IN THE SKY, LORD, IN THE SKY: Heaven and Hell in Country Music

I took the bible down to the creek today, more as a flyswatter than anything else, but that’s okay. That’s why I get ‘em at the dollar store so when they get wet it’s no big deal.

It was so muggy my glasses were rolling off my face and falling in the hay with each step. While I was milking, apparently a yellow jacket had crawled in my shirt and was waiting just until I got back inside and took my first sip of ice tea to make his presence known. After I made my presence known, put salve on the wound, and finished up my ice tea, I thought I needed some kind of baptism in the water as I had just experienced my very own trial by fire.

So, I went down to the creek, took the keys out of my pocket and just sat in the water. This time of year, it’s not so deep, just enough to cover to my waist. The first moment is freezing but after that, or maybe about ten seconds after that, you realize you may not hate the world after all. A calm sets in. You can see the way the trees mesh together overhead from both sides of the creek and that in itself is relaxing. I can look under my bridge and see a picture postcard view of the world’s tiniest waterfall.

If you sit there long enough, the minnows come back around, having decided you are not the world’s biggest minnow eating beast and the Jesus bugs settle back, surfing the creek in that style they are so known for. What are Jesus bugs? You know, those “walk on water” bugs. They look far too big and heavy to do it, but they glide the surface of the water like you (not me) might when ice-skating.

I’ve never seen them fall in but I’ve never seen them fly, either. They just skate around the creek looking for whatever it is they look for. The devil to give him a good talking to? I don’t know. I guess I should ask.

My great aunt used to tell stories of the devil back when he used to be an angel and got kicked out of heaven. I sat on her metal kitchen chair, the old fashion farm kind that turned into a stool, spellbound. I always liked that version, though it contradicted with what I’d heard at home. To me, it was kind of a safe feeling that the devil had always been under God, no matter whose side he was on. Less of a peer fight, then, this good versus evil and more of an evil upstart who would obviously be quashed again at some point and driven back into line.

I think country music, more than most, grapples with questions of heaven and hell. And I don’t necessarily mean them as literal places where “believers” or “non believers” go. For some folks, they might just be terms to describe spots of peace or trouble on your journey. Others think it comes down to good versus evil and that we use heaven and hell because culturally, that’s a quick shorthand.

In Mexican culture, the devil is more of a trickster then a beelzebub like monster. Some Jewish folks see the afterlife more as a time when you see the truth of your life, and the heaven or hell aspect comes from that. The Greeks thought you had to pay the ferryman to cross the river Styx over to the underworld.

(Though it was “under,” it wasn’t actually hell. Not that it was necessarily pleasant, either. Basically, the gods had what passed for heaven up on Mount Olympus and they weren’t exactly sharing. Kinda makes you wish you could take it with you, and maybe tip that ferryman a little extra to get him to take you upstream at least a little ways.)

What if ideally you’d like to go visit that great cowboy upstairs, but you’re concerned about mileage? Then try How Far Is Heaven by Los Lonely Boys. It’s one of my personal favorites.

What if there’s no question of you going to hell, you’re already there, smack dab in the middle of it? That may call for If You’re Going Through Hell by Rodney Atkins.  This is another one I really enjoy.

What if you’re stuck some place in the middle and not quite sure which way to take the elevator? Try Purgatory Road, the seventh album by Texas country artist John Arthur Martinez.

Lastly, what if you’re more the studious type and would prefer a mulitiple choice quiz to decide your fate? Maybe A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C) by legend Ray Wylie Hubbard will suit you.

No matter where you wind up: up, down, in the middle or just smiling pleasantly in a wooden box, happy to be kicked back under the daisies growing on top of you, if anyone walks over you strumming a banjo, you know what to do.

Just take the advice of Johnny Cash and June Carter from Daddy Sang Bass and simply join right in there, ’cause singing seems to help a troubled soul. And, if your soul’s not troubled atall, then join right in anyway. It’s a damn good song. (And, besides, you’ll scare the hell right outta ‘em.)

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