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Old Country Baptizing

A truly spiritual moment with Emmylou Harris on Christmas
Abby Johnston, 9:07am, Thu. Dec. 27, 2012
As a twentysomething liberal, I’m not especially religious. Not only don’t I remember the last time I went to church, the only thing religious about my Sundays are the rosemary potatoes at Taverna’s brunch. In Austin, I’m in a crowd of non-believers and spiritual explorers. Back home in East Texas, it’s my most shameful secret.

For me, church has a southern accent. It comes in double first names, big crosses, bigger trucks, and hardy handshakes from men in suits and boots. Don’t forget shoulder pats and fragile hugs from little old ladies.

There’s also snide colloquialisms.

If a sentence begins with, “Well, God love him, but...,” I know there’s some Southern Baptist shit-talking to follow. After all, that’s how I was raised. My mom sang in the church choir and my dad hung Christmas lights on the church roof.

In Austin, thanks to the nightlife of a young undergraduate, I stopped going to church. Back home my dad did too. I think it had always been a push from my mother, who passed away years before. My residual Sunday guilt slowly waned and the realization dawned on me that it was more shocking to meet a devout church-goer than to see an atheist bumper sticker.

Then, over the holiday, I had an atypical spiritual awakening. It wasn’t attributed to lectures from the two ministers in my family or even the spirit of Christmas. It was Emmylou Harris.

Driving alone through the sparse landscape home, I delved into a Christmas present I’d just received, 2007’s 4-CD/1-DVD Songbird: Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems. Old church hymns and cowboy praise songs dominate the box set alongside ballads that due to grief or guilt I filed into the deepest recesses of my memory.

These are the songs that my grandfather sang around the campfire at the Baptist encampment where he preached every summer. Songs that my mother sang in her twanged alto as I tried to play along out of the blue hymnal that still sits on my piano bench. Listening to “The Old Country Baptizing” and "Jordan" as Emmylou so sweetly chirps them, I had – for the first time in forever – a truly spiritual moment.

Her voice took me to church in a way that so many fire and brimstone preachers could not. Driving through the piney woods on Christmas, Emmylou reminded me of the day’s purpose. I found myself singing to words I didn’t realize I knew – emotional in my own deeply nostalgic, heretical way.

I’m not sure what I believe, and that makes me uneasy. Yet I crave the spirit of what came through my speakers on that drive home. I want to feel that kind of soul-bearing adoration for something, even if I don’t know what for just now.

For now, I believe in Emmylou Harris.

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