Just in case you missed it, there is a marvelous series on PBS this week called “Country Music.”
I watched the first two-hour installment Sunday night instead of the Mets and Dodgers, which says a lot. (Okay, I peeked at the score periodically on my cellphone.)
The educator Jacques Barzun is remembered for writing, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball….”
I would add country music to that observation. It has been there, the rhythms and words of the complicated American heart – particularly by the expanded definition and parameters submitted by Ken Burns, the producer of the 16-hour series.
“Country Music” is lavishly arranged for the next full week on PBS (two hours, repeated the next two hours, at least on New York’s Channel 13.)
Burns and Dayton Duncan, the writer, have expanded the definition of country music way beyond the sequins-and-overalls very-white image to a more inclusive version that pays homage to black/gospel/race/soul music. Burns and Duncan consciously blur the lines, showing copious footage of black churches, black performers and black fans, sometimes mingling with whites far more openly than I would have imagined.
My time as Appalachian correspondent for the Times, later helping Loretta Lynn and Barbara Mandrell write their books, gave me marvelous access from the wings of the Grand Ol’ Opry and on the buses and concerts and other good stuff. I did not see much of a black audience, but Burns and Duncan have the footage and sound tracks to include blacks – plus, Elvis Presley, bless his dead heart, always acknowledged his overt inspirations from southern soul music.
But country music is, ultimately, built on the strains and the sentiments straight from the British Isles (and the complicated heritages there.) I have always maintained that when the brilliant Dolly Parton opens her sensual mouth and lets the thoughts and the music flow, she is in touch with hardy people who emerged from the hills of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, who had the courage to get on a boat and sail across the ocean – often to escape back into the hills of that new world. Dolly, for all her glitz, is a medium.
The women – Kathy Mattea, Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash and Rhiannon Giddens, lead singer of the old-timey Carolina Chocolate Drops – carry the first segment.
The series opens with Mattea (you should know her work) describing her arrival in Nashville from West Virginia, at 17, too young to perform, but able to work as a guide in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Lovingly, she points at the Thomas Hart Benton painting, “The Sources of Country Music,” as compelling the best museum docent you ever heard.
The first segment, and I can only assume the entire series, has the same high level. This is serious stuff about America, about us.
What did I learn? I had no idea Jimmie Rodgers, “The Singing Brakeman,” was as widely popular as he was from 1927 to 1933, when he was cut down by equal parts hard living and tuberculosis. I thought he was more of a regional phenomenon.
Rodgers lived the music he sang, and sold tons of records (for Joe Biden’s record player, and the old Veep is not alone.) Rodgers made his last record in New York City, propped up by shots of whiskey between takes. There is a poignant photo of Rodgers on a lounge at Coney Island, enjoying the sun, a day or two before he died, at 35.
Then came the special train ride home, the old railroad hand heading back to Mississippi. The documentary should have ended with the Iris DeMent version of the Greg Brown song, “The Train Carrying Jimmie Rodgers Home,” with DeMent’s voice a mournful train whistle cutting through the southern night. But that’s just me, an Iris groupie.
The first segment includes DeFord Bailey, a black harmonica player, an early staple on the Opry, and Ralph Peer, who turned country music into a lucrative industry, and the Carter family (I got to see Mother Maybelle perform in her later years), plus commentary from Charlie Pride and Wynton Marsalis, as well as Merle Haggard and Mel Tillis, both interviewed before their deaths, in the past few years.
The second installment, Monday night, will focus on the Depression, using the Stephen Foster dirge, “Hard Times,” for its title.
The Mets will be playing in Colorado, trying to hold on, but I will be watching “Country Music.”
That about says it.
9/16/2019 12:21:07 pm
We watched last night as well. We have been digging into American roots music recently, as our daughter has taken up banjo. The first hour had some nice comments by Rhiannon Giddens, formerly the leader of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. She has dug deeply into the Black roots of string band music as a performer and a researcher, and has lots of interesting stuff to say about it. I was really glad to see her included.
9/16/2019 02:27:05 pm
Josh, nice to hear from you.I first heard of the Carolina Chocolate Drops when they were playing near where we were visiting at Cape Cod, 5 years ago or so. Thought the name was "cute" but knew nothin about them. Giddens is so smart (and can I say this, so beautiful?) that I can only assume her music is equal. She is now listed as the last original of the CCDs...who are now treating themselves as an ensemble that occasionally plays together.
9/16/2019 02:13:45 pm
9/16/2019 02:34:51 pm
Hey, Tom. Haven't talked to you since St. Louis got into the MLS. How wonderful for a pioneer soccer city. I don't know if I'm a fan....I don't know anybody anymore. I grew up hearing cowboy songs by Gene Autry and later heard country on WWVA at night, while visiting upstate NY in the summer. Loretta and Ernest singing "Sweet Thang." Webb Pierce. Kitty Wells. I'm fine with Johnny Cash and June Carter and Dolly and Loretta, etc. It's all out there. The history touches me because I've been to the county where the Carters come from.....those coal camps and mountain cabins are very real to me. Enjoy the rest of the week.....GV
9/16/2019 02:52:49 pm
George. What a fantastic period it must have been for you on NYT’s Appalachian beat. It is one thing to listen to the music, even at live performances, but to have been immersed in the culture must have been a most remarkable experience.
9/17/2019 02:48:24 pm
Alan, thank you for mentioning "Song Catchers." I did not know it until you mentioned it. But that's what AP Carter was with country music, roaming the VA-TN region, trading songs with a black musician pal.
9/17/2019 02:05:48 pm
9/17/2019 02:22:38 pm
9/17/2019 02:54:09 pm
Bruce, thanks. Seeing a horse in trouble is frightening...seen it too often at the track, with predictable ending. Watching the Monday version, I thought of my father taking me a couple of times to the "rodeo" in Madison Square Garden. He doffed his hat to the crowd as he circled the ring,
9/17/2019 03:13:33 pm
9/17/2019 03:44:16 pm
Bruce. I do not associate Oscar Brand with country music, but he was among my favorite singers and writers of folk music. He was Canadian born, but spent much of his career in the U.S.
9/17/2019 04:00:03 pm
9/17/2019 05:00:42 pm
Aan, you were there when it was happening. I saw some people in the village -- Joni MItchell, The McGarrigles, (speaking of Canadians) and Doctor John -- but never got to Gerdy's.
9/17/2019 05:30:15 pm
9/17/2019 05:43:35 pm
No, man, Canada has talent. (Title for a new show.)
9/17/2019 06:25:48 pm
9/17/2019 06:12:16 pm
9/17/2019 07:55:51 pm
9/18/2019 05:59:20 am
Wish I could see this. Nobody better than Dolly, or Patsy Cline.
Second your motion about Iris DeMent and that Greg Brown song. I got the feeling they both fall on the wrong side of the country/folk divide alluded to briefly by these filmmakers. I am enjoying your comments on the TV series, which strikes me as a big rich and flippable coffee table book of a documentary -- enjoyable, but disappointing some of my friends in the old time and folk music discussion areas of Facebook who prefer the less commercial forms of country music with a small C.
9/27/2019 07:52:41 am
Bob: just found your thoughtful comment. Thanks so much. I found the series, ultimately, a bit too formulaic, as you say, but the latter segments do note the ongoing traditional music. I believe I caught glimpses of good friends of ours from KY — the McLain Family Band, then out of Berea, now at the university at Morehead. They are purists, like the great Jean Ritchie, who lived a mile from us — but at the top of a Kentucky-like ravine — on Long Island. Ritchie got no call at all. Yikes.
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From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.