More Country

Sources of country musicThomas Hart Benton, The sources of Country music (1975).

Three chords and the truth—Harlan Howard

Do you know what the southern definition of a true music lover is?
It’s a man who, if he hears a woman singing in the shower, puts his ear to the keyhole—cited in Dawidoff, In the country of country.

Complementing his classic series on jazz, the new PBS series by Ken Burns on the simpler but equally meaningful language of Country music reminds us that far from being a quaint byway, it represents the soul of modern US culture. The eight two-hour episodes have been re-edited and pared down into nine 50-minute programmes for BBC4. [1] Now that I’ve watched the latter, I’m keen to see the full version. Here I can only outline a few of the themes and personalities.

If you know about Country, then you won’t be reading this, and indeed you may bring more critical perspectives to bear on Burns’s portrayal; but for the rest of us, it deserves taking seriously. Here’s a trailer:

As with any genre (Aboriginal dream songs, Iranian chamber music, French baroque, and so on), you just have to immerse yourself in the style and the culture (for a more detailed project on flamenco, see the amazing series Rito y geografia del cante).

With Peter Coyote’s distinctive voiceover, the series judiciously blends interviews and performances with lingering photos, encompassing the personal and political, artistic and commercial, poverty and pain, ecstasy and drudge, church and honky-tonks, domestic stability and outlaw excess, survival and solace. Looking beyond the hillbilly costumes and cowboy hats to the heartache, amidst all the drink, drugs, divorces, early deaths, and the ravages of the touring life, Burns accessibly draws us to the lyrics and music, always identifying themes in the history of cultural transmission, and the very nature of tradition.

Gradually over the series, the early log cabins, railroads, coal mines, textile mills, timber yards, and sharecroppers give way to mansions and Cadillacs. And as one review comments, you can almost trace the history in the performers’ faces: the lean lines of the early stars such as Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, giving way to the gnarled faces of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, and then the soft, untroubled faces of the ’80s and ’90s stars. But to see it as “a simple journey from the sublime to the ridiculous” risks succumbing to the bourgeois nostalgia for poverty.

Despite the later countrypolitan sounds, audiences constantly returned to the roots authenticity of old-time, bluegrass, hillbilly. Female performers play an exceptional role, such as The Carters, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash, and Emmylou Harris.

oldies

The Rub (beginnings to 1933) makes a captivating opening, with wonderful archive photos evocatively deployed. Folk music is always eclectic. Spreading through barn dances and travelling medicine shows, the history of Country is intertwined with gospel and spirituals, slavery and the blues, as well as folk traditions of Appalachia and European migrants, notably the British Isles. Though Country has been described as “the white man’s soul music”, the series acknowledges its debt to African-American culture. In addition to the new technologies of phonographs and radio, it soon became a highly commercial proposition, with patronage from institutions like the National Life and Accident Insurance Company and its WSM station, which gave rise to the long-running Grand Ole Opry. Among early performers, the 1927 discovery of the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers was a seminal moment.

In Hard Times (1933–1945) (“The sad songs are the best”), the industry continues to grow through the Great Depression and World War Two, with major migrations. The Texas Swing of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys was based on strings rather than horns—a classic case of the eclectic melting-pot of immigrant styles (Cajun, Hispanic, and so on) (cf. Accordion crimes). Nashville becomes the heart of the scene with the rise of the Grand Ole Opry. Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe are admired, and the Carter family become ever more popular. The steel guitar plays a growing role. Social dancing is still a major element.

Why don’t Baptists make love standing up?
Because people would think they’re dancing.

Country helped people cope with loss. Hard times was adopted from Stephen Foster’s 1854 parlor song:

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears
While we all sup sorrow with the poor
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears
Oh hard times come again no more

Tis the song, the sigh of the weary
Hard times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door
Oh hard times come again no more

While we seek mirth and beauty and music bright and gay
There are frail forms fainting at the door
Though their voices are silent, their pleding looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more

’Tis the song, the sigh of the weary
Hard times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door
Oh hard times come again no more

’Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave
Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh hard times come again no more

Hank and Holly

Hank Williams and his granddaughter Holly.

The Hillbilly Shakespeare (1945–1953) evokes the postwar period, focusing on the great, short-lived Hank Williams, with fine vignettes from his granddaughter Holly, and Marty Stuart reminding us of the importance of black musicians in the tradition. Also featured are the stellar bluegrass lineup of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs; and the Carter sisters with their mother Maybelle.

Carters

In I Can’t Stop Loving You (1953–1963), the confluence of blues and hillbilly music at Sun Records in Memphis gives birth to rockabilly, the precursor of rock and roll; at the forefront are Johnny Cash (with comments from his daughter Rosanne) and Elvis Presley. Not “Walking the Line”, Johnny Cash gets together with June Carter. Among the rapt inmates for his 1959 concert at San Quentin was Merle Haggard. Like Russians listening to Vladimir Vysotsky, when they heard him they couldn’t believe that Cash hadn’t done time in prison.

Meanwhile in Nashville the country twang was replaced by a smoother sound, with Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn among its stars. Before Patsy Cline’s tragic death in 1963, there’s a nice story about how they reached the perfect tempo for her recording of Willie Nelson’s song Crazy, whose exceptional melodic and harmonic invention quite transcends the cheesy accompaniment:

In The Sons and Daughters of America (1964–1968), the Grand Ole Opry story continues, even as social conflict intensifies. Johnny Cash embodies the spirit of the age, his self-destruction mirroring his artistic triumphs. From the new East coast folk revival scene he took on board the current of social protest; his admiration for Bob Dylan was mutual. His 1968 Folsom Prison concert was a triumph. Merle Haggard (“San Quentin graduate”, another engaging commentator throughout the series; he died in 2016, R.I.P) emerges from his misspent youth as a great singer.

Amidst the civil rights movement (note also Detroit 67), Charley Pride overcomes racial prejudice with his fine voice. The unfiltered songs of Loretta Lynn chime with the new wave of Women’s Liberation. Dolly Parton, fourth of twelve children from a rural cabin without electricity or running water (the kind of CV that was still de reigueur for that generation of singers), demands to be taken seriously—despite joining a select group of strong women reluctant to acknowledge the boons of feminism.

Tammy and Loretta

Tammy Wynette with Loretta Lynn.

The story continues in Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (1968–1972). As the Vietnam War intensifies, the industry and its audience react to divisive social upheavals. George Jones and Tammy Wynette get together. Despite Tammy’s submissive Stand by your man, she didn’t—by contrast with the tough-talking songs of Loretta Lynn, who did; as Jennie Seely comments “I always kinda thought they wrote each other’s songs.”

Among a growing number of Country recruits from outside the archetypal deprived rural background was Kris Kristofferson. Several singer-songwriters pay tribute to his exceptional lyrics, such as Casey’s last ride:

Casey joins the hollow sound of silent people walking down
The stairway to the subway in the shadows down below;
Following their footsteps through the neon-darkened corridors
Of silent desperation, never speakin’ to a soul.

The poison air he’s breathin’ has the dirty smell of dying
‘Cause it’s never seen the sunshine and it’s never felt the rain.
But Casey minds the arrows and ignores the fatal echoes
Of the clickin’ of the turnstiles and the rattle of his chains.

 Oh! she said, Casey it’s been so long since I’ve seen you!
Here she said, just a kiss to make a body smile!
See she said, I’ve put on new stockings just to please you!
Lord! she said, Casey can you only stay a while?

As he explains, his song Bobby McGee (Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin’ for a train, And I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans…) was inspired by La strada. Johnny Cash was hugely popular, and increasingly countercultural. And the Californian hippies of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recruited senior Country legends like Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, and Roy Acuff for an album that bridged the gap between generations.

In Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? (1973–1983) (a sentiment that recalls Taruskin) opens by asking a question central to ethnomusicology, how much change a genre can embrace while retaining its identity; and reminds us how resistant Country had always been to arbitrary borders. As the smooth countrypolitan sound reaches new audiences, singers like Dolly Parton achieve crossover success, finding time for the classic epithet

It cost a lot of money to look this cheap.

And Emmylou Harris, with her background in the East Coast folk scene, tells how she found herself by becoming a convert to Country. At the same time, despite pressures from the Nashville bosses, Waylon Jennings managed to persist with a rougher style. And we hear the compelling story of Hank Williams Jr as he emerges from the long shadow of his godlike father to forge his own path (exemplified in his brilliant song Family tradition!)—with further endearing comments from his daughter Holly.

Marty and L Flatt

Lester Flatt with Marty Stuart.

In Music will get through (1973–1983) the less mediated, marginalized bluegrass style enjoys a roots revival: “It was so old that it was new”. It had never gone away, it just hadn’t hit the headlines. Marty Stuart, who provides thoughtful comments throughout the series, comes into his own as a fine performer, touring from young with Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe, and later with Johnny Cash. I’m struck by how much performers themselves revere the whole tradition:

Walking into the Grand Ole Opry with Lester Flatt was like walking into the Vatican with the Pope. It was like that old scene in The Wizard of Oz where the world went from black-and-white to color.

Nelson and Haggard

Merle Haggard with Willie Nelson.

The veteran Maybelle Carter finds a new audience; George Jones and Tammy Wynette, now divorced, come back for a reunion album. Willie Nelson (“Willie’s not from round here—I mean, Earth”) thrived in the freewheeling, genre-bending scene of the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas. With Waylon Jennings he launched the Outlaw movement, later going on to work with Merle Haggard.

Following in her father’s footsteps, Rosanne Cash becomes a fine singer-songwriter. Emmylou Harris bridged folk, rock, and Country, influencing a new generation of artists, including young Ricky Skaggs, with all his bluegrass credentials.

As doors continue to open, the final programme, Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’ (1984–1996) features artists like Reba McEntire, Naomi Juggs and her daughter Wynnona; k.d. lang (“a punk reincarnation of Patsy Cline”), Kathy Mattea, Rhiannon Gid, and megastar Garth Brooks.

Cashes

Johnny Cash with Rosanne.

But the pull of the more traditional elements still remains strong. Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart stay faithful to the bluegrass sound of Bill Monroe, taking Country back to the front porch. Johnny Cash reinvents himself, bowing out on a high note, with Rosanne offering more insights. The series concludes with a wonderful montage on the whole tradition.

And the story continues…

My purpose here, apart from drawing your attention to a fine piece of film-making, is not so much to provide a superfluous summary as to remind myself, in the spirit of ethnomusicology, that all the musickings of all the cultures around the world deserve to be treated on an equal footing, and that they offer a revealing window on societies in change.

[1] Currently online, alas only briefly, so catch it while you can; otherwise, the DVDs are eminently worth buying. The book, like that complementing Burns’s series on jazz, also looks tempting. Among many reviews far better informed than I can offer, see e.g. herehere and here. Among the extensive literature (note Malone and Neal, Country Music, U.S.A.), I’ve enjoyed re-reading Nicholas Dawidoff, In the country of country: a journey to the roots of American music (1997).

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