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Willie G. Moseley

PART TWO: "Ken Burns’ ‘Country Music’ documentary—big enough for two reviews": This week's newspaper column

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Ken Burns’ ‘Country Music’ documentary—big enough for two reviews

In case someone missed last week’s column, what follows is a look at Ken Burns’ huge and detailed history of country music, as presented on PBS. The episodes ran four nights each week for two weeks, so last week’s commentary was about parts 1-4. The final chapter of the first week closed with the chronicle of Patsy Cline’s fatal plane crash in 1963.

Chapter Five of “Country Music” (titled “Sons and Daughters of America”) picks up where the previous week’s installments left off. Indeed, the first line of narration states “By the early ‘60s, the Ryman Auditorium was the center of country music, firmly located on Fifth Avenue in downtown Nashville.”

Not surprisingly, the Vietnam War and the original Civil Rights Movement are part of the chronicle of the genre’s evolution during that turbulent decade. Likewise, the continuing growth of women as country solo acts—Loretta Lynn, Connie Smith, Jeannie Seely, et. al.—is addressed, and such coverage continues through the remaining episodes. Minority singers such as Charley Pride and Johnny Rodriguez are also profiled at various points. Pride is particularly eloquent in his on-camera recollections (it turns out that Faron Young was Pride’s mentor when the would-be baseball player from Mississippi began to ply his trade in Music City).

The musical alternatives to the lush “Nashville Sound” of the ‘60s also get examined. There’s the gritty return-to-the-honky-tonks “Bakersfield Sound,” the twin pillars of which were Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Dwight Yoakam, a next-generation practitioner of such music, chokes up when he recalls Owens’ “Holding Things Together.”

The advent (and popularity) of “Hee Haw,” is also noted (Owens was a co-host).

Recounting of the pilgrimages of artists like Bob Dylan and the Byrds in the late ‘60s herald the slow-but-unstoppable changes to a lot of Nashville music to a more pop (if not lush) style called “Countrypolitan” in the ‘70s.

Burns’ program addresses how and why bluegrass music went out on its own tangent as mainstream country evolved and details the recording of Will The Circle Be Unbroken, a landmark album from 1972 by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which brought many famous acoustic players and traditional singers into a Nashville studio to record with the long-haired jug band from California. The NGDB’s perspective is summed up silently with the display of an in-studio photo that shows guitarist Jeff Hanna kneeling at the feet of Maybelle Carter. The intense look on Hanna’s face as he studies the matriarch and her guitar can only be described as “reverential.”

Then there’s Willie Nelson.

“Nashville didn’t quite know what to do with him,” the narration intones. Nelson’s almost-jazz-like guitar chord progressions, oddball tempos, and definitely-not-Ernest-Tubb vocal stylings resulted is his abandonment of the Music City scene for the almost-anything-goes musical environment of Austin, Texas.

Familiar songs by duos such as George Jones and Tammy Wynette (as well as their fractious private life) are profiled, as are other duos such as Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, and Kenny Rogers and Dottie West. Underappreciated songwriters such as Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell get their due, as does Townes Van Zandt, whose remarkable “Pancho and Lefty” brings tears to my eyes every time I hear the version done by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard…and until I saw this documentary, I thought Nelson and/or Haggard had written it.

Interestingly, the documentary seems to pick up its pace as it chronicles the ‘80s, ‘90s and beyond…which is the same time frame in which the genre began accumulating listeners who were alienated by what used to be known as “Top 40” radio. That said, there are somewhat-retro-style “neo-traditionalist” artists cited.

Two important quotes regarding the ongoing evolution of country music appear in the documentary’s final minutes.

Vince Gill: “I don’t think I would enjoy country music if it stayed the same. It’s not supposed to.”

Ricky Skaggs describes country’s current conundrum as “How big can you make your audience, and how pure can you keep your heart?”

And Ken Burns’ laudable documentary avers that for all of its transmogrifications, country music is still “heartland music,” and can’t be “intellectualized,” even if most of its primary listeners don’t till the land anymore. That’s always how it’s always been, and one gets the feeling that’s the way it will always be.

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Love the documentary.

Jim Carey absolutely NEEDS to play the role of George Jones in a film.

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Did they cover BroCountry like Florida-Georgia Line and all that horseshit?

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^^^^No, thank goodness. I didn't have the opportunity to detail this in the column due to word count limitations, but the final/up-to-date chronological images were basically a flip-page collage w/o names of artists. Other than Keith Urban, I didn't know who any of them were, but even the Rev. B.F. Gibbons showed up in one photo. Dierks Bentley had something to say, however.

The next to last image was Bill Monroe onstage, pickin' and grinnin'  at another performer (might've been George Jones; couldn't see the face but it looked like Jones' hairstyle).

The very last image, however, was unforgettable---Maybelle Carter playing her autoharp, her eyes closed dreamily. Fade to black.

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I'm not a fan of the '50's/'60's 'Nashville Sound' by any means, but I got my memories jogged when the series featured Bobby Bare's 'Detroit City', with it's catchy seasick de-tuned/re-tuned twangy guitar line--I used to hear it on the radio as a kid, then I had completely forgotten about it, now I can't get it out of my head (again).  I wonder which 'A-Team' session player came up with that?

Funny how there seems/seemed to be similarities between Nashville's 'A-Team' musicians and LA's 'Wrecking Crew', and perhaps Muscle Shoals' 'Swampers' too, as far as how they operated within the Music Recording Industry.  Nashville still uses 'hired guns' for session work, players like Brent Mason come to mind.

Edited by crunchee

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I started the series just last night, and though I have never been a country fan, I find it absolutely fascinating. It is a history of the entire country unfolding. I had no idea of the importance of the Carter fam. Jimmie Rodgers, yes. I am really enjoying this.

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On 9/28/2019 at 8:40 AM, Willie G. Moseley said:

Most musically-educated members of America society describe country’s current conundrum as a healthy bevy of "underground" artists that get virtually no promotion or media by the Nashville industry elites, and who are largely superseded by a heavily-promoted narrow continuum that spans from Nickelback nu-metal done with Southern drawl to overprocessed hip-hop done with a Southern drawl. 

Slightly edited to reflect what I was thinking when Mr. Skaggs reflected upon the current state of the genre.

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Absolutely addicting and phenomenal series, I have made a few friends (who really don't like country music) watch it and they have thanked me. As with all Ken Burns work, the history lesson is excellent strong underlying theme is appreciation for the American experience. And yes, Jim Carey would make an excellent George Jones. Speaking of which, I had never seen the Vince Gill/Patty Loveless performance of "Rest High up on That Mountain" at Jones memorial service until watching this documentary. Just seeing that video and knowing it exists was worth it for me. I've watched the clip a number of times since. Amazing.   

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Also been enjoying this, watched the outlaw country episode last night.

Binge watched Burns Viet Nam doc last year, that was fascinating, watched it in 2 days straight.

Edited by Brooks

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