Not surprisingly, this essay is going to be a two-parter, mainly because Ken Burns’ “Country Music” documentary clocks in at 16 1/2 hours and is spread out over eight nights (Sunday though Thursday, two weeks in a row). Accordingly, this first installment concerns the first week’s episodes.
Already acclaimed for his extensive video histories about jazz music, the Civil War and the Dust Bowl, Burns, a Baby Boomer who is reportedly a rock music fan, apparently approached this project with an attitude of educating himself as well as viewers. That perspective seems to work because country music has more of a polyglot chronology than some music fans may realize.
The basic premise of the beginnings of country music is it drew from English, Irish and Scottish influences by way of Appalachia, along with black influences that dated back to the days of slavery (and it helps to note the banjo is an African instrument that is centuries old).
Casual history buffs probably think the birth of (recorded) “hillbilly” music happened in 1927 with the legendary Bristol, Tennessee recordings of the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers (among others) overseen by Victor Records talent scout/producer Ralph Peer.
Not so, according to the Burns documentary, which asserts the genre’s Big Bang happened in Atlanta a few years earlier when Peer recorded one “Fiddlin’ John” Carson.
Burns pulls in the right authorities to validate his research. Among them is performer Marty Stuart who has also become noted in his own right as a historian. Moreover, the selection of performers like Jean Shepard, Willie Nelson, Rosanne Cash, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill and others is appropriate.
The early days of country’s in-studio radio performances morphed into “barn dance” programs in more than one city. A Nashville station, WSM, duked it out with WLS of Chicago for dominance (WSM was owned by an insurance company, and its call letters stood for “We Shield Millions”).
It might be a bit surprising Gene Autrey gets more credit than might be expected. Other revelations cite how the Carter family got its music broadcast over most of the U.S. via a Mexican “border Blaster” radio station and how Maybelle Carter nurtured the early playing days of Chet Atkins.
Tangential genres like western swing (Bob Wills) and bluegrass (Bill Monroe) get their due, showcasing protégés like Leon McAuliffe and Earl Scruggs.
And the third installment focuses disproportionately on Hank Williams (“…a skinny singer/songwriter who rocketed to fame and was gone before he reached 30, who would leave an imperishable mark on American music” ). The title of that installment is “The Hillbilly Shakespeare.”
The Williams saga would be of import around this area, of course (he signed a wall when he performed at Tallassee’s Mt. Vernon Theatre).
The fourth segment drifts 240 miles to the west of Nashville to look at Memphis, particularly Sun Studios’ place in the embryonic days of rockabilly, which begat rock and roll (although in an earlier episode, Hank Williams Jr. had pronounced “Rock Around the Clock” to be a “direct steal” from his father’s “Move It On Over”).
Elvis and Johnny Cash receive obvious attention, and there’s even a clip of Cash impersonating Elvis. Moreover, the recollections of Rosanne Cash about her family are straightforward and meaningful.
Like a giant amoeba, country music has constantly changed shape and the same could be said for many other musical genres. As rock and roll took over the airwaves in the mid-’50s, the number of country stations dropped from approximately 600 to 85, according to the Burns documentary, as it profiles stalwarts of that transitional era such as Ray Price, Marty Robbins and the Louvin Brothers. That era also witnessed the evolution of Nashville’s Music Row and the “Nashville Sound,” a lush and orchestral style that didn’t need banjos or fiddles.
The first week’s programming winds up with a nod to the early days of Loretta Lynn, a citation of Ray Charles’s groundbreaking 1962 album of country favorites and the sorrowful tale of the plane crash that killed Patsy Cline and other stars.
Seems like a relevant stopping point for the Burns documentary — and this commentary.