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.