Country musicians always have an easy relationship with God – as that secular saint Dolly Parton puts it, “I talk to God all the time, but he don’t always listen!”
It’s a relationship that can make Brits feel a tad queasy, and many have trouble understanding why a nation with no state religion so often invokes God and the Bible.
Thus, Carrie Underwood’s Easter offering from Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, “the mother church of country music”, was not in the least bit surprising and Americans from sea to shining sea clearly loved it.
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At its peak, 38,000 people watched the Facebook livestream, the comments drawing Underwood fans from all corners of the US, as well as Canada, South Africa, the Philippines, Norway and the UK. It was alarming to read one woman saying she was “watching while driving home from spring break”, but happily most were at home, some in hospital.
And it was clear that many derived huge comfort hearing a performer they loved singing songs they had grown up with, reminding them of loved ones, some recently lost. There were devotional messages praising God, others praising God for Underwood’s talent.
“God is finally glorified by an A-lister” wrote one, although that’s unfair to the many artists, including Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, who have sung his praises.
Underwood won American Idol in 2005 and was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry three years later. She has sold 70 million albums worldwide, and My Savior is her eighth outing, the logical follow-up to The Gift, from Christmas 2020. Born on an Oklahoma farm, she grew up Baptist and is still a practising Christian who wants to be “hopeful and joyful and inspirational” at a time of great difficulty.
The Ryman, which began life as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, was the ideal venue: sunlight was refracted through its stained glass, and a string section was spaced around its candlelit pews. The band was in Sunday best, Underwood a glittery gown, her appearance heralded by Buddy Greene’s lonesome harmonica.
While the hymns were traditional, the arrangements were not: big-production rather than down-home; TV-evangelism rather than the local church, which worked well with the old chestnut “How Great Thou Art”, although the closing histrionics took it over the top.
The most effective moments came with the country-gospel of “Victory in Jesus”, and “Great is Thy Faithfulness” when Underwood was joined by the velvety voice of CeCe Winans – the energy and sense of hope was enough to lift the weakest spirit.
Arrayed effectively around the balcony, the choir added passion and a palpable sense of joy to “The Old Rugged Cross”. They stayed on to bring the performance to a rousing close with “Amazing Grace”.
Within a few hours, the free concert had raised $85,000 for Save the Children.