustration that Thomass Rhett isn’t played at frat parties. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense that the one person in the group who attends Shabbat dinners weekly also religiously listens to country music.
But, after closely analyzing the lyrics of many other country songs, I quickly noticed that many are about things other than Christianity. While some country songs are about church culture and Jesus, even more tell beautiful stories of love, heartbreak, work, and life in the South — in other words, my own culture from birth.
As a result of the Jewish Diaspora, many Jews have grown up outside of Israel, including in the United States and other nations, embracing cultural influences that originated outside of the traditions of Judaism.
My maternal grandfather spent his childhood years in Ecuador, where he developed a deep appreciation for Ecuadorian art. His home is adorned with beautiful paintings, sculptures, and other art pieces that reflect his love for the South American country’s rich cultural heritage. My father grew up in suburban Long Island, where he spent much of his childhood attending Rangers ice hockey games and indulging in quintessential American snacks, such as hot dogs and soft pretzels.
Despite their different cultural backgrounds, my grandfather and my father proudly identify as Jewish and cherish their religious and ethnic heritage. They recognize that the local cultural experiences of an adopted homeland can add richness and diversity to one’s identity, but do not define or undermine one’s religious or ethnic identity.
Although I was raised in the South, my cultural and personal identity has been shaped by my Jewish heritage, which remains a fundamental aspect of my identity. I am proud to belong to both cultures and can choose what country songs I listen to and avoid.
Just because a few country songs reference Christianity does not mean that I must avoid the entire genre. I am grateful that such a unique and uplifting category of music is part of my own blended culture. I hope more people will bridge this same gap between Southern and Jewish cultures. Maybe we’ll even start doing the Cotton Eye Joe at Jewish weddings. After all, it’s no less Jewish than the Russian Kazotsky that my parents did on their wedding night.