This is the second 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.
2 of 4: Country Music Episodes 3 The Hillbilly Shakespeare and 4 I Can’t Stop Loving You
Episode three, The Hillbilly Shakespeare, is all about the Country genius, Hank Williams. In the post World War II era there were rapid changes in America. The growth of ‘Honky Tonk’ music is discussed, basically pared down Western swing. This music came up with the explosion of jukeboxes across the US. Hank Williams would become the giant of honky tonk, his songs connected with the audience. Saying, ‘It all begins with a song,’ Hank Williams learned to play from African - American guitarist Tee-Tot. Hank was a bad binge drinker. In 1946 he met Fred Rose, got a recording deal, and recorded ‘Move It On Over’ in 1947. I learned that the National Life and Insurance Company of Nashville owned WSM and the Opry and used the entertainment to sell insurance policies. We hear a little about Eddy Arnold, a pop crossover who was managed by Colonel ‘Tom’ Parker (later the manager of Elvis Presley) and had five #1 Country songs in 1948.
In 1946 Ernest Tubb was on the Opry, he was a singer who Idolized Jimmie Rogers, but played electrified, sang ‘Walking The Floor Over You.’
He played Carnegie Hall with Minnie Pearl, later opened the famous Ernest Tubb record shop in downtown Nashville. The idea that Bill Monroe ‘invented’ Bluegrass music is pursued in this episode. He is given credit for starting a whole new genre of music. Monroe was temperamental and a perfectionist. He changed his band in 1945 with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs (master of the three finger (not clawhammer) banjo technique) whose banjo virtuosity is compared to Edward Van Halen on the guitar. The Stanley Brothers are mentioned, West Virginia voices with coal dust in them. In 1948 Flatt and Scruggs left Bill Monroe and Monroe would feud with them for years.
Maddox Bros and Rose did a Honky Tonk version of ‘Muleskinner Blues.’ They are described as an electrified hillbilly band in overdrive wearing outlandish Nathan Turk costumes. They put the boogie in country music. In 1948 Little Jimmie Dickens appears, he was a great self-promoter, one of the first to get the outrageous stage clothes from Nudies in Hollywood. This episode illustrates the idea that songwriters can make it in Nashville. Hank Williams was still an unreliable drunk, and split with wife Aubrey. Then wrote ‘I Saw The Light.’ He sobered up, Aubrey and he reconciled, and he was on The Louisiana Hayride (a local show much like the Grand Ole Opry) and did ‘Lovesick Blues.’ Hank Williams played the Opry in 1949. By June 1949 Billboard magazine used Rhythm and Blues and Country Music names for the charts instead of ‘Race’ and ‘Hillbilly’ music. Commentator Marty Stuart, discussing Woody Guthrie, says Woody is “one of the purest Country artists God ever made.” I learned that Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters were on a show in Knoxville, Tennessee with Chet Atkins, then moved to Missouri for a national show that debuted in 1950. Hank Williams improves his songwriting - ‘the Divine Gift’ - writing ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.’ His secret was ‘sincerity.’ Next single was ‘Hey Good Lookin.’
He started drinking again, and wrote ‘Cold Cold Heart.’ We hear the story of Kitty Wells and her song ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’ which was an answer song, and she was the first woman to go #1 on the Billboard Country & Western chart. The episode ends with the death of Hank Williams. In 1952 he divorces and writes ‘You Win Again,’ as he begins using drugs (as well as alcohol), and deteriorates fast. Died at 29 years old. He had 20,000 mourners in Montgomery, Alabama and ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ was released posthumously. He is considered the very definition of Country Music. Funnily enough, while this was airing, I traveled through Montgomery and visited Hank’s grave. It was a touching site, described in our Whitey Morgan review (tinyurl.com/zubtonkin). Commentators on this episode included lots of Marty Stuart and Vince Gill.
Episode four is I Can’t Stop Loving You and deals with the growth and beginnings of the Nashville sound that dominated the 1960’s and 1970’s.
In 1953 the 20th anniversary of Jimmie Rogers’ death brought the original Carter Family together for a show. This same year Bill and his estranged brother Charlie Monroe performed together. In 1953 a new generation began with Chuck Berry and ‘Maybellene.’ There is a great sequence about segregated radio where it is clear the white people were listening to the black radio stations and the black people were listening to the white radio stations. So much for segregation. The city of Memphis is introduced as is Johnny Cash, who moves to Memphis, worked as a salesman, and learned from Gus Cannon, an African-American man who recorded in the 1920’s. Cash’s older brother died, and this had a major impact on his life. In 1954, he married, and moved to Memphis. Memphis was a hotbed of ‘race’ music, as shown with Elvis Presley and ‘That’s Alright Mama,’ one of his first two songs recorded at Sun Records, with producer Sam Phillips. On the flipside, Elvis did a Bluegrass staple, ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky.’ In late 1954 Johnny Cash auditioned for Phillips, recording ‘Hey Porter.’ Elvis Costello, commenting, describes Cash’s band, The Tennessee Two as “like a punk band, so vivid.” As we move into the modern era, there is video, like the amazing footage of Johnny Cash impersonating Elvis, hair teased out and all, it’s hilarious and classic. Rockabilly is mentioned with Wanda Jackson the ‘Queen Of Rockabilly’ and ‘Let’s Have A Party.’ Very influential singing act the Louvin Brothers are only briefly discussed, but this episode shows the beginning of the ‘smoothing out’ of Country Music. In 1957 Boudleau Bryant and wife Felice (Nashville songwriters) wrote ‘Bye Bye Love’ for the Everly Brothers (Paul Simon is shown talking about how much he loved it), then the Bryants wrote ‘Wake Up Little Susie’ and ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream.’
In a key development, Owen and Harold Bradley built a bigger, newer studio in Nashville and RCA built a new studio headed by Chet Atkins - this was the beginning of the so-called ‘Music Row.’ In 1959, Patsy Cline appeared, she sounded like a throwback. Owen Bradley saw her talent. Then recorded ‘Walking After Midnight’ with her. There is great footage of wee Brenda Lee, who started at age 7, singing ‘Dynamite,’ a little girl with a BIG woman’s voice. In this episode, commentators discuss that nostalgia is a basic staple of Country Music, and has been from the beginning. The idea of rural life, the old ways, the old values may be better than all this modern stuff. The end of the 1950’s is shown through the popular songs, with the Kingston Trio winning a Grammy for C&W in 1959, Marty Robbins and ‘El Paso’ #1 in charts is a great example of ‘story’ songs, like Lefty Frizell and ‘Long Black Veil’, which Roseanne Cash describes as “It’s bedrock.” Songs Of Our Soil was Johnny Cash’s first concept album, followed by ‘Folsom Prison Blues.’ Merle Haggard saw Johnny Cash at San Quentin, they have older footage of Haggard (now passed) talking about how seeing Cash changed his life to go legit and become a musician.
Felice and Boudleau, the Bryants, sold over 900 songs. Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville is the place where songwriters hang out, like Willie Nelson, who wrote ‘Hello, Walls’ that was recorded by Faron Young. Marty Stuart hits the nail on the head by explaining “Nashville had It’s business act together.” In 1958, the CMA, Country Music Association opened a hall of fame. The new studios brought new pop production elements which came to be known as ‘The Nashville Sound,’ like Brenda Lee with ‘I’m Sorry.’ Another example was Patsy Cline produced by Owen Bradley with ‘I Fall To Pieces,’ described as “Country Music now wearing city clothes.” We are introduced to Loretta Lynn the ‘Honky Tonk Girl,’ who, when she got on the Opry, was taken under the wing of Patsy Cline. Patsy recorded ‘Crazy’ (by Willie Nelson), Willie tells the story of going to Patsy’s house to get her to hear the demo. The song was so popular it placed in the pop charts. In 1962 Ray Charles released Modern Sounds In Country Western Music with the smash ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You.’ He was still not really accepted in Nashville. Meanwhile, meeting on tour, Johnny Cash and June Carter start having an affair. In 1963 Cash recorded ‘Ring Of Fire.’ Patsy Cline played a benefit and flew out of Kansas City but the plane crashed, and Hankshaw Hawkins and Patsy Cline were killed, Patsy was only 30 years old. The song ‘Crazy’ is described as the #1 jukebox tune of all time. This episode featured Roseanne and Carlene Carter as well as John Carter Cash commenting, and Willie Nelson always telling a good story.