So this is the last installment of my blogs on Ken Burns’ expansive look at Country Music from the 1920s to 1990s. It was ambitious project, not perfect, but in these episodes he must tie together the threads an ultimately stick the metaphorical landing on the leap into the world of Country Music.
4 of 4 Episodes 7 Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? and 8 Don’t Get Above Your Raising
Here’s a link to a Guardian review of the series. They are cutting the episodes in half for the BBC, which seems a very bad idea:
Episode 7 is Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? 1973-1983.
Marty Stuart opens the episode, in 1972 he was 13, and he tried out for Lester Flat’s band, and played the Opry with them. He called it a “ Wizard of Oz moment.” Historian Bill C. Malone discussed the paradox of country music, in how much the music changes. In the 1970’s defining country music was difficult, but country would continue to gain popularity. By now the Ryman Auditorium was no longer suited for the Opry, being in a bad area of town, and having no air conditioning. Nashville built a new home ‘Opryland USA,’ which seated 4000. In March 1974 final Opry show was done from the Ryman, with the last song ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken.’ A young Garrison Keeler was there (for New Yorker Magazine) and most certainly got ideas for his own Prairie Home Companion radio show. When Opryland opened, President Nixon was a guest there.
The ‘C’ in Country music means cash. Dolly Parton was on the Porter Waggoner show for seven years. Recorded ‘Muleskinner Blues’ of which Dolly comments was “like an Heirloom - something you hold in the family.” ‘Joelene’ was a song Dolly wrote herself, and became a #1 single. Holly Williams (Hank Williams Jr’s daughter) comments on the theme of ‘Jolene’ “please don’t take my man even though you can.” When Dolly finally went out on her own, she left Porter Waggoner and wrote ‘I Will Always Love You,’ later to be famously covered by Whitney Houston.
With Country duets such as Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty, and George Jones & Tammy Wynette people saw their own lives in their songs
George and Tammy were in their own little heaven onstage, they recorded ‘Hold On’ in 1973 and almost divorced. They finally did divorce in 1975. George Jones was described as “George can’t tolerate happiness.” Producer Billy Sherrill got them together for one more duet LP, using Bobby Braddock, the songwriter of ‘Golden Ring.’
As the 1970’s continued, the Nashville Sound became even smoother, known as ‘Countrypolitan.’ Billy Sherrill reinvented old rockabilly singer Charlie Rich, got Tanya Tucker’s career started, moving their sounds away from twang. Then Olivia Newton John had her songs promoted to Country, to which Jean Shepard comments “The music is getting away from us,” While the Country Entertainer of the year goes to … John Denver? Marty Stuart commented that “not everyone agreed with the changes and that country was losing its soul.”
From this came a new wave of songwriters, represented by Guy Clark, with well crafted songs, many of these songwriters were from Texas. Rodney Crowell comments that Texas songwriters are the “best liars in the world.” The Exit/In was a new venue in Nashville, with a younger audience of Bohemians. Rodney Crowell comments that all he wanted was to get on the Exit/In stage. The songwriters would meet at the home of Guy Clark, who told Rodney “be a star or be an artist.” Townes Van Zandt was a new songwriter who drank heavily, was depressed and used heroin. His song ‘Pancho and Lefty’ was covered by many, Emmylou Harris says the song is “so poignant it's heartbreaking.”
The opening up of Country to more ethnic influences is shown via Johnny Rodriguez, who Tom T. Hall heard in Texas had him come to Nashville. Rodriguez had 15 top ten hits and was the first Mexican-American in Country music. In 1975, Freddie Fender had a huge hit with ‘Before The Next Teardrop Falls, which was ’ #1 on the country and pop charts.
Waylon Jennings is introduced as singing as good as Hank, and also a good songwriter, Kris Kristofferson comments that “his voice tore me up.” Jennings’ family loved country music, and he was drawn to Hank Williams. In 1959 Waylon toured with Buddy Holly. Bobby Bare heard him, invited him to Nashville. Chet Atkins didn’t know what to do with him. Hazel Smith comments that Waylon wanted his live music to sound like the record. Willie Nelson says “he wanted to do it his own way and used his own band in the studio.” In 1972 Waylon’s new contract with RCA was with his own production company. He used an independent studio ‘Hillbilly Central.’ Made the music he wanted to make, with Cowboy Jack Clement as producer. ‘Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way’ is a song about which Ray Benson (Asleep At The Wheel) comments “ we need a change, this song was a call to arms.” Waylon’s Dreaming My Dreams LP was a huge hit. He changed the way records were made in Nashville.
In the 1970’s string band music was not played on radio. Marty Stuart was still with Bill Monroe who he says was tuned to “The Ancient Tone.” Now Ricky Scaggs was coming of age, and they show footage of a very young Scaggs playing. Vince Gill joined a bluegrass band that opened for Kiss. Lester Flatt played with Chick Corea and Kool and the Gang. Played nine encores. Played with The Eagles and Gram Parsons with Emmylou. Emmylou comments “Gram had a foot in country and rock and roll.” The Flying Burrito Brothers was Gram’s band and Parsons was friends with the Rolling Stones, helped them with ‘Wild Horses,’ then influenced Emmylou Harris. Parsons introduced her to Louvin Brothers harmonies. Emmylou discovered herself as a singer via country.
Willie Nelson was called too good and too different, eventually the mainstream found out. By 1972 Willie was huge in Austin, Texas, where he had his Armadillo world HQ. Willie brought Waylon Jennings down for his famous 4th of July Picnic, bringing together hippies and rednecks. Nelson got artistic control over his music and recorded Red Headed Stranger. It was done in a small studio, only cost $4000, with spare instrumentation. Billy Sherrill comments that it “sounds like a bad demo” and the record company will put it out and it will “die a quick death” When they put it out Sherrill says “we were wrong as hell, and after that everyone left Willie alone.” The LP sold steadily. Willie did the pilot for a new show Austin City Limits.
Gram Parsons dies of an overdose. Emmylou says she wanted to make a country record in memory of Gram. Again the sincerity of country music is explored, with Rodney Crowell, speaking of Emmylou, says “her voice winds up somewhere in your heart and it feels good in there.” Emmylou had #1 hits on the country charts , she was more country than Nashville. Emmylou formed The Hot Band with Rodney Crowell, they played all over, opened for James Taylor, Merle Haggard, Elton John. Dwight Yoakim makes the observation that “Emmylou is the rose that bloomed on our musical consciousness.”
Waylon Jennings wanted music to sound like they played live. Hazel Smith coined the term ‘Outlaw Country’ referring to living on the outside of the written law. These artists were doing what they wanted to do. Wanted: The Outlaws LP featured Jennings, Jessi Coulter, Willie, TomPaul Glazer and this LP crossed over and became the first certified platinum country record. Hazel Smith says the “music was truth.” ‘Good Hearted Woman‘ was a big hit. Waylon Jennings comments that “Nashville needs us,” while Willie Nelson says he “loved being an outlaw.” Willie released Stardust, a record of old pop songbook standards, which was on the charts for 551 weeks.
In the mid 1970’s, Hank Williams Jr. started playing gigs at 8 years old. He was on the Opry at age 11, and sang ‘Lovesick Blues.’ His mother Audrey Williams pushed him hard. At 18 he dropped his mother as manager and set his own way. Hank struggled for years, and attempted suicide. Charlie Daniels comments that Hank Jr did “a complete turn.” Hank went to Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama, he was attracted to Southern Rock, and recorded an LP. Hank Jr. had a horrific accident, basically falling off a mountain, his face was broken, nose torn off, and he had to have his face reconstructed. Waylon Jennings helped him promote the record. ‘Family Tradition’ started a stream of #1 records.
Roseanne Cash grew up in Southern California. She went on the road with her dad Johnny Cash for three years, where Cash gave her a list of his 100 essential country songs. In 1979 she married Rodney Crowell, who produced her. Of her song ‘7 Year Ache’ Rodney says “this is a great song and it's about me.” Roseanne’s LP went gold. At this time Johnny Cash added Marty Stuart to his band.
Dolly Parton’s rise is discussed with Brenda Lee saying “she’s crossed all boundaries,” as they show Dolly in pictures with John Belushi, Andy Warhol, and Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter. Dolly herself comments “I wanted more,’ she signed to LA management and her song ‘Here You Come Again’ sold a million, as the LP went platinum. Dolly was a very savvy artist. Holly Williams says she was “most impressed with her songwriting.” Then Dolly acted in the movie 9 to 5, and easily became the most famous woman in Country Music.
Country Music was becoming big again with bands such as Alabama, who used rock style productions, Ronnie Milsap, The Oak Ridge Boys with ‘Elvira’ - Barbara Mandrell, Kenny Rogers ‘The Gambler’ were all huge. Country radio stations grew rapidly. Emmylou Harris comments on the breakthrough she had “when she heard the soulfulness of George Jones.” Billy Sherrill explains “you can’t understand George Jones.” Jones’ life was spiralling out of control, with a cocaine problem, and continually missing concerts, giving him the name ‘No Show’ Jones. He was living sleepless and paranoid. George filed for bankruptcy, lost his house, lived in his car. His ex Tammy Wynette was hooked on painkillers. Billy Sherrill brought them back in 1980, for the LP Together Again. The single ‘Two Story House’ went to #2, then Jones recorded ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ (written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam)in the song, the singer only stops loving her because he’s dead. Bobby Braddock, discussing the song, says he “thought the strings were perfect.” Billy Sherrill remembers Jones said “nobody will ever buy that morbid son of a bitch.” Of course it went straight to #1 on the charts. Eddie Stubbs says it was “meant to be, a song George Jones was meant to sing.”
In the early 1980’s, Merle Haggard was working on a LP with Willie Nelson and they needed a song , so they did ‘Pancho and Lefty’ and the LP sold over a million. This was a famous Townes Van Zandt song. Merle and Willie got it from the Emmylou Harris version Willie sang it with Bob Dylan backed up by Marty Stuart.
Chapter Eight is Don’t Get Above Your Raising 1984-1996. Vince Gill starts off by saying “country music is not supposed to stay the same.” By 1984 Country Sales decreased, and the good times were gone. With the birth of two new Country TV cable networks, sales would quickly double. This episode deals with what is and what isn’t country. Historian Bill C. Malone explains that “don’t get above your raising means don’t forget where you came from.” There is footage of Johnny Cash smoking at AP Carter’s grave. By now Cash’s records were not selling. In 1986 he was unceremoniously dropped from Columbia Records. Johnny Cash was a way of life for America. Dwight Yoakim described this as “an insult to anybody who’d ever listened to music.”
Ricky Scaggs played with Ralph Stanley, and in the1970’s was part of Emmylou’s Hot Band. They show Scaggs doing a bit of ‘Don’t Get Above Your Raising’ for the cameras. In the mid 1980’s Scaggs releases amazing video of this song with Bill Monroe. A slew of new artists appear including George Strait, reminiscent of old fashioned dance hall country, Strait had 60 #1 singles. Randy Travis and his deep baritone voice, his debut LP sold 3 million copies. Reba McEntire in 1984 wanted to be more country. She was an example of women standing up for themselves in the industry. Naiomi Judd explains the story of the Judds, who moved back to Kentucky, then moved to Nashville, and were on local TV. Their first LP in 1984 went to the top of the charts with ‘Why Not Me.’ These acts were part of what were known as ‘Neo-Traditionalists’ revitalizing Country Music because country was so far into pop.
Dwight Yoakam comments that listening to Emmylou Harris connected him to Buck Owens, and Dwight loved the Bakersfield Sound. Dwight’s band played with The Blasters, The Gun Club, Los Lobos, all in the LA post-punk scene. ‘Honky Tonk Man’ Marty Stuart says Dwight “brought style back, absolute swagger.” Dwight had strong opinions about his career and Darius Rucker says “he was a big influence on me.” Dwight and Buck did ‘Streets Of Bakersfield’ on the CMA’s. For the outsiders.
Wynton Marsalis, discussing Country, says “there’s a truth in the music.”
Nashville grows. Artists cover many styles like Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, KD Lang, Steve Earle. This is all part of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ where you could hear these eclectic artists on the radio. Kathy Mattea was produced by Alan Reynolds, who comments that Kathy’s “roots were folk, but she wanted to be country.”
In 1989 Vince Gill was the singer for Pure Prairie League, then backed up Rosanne Cash. Vince refused a tour as a member of Dire Straits, and his new LP had a duet with Reba McEntire ‘When I Call Your Name.’ Gill says “I love the emotion of music.” Vince wrote a song for Keith Whitley. ‘Go Rest High’ which would become a classic. Vince sang it at George Jones’ memorial service.
Garth Brooks came up at the Bluebird Cafe, 1987. He and John Vezinor grew at the Bluebird. He was signed by Capitol - produced by Alan Reynolds. Was the vanguard of country mega stars like Alan Jackson, Clint Black, and Travis Tritt. Garth Brooks was a superb live act. His ‘Friends In Low Places’ went to #4 in the pop charts, with 5 million sales, His third LP had 8 million sales. In 1993 Garth sold out Texas Stadium. In 1991 Billboard goes to Soundscan sales which show that new country is selling great, while country music is the biggest on radio. New women in country are represented by Shania Twain, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Tricia Yearwood who opened for Garth Brooks, had the single ‘She’s In Love With A Boy,’ and later married Brooks.
At the CMA fan fair there is a great story of Garth Brooks showing up unannounced and signing for 20 hours. During this time, radio in America consolidated, down to chasing the big hits only. Country indies became ‘Americana’ a movement supported by Emmylou Harris. She made people remember - Vince Gill describes Emmylou as “the great conduit.” Emmylou recorded at the abandoned Ryman, and her only guest was Bill Monroe. She started a campaign to save the Ryman, which reopened in 1994.
Ricky Scaggs promises Bill Monroe that he will carry on his musical tradition before Monroe dies at 84. Monroe’s funeral is at the Ryman. Scaggs and Marty Stuart refocus their careers. Scaggs says he was going “back to the front porch.” Marty Stuart comments ”I became a success machine, I left myself behind, I needed to go back to the roots, go back and start again.” Marty married Connie Smith as he promised when he was young
Johnny Cash, is writing letters to his daughters. Roseanne Cash sings ‘I Still Miss Someone’ for the documentary cameras and says her Dad “worked out his problems onstage.” Johnny and June were in Branson, Missouri, a new concept where the audience comes to see the artist. In 1993 Producer Rick Rubin asked Cash to do an LP for his label. Cash’s 1994 American Recordings won acclaim with the song ‘Delia’s Gone’ The record was ignored by country, but the LP sold. In 1996 ‘Unchained’ with Tom Petty and Marty Stuart won a grammy. Johnny Cash recorded three more LP’s with Rubin, and recorded ‘Hurt’ by Nine Inch Nails’ which had 2 million in sales. Roseanne Cash says the last song Cash heard was ‘The Winding Stream.’ Johnny Cash died in 2003 at 71 years old. His service was held at the Ryman.