This is the third installment of 4 blogs about 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.
3 of 4: Country Music Episodes 5 The Sons and Daughters Of America and 6 Will The Circle Be Unbroken?
Episode five is The Sons and Daughters Of America 1964-1968 dealing with the rapid changes in America and in Country Music. By the mid-1960’s the nation was involved in civil rights struggles. Country records were not selling, artists had to tour to make money, with long miles of ceaseless traveling. By 1964 Johnny Cash was headlining tours, with Carl Perkins, The Statler Brothers and The Carters. Cash dressed only in black. He was very interested in the folk revival, social protest, and Bob Dylan.
Cash appeared with Dylan at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, there is priceless footage of the two of them playing Cash’s ‘I Still Miss Someone’ together on the piano. Cash recorded ‘The Ballad Of Ira Hays’ about an American Indian returning from WWII. Johnny was restless and recorded Bitter Tears about US and Indian relations, the record wouldn’t get played on the radio. He did benefits for Native Americans. Meanwhile, Johnny Cash’s personal life was a mess. He was still having an affair with June Carter, and using drugs. He was briefly jailed for possession of more than 1000 amphetamines. The Ku Klux Klan said Cash’s wife Vivian (an olive-skinned Italian woman) was a negro. Cash’s problems led to cancelled shows. He famously smashed the footlights at the Opry, and even after his divorce, he was such a mess that June Carter would not marry him.
Larry Gatlin tells the story of Roger Miller, from Oklahoma, who was a fiddler, songwriter, but had weak record sales. Ralph Emery commented that Miller was “king of pill takers.” Miller recorded ‘Dang Me,’ then the follow up ‘King Of The Road,’ which hit #3 on the pop charts and outsold The Beatles in England. Roger Miller had his own TV show.
By the mid 1960’s, country was a 100 million dollar business, the backing musicians in Nashville that played on all the major recordings are discussed. Backing musicians of the so-called A-Team included Pig Robbins, Bob Moore, Pete Drake, Lloyd Green, Floyd Cramer, Hank Garland, Harold Bradley, the Anita Kerr Singers and/or the Jordanaires. They would do 15-20 sessions a week, 3 hours each. The musicians created ‘The Nashville Sound,’ popular and smooth, not so twangy or hillbilly.
This brings us back to the twang and Bakersfield, California with lots of beer joints ‘The Bakersfield Sound’ had a sharp, bright edge and was led by Buck Owens and his Buckaroos. Buck fashioned his sound for AM Radio, simple melodies and lyrics, recordings all bright and no bass. The Bakersfield sound had that ‘Tom Joad glare.’ Unabashed twang, a sound like a locomotive coming through the living room. Buck had a chip on his shoulder, from growing up hard during The Depression. Owens liked The Beatles, and The Beatles loved him, with Ringo doing his song ‘Act Naturally.’ Owens did Beatles songs with his band in Beatles wigs. Via the Fab Four Buck got a whole new audience. The great story of Loretta Lynn is introduced, in 1965 Owen Bradley encouraged Loretta to write her own material. Loretta describes her songs like ‘You Ain’t Woman Enough’ as “The songs are just life.” ‘Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ came out in the era of Women’s Liberation and was a #1 hit, femminist and real. Then ‘The Pill’ was also big changer, and after that ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter.’ Roseanne Cash describes Loretta: “she was a radical, a badass.” Reba McEntire comments that she was “A strong willed woman, a survivor.”
By the Mid 1960’s the battle for Civil Rights was being won, with black Americans getting the right to vote. The story of Charley Pride is discussed. His voice and music were too good to ignore. Charley played Negro League baseball. In Nashville he worked with producer Cowboy Jack Clement. Charley had to ‘get by’ and impress people like Faron Young, and had no interest from labels until Chet Atkins and RCA. They sneakily released his record with no mention of his race. Ralph Emery tells the story of a crowd in Detroit seeing him for the first time and did not know he was black. Charley had big hits even on the pop charts. He was the first black artist on the Opry since DeFord Bailey. Charley Pride had 29 #1 hits, and 12 gold albums.
Merle Haggard was from Oklahoma, an ‘Okie,’ whose Dad died when he was nine. Haggard was in trouble at a young age. He married at 17, but in 1957 was given 15 years in San Quentin, he was 20 years old then. Prison changed him. He saw Johnny Cash in Prison and vowed to become a musician. Merle was paroled 2 ½ years later, and began playing in Bakersfield. He wrote ‘Swinging Doors,’ ‘The Bottle Let Me Down,’ ‘Mama Tried,’ ‘Hungry Eyes.’ Dwight Yoakim comments that Merle is the “Poet of the common man.” Dwight describes ‘Mama’s Hungry Eyes’ and says Merle Haggard is the greatest poet ever in American Music.
Women in Country Music are discussed, beginning with Connie Smith who recorded ‘Once A Day.’ There is a great story told by Marty Stuart about meeting Connie Smith, he told everyone he would marry her, and years later, he DID marry her. Jeannie Seeley was a songwriter and singer who did ‘Don’t Touch Me.’ In 1967 the Porter Waggoner Show featured Dolly Parton. Vince Gill describes Dolly: “her voice was spellbinding, she’s one of the greatest songwriters in history.” ‘Ode To Billie Joe,’ in 1967 was a huge hit for Bobbie Gentry, selling 3 million copies. Roseanne Cash describes the song as one where “you see every scene.” Jeannie C. Riley released ‘Harper Valley PTA’ which was written by Tom T. Hall about hypocrisy and went to #1 on all charts, selling 7 million copies. Meanwhile June Carter is touring with a drug addicted Johnny Cash. June gave him an ultimatum, and they got Cash a doctor. He cleaned up in 1968, recorded at Folsom Prison, he was taken in by the convicts who loved his ideas of redemption. The Folsom Prison LP gets rave reviews, and Cash becomes a superstar. I clearly remember my parents owning and playing this record. Finally, cleaned up, he gets married to June.
Episode six is Will The Circle Be Unbroken? 1968-1972, which seems to reference the period of Country Music the film makers identify with the strongest. Vince Gill starts the show with a comment about how the old music comes back around. In 1968 the Vietnam War was in full effect and America was divided. At this time Bluegrass Music was marginalized and not played on the radio. The new Folk Music revival helped Old Time Music, one of the stars of the Folk revival were the New Lost City Ramblers, and Mother Maybelle Carter played with them at the Newport Folk Festival. Flat and Scruggs had a big boost via the Beverly Hillbillies TV theme ‘Ballad Of Jed Clampett.’ Also their music was used in the popular Bonnie and Clyde movie and ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown.’ We are introduced to George Jones, with Brenda Lee commenting that “George was a country song.” Billy Sherrill, commenting on Jones, said “he looks like a possum.” With ‘White Lightning’ in 1959, Jones developed his own style with tight control of his voice. His third wife was Tammy Wynette, about who Brenda Lee says “Tammy wasn’t very happy.” With Billy Sherrill’s production he had a huge hit with ‘Apartment #9.’ Sherrill took after Phil Spector and his ‘Wall Of Sound’ Between the hits ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’ and ‘Stand By Your Man’ they sold over 5 million copies. Jones and Wynette went on the ‘Mr. & Mrs. Country Music’ tour.
1969 brought Johnny Cash the Live At San Quentin LP with ‘A Boy Named Sue’ written by Shel Silverstein, a great writer of novelty songs.
Bob Dylan was now working with Nashville session musicians on his LP’s Blonde On Blonde and John Wesley Harding. Many folkies came and recorded in Nashville, the greatest of these were The Byrds.
Gram Parsons is introduced, his band came to Nashville, used famous session musician Lloyd Green on steel guitar. The Byrds played the Opry (they were the 1st rock band there) and were booed. Their LP Sweetheart Of The Rodeo was shunned by both Country and Rock, but, as Elvis Costello notes, was the beginning of Country Rock.
Bobby Braddock introduces the story of Kris Kristofferson, whose dad was a general in the Air Force, Kris was ROTC, went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and “Loved William Blake and Shakespeare.” Kris became an instructor at West Point. But he quit all that after a visit to Nashville, where he saw Cowboy Jack Clement and Johnny Cash. Kristofferson moved to Nashville, and became a janitor at Columbia Studios. He was disowned by his family, but became friends with Johnny Cash. He auditioned for Fred Foster and wowed him. Then Kristofferson wrote ‘Bobby McGee,’ and in his commentary about that song he says it was influenced by the film La Strada by Fellini(!). In 1970 the Janis Joplin version of Bobby McGee became the #1 record (posthumously).
By 1969 Johnny Cash was a big star with a weekly TV Show taped at the Ryman. On his show he had country, Motown, Rock, James Taylor, Odetta, Joni Mitchell, and explored forgotten sections of society, with a gospel song every show. Cash played with Louis Armstrong on ‘Blue Yodel #9,’ a Jimmie Rogers song. He had Merle Haggard on his show, and Cash told his audience about Merle’s prison time. With Bob Dylan in his Nashville Skyline period, he played on Cash’s TV show. Roseanne Cash comments that Dylan and Cash playing ‘Girl From The North Country’ changed her generation, and opened the possibilities of country music.
Willie Nelson, discussing Kristofferson, says “Kris is probably the best songwriter.” Larry Gatlin says that Kris is the “best lyricist ever, ever.” At this time, Kristofferson is the top songwriter in Nashville. Sammi Smith did his song ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night.’ Charley Pride and Rodney Crowell talk about Kris’ lyrics, examples being ‘Loving Her Is Easier ‘ and ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ Crowell says it has “sorry and woe and some hopefulness at the same time.” Johnny Cash loved the song ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down,’ and Cash sang the song on his TV show, and refused to take out the ‘stoned’ lyric. Kristofferson also played on Cash’s show.
Glen Campbell had a TV show from LA, and Hee Haw from Nashville with Buck Owens and Roy Clark was a huge TV show. Hee Haw played up the hillbilly image. But Charlie McCoy was the music director and the show was very serious about it’s music choices. Hee Haw was a very popular show that broadcast 25 years, 22 of those syndicated.
Country Music is mostly apolitical and populist, but had songs about the Vietnam War. ‘My Son’ by Jan Howard, a singer and mom who lost two sons in the war. In 1969, Earl Scruggs joined the anti-war protests, but no other artists from Nashville did. Merle Haggard wrote ‘Okie From Muskogee,’ Bill C. Malone, the historian, comments that the song started the rednecks versus hippies fight but was a tribute to small town American life. ‘Okie’ was a huge hit, considered a rallying cry for ‘the silent majority.’
Elvis Costello, discussing Johnny Cash, views him as a uniter, was a hero to counterculture, but at the same time didn’t criticise President Nixon. Johnny Cash played for the troops but opposed the war, according to Roseanne Cash. When Cash performed at White House, he didn’t do ‘Welfare Cadillac ‘ but played ‘What Is Truth’ instead.
Willie Nelson never hit it off with Nashville. Tom T. Hall comments that Willie “didn’t sound like Nashville.” Fred Foster is quoted saying “Willie, they’ll catch up one day.” Willie Nelson recorded 14 LP’s, none sold well. Willie concentrated on writing, but went back on the road. He was a star in Texas, so he moved to Texas and started over.
In 1971 the U.S. begins a withdrawal from Vietnam. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band now appears with ‘Mr Bojangles.’ John McEuen, speaking of his band, describes it as “jug band and folk rock,” and they recorded with Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and Maybelle Carter, These west coast hippies wanted to back up the legends. McEuen says they “wanted to make an old record.” With the country elders, they created magic in the studio. Roy Acuff showed up to listen. “It Ain’t Nothing But Country” Ended with ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken.’ The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band triple disc LP, was big on colleges, obviously influenced the Burns documentarians, and is now considered one of the most iconic LP’s in Country Music history. “Things may be bad, but they’ll get better.”