Country Music: Ken Burns, PBS

Can The Circle Be Unbroken?

Country Music.Ken BurnsSixteen hours of the history of country music. I watched it all. Some bits of it I knew about, but I learned a lot, especially the parts before I was born. It starts with the 1920s when the birth of radio and the growth of the phonograph record propelled country/hillbilly music as well as other musical genres.

The beginning of the Grand Ole Opry is outlined. The documentary posits that there were two early giants of country music, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Rodgers brought forth the yodel in recorded music, often replicated by others for decades. The second episode, “Hard Times (1933-1945),” touches on Gene Autry and Bob Wills.

Oddly, it was the story about the creation of the music licensing entity BMI that was a big revelation for me. It was “founded by a group of radio industry leaders meeting in September 1939 at the National Association of Broadcasters annual convention in Chicago. The move [was] prompted by ASCAP requesting to double license fees to the radio industry…”

“Hillbilly Shakespeare 1945-1953” certainly described Hank Williams, who dominates Episode 3. Eddy Arnold and Bill Monroe are also included. Episode 4 is called “I Can’t Stop Loving You 1953-1963”, which meant that it had to mention the seemingly unlikely crossover of Ray Charles. Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, and early Elvis are some of the others highlighted.

The parts I remember

“The Sons and Daughters Of America (1964-1968)” is the title of Episode 5. Loretta Lynn, Charlie Pride, Merle Haggard, and Roger Miller are among the stars. The Beatles even get a mention with their Buck Owens cover. This is the period of my first recollections listening to WWVA in Wheeling, WV late at night.

Episode 6, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken (1968-1972),” gets into the period I was collecting music. More than one person I know discovered Kris Kristofferson from this show. Bob Dylan and The Byrds get coverage, as well as The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

“Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way? (1973-1983)”, in Episode 7, discusses the ongoing tension between “traditional” country and countrypolitan. Olivia Newton-John beats out Loretta Lynn for the best female artist at the CMA? Highlights include Dolly Parton, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Hank Williams Jr, Roseanne Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Emmylou Harris.

Finally, Episode 8, “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’ (1984-1996)”, shows the development of Ricky Scaggs, Reba McEntire, George Strait, Randy Travis, The Judds, Dwight Yoakum, and especially Garth Brooks.

Among the complaints were that Burns, et al. left out any number of artists from Jim Reeves to Linda Ronstadt, while spending too much time on Johnny Cash. I suppose this may have some legitimacy. Sometimes, for licensing, artistic, or other reasons, you work with what you have. On the other hand, Marty Stuart’s knowledge of the genre continues to amaze.

The music

There’s a five-CD set of the music mentioned in Country Music. I thought I’d link to just a handful. I’m ignoring any cuts I already own, such as tracks by JR Cash, Charles, Cline, Kristofferson, Lynn, and Williams.

Can the Circle Be Unbroken – The Carter Family
Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues) – Jimmie Rodgers
Fox Chase – DeFord Bailey, the first black at the Grand Ole Opry
Mountain Dew – Grandpa Jones and his Grandchildren; by the time Jones was on the TV show Hee Haw, he didn’t need the makeup anymore

I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart – Patsy Montana & The Prairie Ramblers
New San Antonio Rose – Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
Wabash Cannonball – Roy Acuff
It’s Mighty Dark to Travel – Bill Monroe & his Blue Grass Boys

New Mule Skinner Blues – Maddox Brothers and Rose
Foggy Mountain Breakdown – Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, who I first knew from The Beverly Hillbillies
It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels – Kitty Wells
Crazy Arms – Ray Price

The Long Black Veil – Lefty Frizzell; I have The Band and Mick Jagger versions of this
El Paso – Marty Robbins
Stand by Your Man – Tammy Wynette, later covered by Lyle Lovett
Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way – Waylon Jennings

Boulder to Birmingham – Emmylou Harris
Pancho and Lefty – Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson
He Stopped Loving Her Today – George Jones
Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’ – Ricky Skaggs

Somebody Should Leave – Reba McEntire
Why Not Me – The Judds
Streets of Bakersfield – Dwight Yoakam with Buck Owens
Where’ve You Been – Kathy Mattea
Go Rest High on That Mountain – Vince Gill
I Still Miss Someone – Rosanne Cash

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. i hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

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