This is the first installment of 4 blogs walking through Ken Burns’ latest documentary series Country Music. I hope you’ll join me for all four blogs. Anyone with an interest in any kind of music should find food for thought in this series, as I did. I’ll share ideas I was chewing on as I watched and reflected.
1 of 4: Country Music Episodes 1 The Rub and 2 Hard Times
There can be no doubt that Ken Burns and his filmmaking crew are the absolute best. I have seen The Civil War, The Roosevelts, Jazz, and the astounding Vietnam War series. I always learn so much about the subjects of his documentaries. When I heard the new Ken Burns series would be called Country Music, I was intrigued. In eight episodes (about two hours each) broadcast over two weeks on PBS, Country Music took its rightful place among Burns’s excellent body of work.
The first episode,The Rub - Beginnings 1933, begins with two important thematic points: Country Music as the child of many cultural influences and Country Music as truth telling.
First up, the “inclusion” thread begins by highlighting the famous Thomas Hart Benton mural The Sources Of Country Music, which is housed in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Way in the background of the mural, past the white fiddlers, white dulcimer players, and white square dancers, sits a lone black man (dressed, naturally, as a farm hand) playing a banjo (an instrument brought from Africa via the slave trade). Very tiny in the way back of the picture, literally across the railroad tracks, are a group of black women dancing. Inclusion!?
This brings me to my first nitpick about the series. That is they desperately try to bring a sense of inclusion into Country Music. While there is no doubt that Country Music owes a HUGE debt to African American innovators, the INDUSTRY has been notoriously exclusionary. The real truth was there was only ONE black man who was a member of the original Grand Ole Opry, the amazing harmonica player DeFord Bailey, and that musical giant Ray Charles never made inroads into Nashville, despite recording a massively popular Country album. Indeed, it would be late in the 1960’s before Charley Pride was accepted, but still, Country Music seems to have a limit of only one black man at a time. In fact, we talk about the exclusion of bestseller Li’l Nas X’s 'Old Town Road' from the Country Music charts this very year in our podcast with with Frye Gailliard (tinyurl.com/zubfrye). I wish the documentary had been more forthcoming on this point.
Despite these clear, arbitrary racial lines, much, much is made in the documentary of Country Music being ‘real,’ and ‘authentic,' the second thread. I was struck by a comment from the astute Rodney Crowell at the start of the first episode, where he calls Country Music “truth telling, even when it’s a big fat lie.” This insight stuck with me through the whole series. The rest of The Rub is basically a set-up episode, where I learned WSB radio in Atlanta stood for “welcome South, brother” and WLS Chicago was run by Sears and stood for “world’s largest store.” The gospel roots of Country are shown, noting “why should the Devil have all the good tunes.” The boom of instrument manufacturing is shown via the growth of acoustic guitars, Martin Guitars in Pennsylvania and Gibson Guitars in Michigan. There is a startling aside about the Prohibition era and the jazz age - the well-known racist Henry Ford promoted old time (Country) music, as he believed Jazz was a Jewish conspiracy to Africanise America. (!) Truth telling? Inclusion?
The ‘birth’ of Country is traced to RCA Victor setting up a temporary studio in Bristol, Tennessee in 1927, where singers came from all around to record. Of course the Carter Family showed up from the mountains of Virginia, as well as Jimmie Rogers, all the way from Oklahoma. Roseanne Cash commented that these old mountain songs her family recorded were songs more ‘captured’ rather than ‘written.’ So the “birth” is really more of the advent of Country Music as a commodity since so many of the songs have deep roots in traditional songs brought and developed by communities in diaspora in America, especially African and Northern European emigres.
The running narrative of Country Music revolves around the story of the Carter Family all the way through to Johnny Cash and Roseanne Cash, Country’s First Family. Yet the first hero and star of Country was Jimmie Rogers. Rogers’ innovated a distinctive ‘Blue Yodel,’ was known as the singing brakeman (trading on his working man roots on the railroad and establishing marketing practices in Country), and with his song ‘Everybody Does It In Hawaii,’ he brought in the Hawaiian guitar, the precursor of the pedal steel guitar. Jimmie even worked with a young Louis Armstrong on ‘Blue Yodel #9.’
In 1928 the Bristol temporary studio hosted the second Carter Family sessions, showcasing Mother Maybelle and her unique guitar fingerpicking style known as the ‘Carter Scratch.’ It was then that they recorded the immortal tracks ‘Keep On The Sunny Side’ and ‘Wildwood Flower.’ A great section of this episode shows the evolution of the latter tune from a African American church song to being “captured” as a Carter Family melody, and finally being used as the melody in Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ The episode ends with the onslaught of the Great Depression and the death of Jimmie Rogers (from tuberculosis) at age 35 in 1933. The Rub featured a number of great women of Country providing commentary, especially Roseanne Cash and Dolly Parton, who’s version of Jimmie Rogers’ ‘Muleskinner Blues’ plays over the credits. This made me think, of all things, The Cramps, who did a great version of ‘Muleskinner Blues.’ There is a long line between Jimmie and The Cramps. Roots run both ways in Country.
Episode two, Hard Times, starts in 1933, four years into the depression. This episode examines how the music that became known as Country Music split and developed around regions of the nation. There is the story of Fred Maddox and his family moving to California from Alabama, going from crop pickers to musicians, and forming the Maddox Brothers and Rose. It also shows the change in how the business ran during the hard times.
During the Depression, records didn’t sell, but ‘free’ radio was big, supported by commercial sponsors who paid for live, instudio musical performers. One of the biggest national shows was the Chicago WLS National Barn Dance, the high wattage station blasting this music out to much of the America. We see the story of Gene Autry, who learned to yodel and did imitations of Jimmie Rogers. The ‘singing cowboy’ became a craze across the USA and overseas. In 1934 Autry was in a ‘B’ Movie then the Phantom Empire movie series, he starred in 10 feature films in two years, establishing a Hollywood archetype. By 1937 there were over 400 westerns with singing cowboys. Over a money disagreement with the studio, Gene Autry was replaced by Roy Rogers, one of the legendary Sons of the Pioneers. There can be no doubt of the influence of the singing cowboys on music from our era. Nick Lowe was very taken in by these cowboys (see our talk with Cruel To Be Kind biography author Will Birch at tinyurl.com/zubcruel) and even artists such as Elton John and Bernie Taupin penned ‘Roy Rogers’ on the 1973 album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The fabrication of the singing cowboy fable is a uniquely American tale born of the depression.
The concept of ‘swing’ music came from Jazz clubs in Harlem, New York City. In Tulsa, Oklahoma they were dancing to swing’s leading light, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. He gave hillbilly music a dance hall beat from Texas. This band became really big, Willis being an outrageous, colorful figure, although a binge drinker and depressive. His band Introduced drums, and amplified steel guitar. When pop star Bing Crosby recorded his song ‘New San Antonio Rose,’ Wills said he “went from hamburgers to steaks.” In Nashville, WSM became a clear channel station with 50,000 watts. Then the Grand Ole Opry moved to the Ryman Auditorium, where Pee Wee King brought in Roy Acuff and his Crazy Ten E Seeans. They sang ‘The Great Speckled Bird’ at the Opry. Acuff was a singer with a string band, and quickly became the Opry’s biggest star. RJ Reynolds Company decided to sponsor thirty minutes of the Opry to NBC nationwide.
Bluegrass Music is introduced through The Monroe Brothers - Charlie and Bill. They incorporated influences from black musicians and the blues into mountain music to create bluegrass. Bill moved to my home of Greenville, SC for a gig playing live at a local radio station and started developing the ‘high lonesome blues.’ When the brothers played the Opry, they had three encores.
The Opry shows were really variety performances. In this episode there is a discussion of comedy at the Opry, with the well-heeled, well-educated debutante Sarah Collie becoming the country bumpkin Minnie Pearl and being a huge hit, starting in 1940! This is someone who was still a fixture in the syndicated Hee Haw program 30+ years later! The same year, Gene Autry straightened out his contract, and was back in the movies. A personal appearance in Dublin, Ireland brought a crowd of 300,000 people. They go behind the scenes of music money making with the story of ASCAP, the music composition licensing service, which doubled its rate charged for collecting songwriters’ royalties - so BMI was created, charging a lower rate. Acuff-Rose Publications became a musical powerhouse in Nashville. In 1941 war begins for America with the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. Country artists enlisted in droves and wrote songs about the war. WWII nationalized country music, as American servicemen from all over were now made aware of this music via Armed Forces Radio and their buddies playing it on bases and in the field. After the war, Gene Autry’s career was done. Bob Wills got out of the service in 1943, and his band got bigger than ever.
To circle back, in the late 30s, the Carter Family was falling apart. A.P. Carter and his wife Sara split but they did agree to record together the landmark song ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken.’ Both Marty Stuart and Roseanne Cash talk about this iconic song. Not selling any records, the Carters went to a Mexican ‘border blaster’ station XERA (‘I Heard It On The X’) that with 100,000 watts reached clear across the country Sara Carter quietly married her young cousin, Coy Bayes. Soon, Sara Carter stopped performing completely, so Mother Maybelle got the new generation of Carter Sisters, her daughters, to join her and soldiered on. The way was being paved for new stars. This episode featured great commentary from historian Bill Malone and the ever-present Marty Stuart. It laid the groundwork for the explosive talent to emerge on the scene in the next episode.
Next Time: The Hillbilly Shakespeare and I Can't Stop Loving You.