Take my preacher (or my Congressman)… please

Chris JonesThis was the column I was hoping to get someone else to write for me. It was the one that was supposed to deal with the issue of politics and/or religion in stage MC work.

I called some pretty reliable friends who I thought would be willing to go to bat for me, and I got some amazing and creative excuses.

Friend 1: “I have jury duty all week, and possibly next week, maybe all summer. Sorry I can’t help you.”

Friend 2: “I’d love to, but I’m bringing our dog into the vet for some complicated surgery.”

Me: “But your dog died a month ago.”

Friend 2: “That’s why the surgery’s so complicated.”

Friend 3 (and I really had high hopes for this one. He’s the one who has taken me to the airport at 4:00 a.m., and substituted for me at really dull banquets): “I’m sorry, but I have to change the chips in the hamster cage. After that, I have to oil the wheel in the hamster cage.”

So there it is. Apparently this is a topic no one wants to touch, and I hardly blame them, since I’m the one who was trying to pawn it off in the first place.

Why is this so hard? At least there’s an easy answer for that one: in the area of politics and religion, we’ve all become extremely sensitive. Not only that, we’re sensitive about being called sensitive. In fact, I already feel the need to apologize for saying so.

I’m as insensitive as the next man (“man” being the operative word here), and I sometimes long for the early days of Saturday Night Live, when we were able to laugh at ourselves a little more easily. And yet, as an entertainer, I have to face the present reality of society, and act accordingly. It’s an inescapable fact that unless you’re a shock-based comedian or D.J., offending as low a percentage of people as possible is a sensible and worthwhile goal.

When it comes to the discussion of religion or working religious humor into your show, all I can say is to tread lightly.

It’s important to stress that I’m not referring at all to the practice of religious witnessing to your audience. This is personal, and people are either called to do this or they aren’t. Many entertainers do this beautifully. Sincere witnessing or expression of faith may still bother some people, but if that’s all that it is, people should know that it isn’t intended to offend, and it may be inspirational to others.

However when it goes beyond a sharing of faith, and is used to drive home a point, especially if it’s a potentially controversial or divisive point, it can become dangerous ground.

To give you an idea of how dangerous it can be, just look at the number of denominations there are within Protestant Christianity alone. At last count, there were over 22,000 or so denominations and sub-denominations, one of which is just four people meeting for services in one of the members’ Chevy Malibu (though word is that the back seat is considering splitting off from the front seat and starting a new church in a Ford).

For this reason alone, getting yourself into any subject on stage that involves debatable theological points is probably inadvisable. It’s also best to avoid theological issues that most of the crowd isn’t going to understand or care about anyway. For example, working the subject of premillennial vs. postmillennial eschatology into a Gospel song introduction is going to lose a lot of people and anger some others. In fact, the word “eschatology” is just incompatible with entertainment in general.

Having said all that, everybody appreciates a good preacher joke or a good church joke. If you have any question about whether it’s any good or whether it’s appropriate, just ask yourself: “Would Little Roy Lewis tell it?” If the answer is “yes,” then you’re probably okay. Whether you can pull it off the way Little Roy would is a separate question.

Politics is another matter, and here’s where we may all be the most sensitive of all. We’re told over and over how divided we are as a nation. My personal opinion is that we’re not so much divided as we are inundated with argument in the media, making us feel divided (and I’m fully prepared to argue this point bitterly, for hours if necessary). Divisiveness sells, it turns out, so now people who several years ago couldn’t have cared less, now hold strong political opinions, call in to talk shows, and are considering writing books.

Given that kind of political environment, do you really want to wade into that swamp? And yet people do, because I hear them on stage fairly often. I think some people do it because they just can’t resist making a point when they have unrestricted access to a microphone. More often, though, I think performers make the mistaken assumption that everyone in the audience thinks the way they do.

A lot of people don’t realize it, but the bluegrass music world is politically diverse, maybe even more so than in other genres of music. We have Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, socialists, survivalists, followers of Sun Myung Moon, Lyndon LaRouche, and Garth Brooks, and there’s no way to tell who’s who based on how they sing Blue Moon of Kentucky. We tend to be blissfully unaware of our differences because we’re too busy discussing fret jobs, arguing about Flatt and Scruggs lyrics, and doing bad imitations of Bill Monroe. I think that’s a good thing.

The fact is that even if most of the people you’re playing for look like you do, and like the same music that you do, there’s still a pretty good chance that a minimum of 15% of them have political views that are opposite to yours. That’s a very conservative estimate, by the way, considering that an election that’s decided by a difference of five or six percentage points is considered a landslide. 15 to 60% of your audience is a lot of people to alienate. I don’t think our audience for bluegrass music is big enough to take that risk.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t political humor that everyone can relate to. If you just operate under the assumption that half of your audience disagrees with you, you’ll be at a safer starting point.

I’d love to discuss this further, but I need to transfer the laundry from the washing machine to the dryer, change the water in the goldfish bowl, and then I need to wash the engine of the truck that I don’t own yet. And that’s all before the jury duty.

  • Charles Henderson

    You are correct about both points. It is a shame, considering that gospel music has always been an integral part of bluegrass music. But, we let our denominational dispositions divide us too much.
    As for politics, once upon a time, I would have assumed that most bluegrass aficionados were conservative and Republican, except for the younger and/are progressive style of bluegrass lovers. Not true, of course. Yes, I would have made a wager on that, until I learned that Ralph Stanley (some else besides me can regard his “doctors degree”),whose contribution to the genre -in my humble opinion – is highly overrated, supported Barack Obama.
    When I discovered that he campaigned for Obama, it became clear that bluegrass fans do come in all brands of religion and politics, whether we like it or not. At least we can pick those whom we decide to pay a concert fee to see or buy merchandise.
    SUPPLEMENTARY NOTE:(And, ironically, my response, criticizing Stanley, which will preclude it being published, further supports your view that “not being offended” is the only REAL right that we have anymore. Diversity of opinion is rife amongst the American BG population, but don’t give it; your right of speech takes a far distant back seat to the “not being offended” right.

  • Chris Jones

    You’ve supported my point well, Charles. Your negative view of Ralph Stanley may not be due strictly to his political stand, but I’ll bet it at least had an influence on it. In Ralph’s case, he’s close to retirement, and at this point, it probably doesn’t matter that much to him what people think about who he supports for president, but for less established artists, this is not a good way to expand an audience that’s already small. Bill Monroe was (quietly) a Democrat, Jimmy Martin was (less quietly at times) a Republican. It has no bearing on their music (especially now that they’re no longer with us), and I would rather not know and have that color how I feel about their musical legacy, though I certainly would have always defended their right to speak their minds.

    We just live in a time when people on all sides are very on edge about these issues, for whatever reason.

  • Chris Jones

    It should be clarified, too, that Ralph never brought politics of any kind on to the stage.

  • steve case

    As a worship musician and sometimes preacher, I agree. Even in a place where my opinions on theology in the real world are expected and asked for, I need to spread my opinions judiciously. We’re taught in the Bible to “avoid useless arguments”, and most of the things we argue over in church and out would fit that category! Thanks for your insights!
    Steve Case