In a really interesting piece at Real Clear Religion, Philip Jenkins traces the origins of Christian rock music to the Byrds and their 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. (This was the post-David Crosby version of the Byrds). The album was influential because it fused country, Southern rock, and “outlaw country,” a combination that was growing popular at the time.
But the album also included songs, like “I am a Pilgrim” and “The Christian Life” that contained strong Christian themes. About a year later, the Byrds also recorded “Jesus is Just Alright with Me,” a song which became popular with the Jesus People movement on the West Coast. (I did not know the Byrds recorded this song–I was always familiar with the Doobie Brothers version).
I will let Jenkins tell the rest of his story in his own words:
Suddenly, young people who knew nothing whatever about the American religious heritage were exposed to this music, in highly accessible rock/country fusion styles, played by hip musicians with long hair and beards. Along the way, they also heard key evangelical messages, which suddenly became cool and contemporary.
And that, I suggest, is a major reason why those Christian movements were suddenly able to find young audiences open and receptive to their messages. If we can’t exactly claim Sweetheart of the Rodeo as the album that changed America’s faith, then it made a mighty contribution. But what historian would incorporate a title like that into any serious scholarly tome?