Music on TV Part 1: Mining country music for riches: A review of Ken Burns’ Country

Growing up in the early 1980s, Anne Murray, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Ronnie Milsap and Eddie Rabbitt, were as common on the pop and lite FM radio stations my family listened to as Air Supply, George Benson, Hall & Oates, Michael McDonald, or Barbra Streisand. By the mid-1980s, however, one would have to listen to a country music radio station explicitly to hear Reba McEntire, Randy Travis, or Dwight Yoakam. In the early 1990s pop and country lines grew more blurred when the emergence of digital technology in the tracking of record sales revealed that a far larger portion of consumers were purchasing country music than imagined. Garth Brooks became the biggest album seller of the decade and country became the most popular radio format. Suddenly record labels were signing “hat acts” in search of commercial gold, and Shania Twain became the new Patsy Cline. Integral to this growth is the ongoing debate over whether a discernible country music, related to but different from pop music, exists or has ever existed since country grew from a regional to a national music. Alongside the authenticity issue, questions about the genre’s willingness to be racially inclusive and politically progressive also linger.   


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Ken Burns’ 16 hour documentary Country Music raises some of these questions but does not offer a definitive answer. It’s a film with useful insights for beginners and aficionados, though it excludes content that would benefit both. Among Burns’ signature mix of archival photos, talking heads, earnest narration, and “magical-inevitable” historical moments (often signified by swelling orchestration) are charming stories and intriguing insights by characters ranging from country luminaries like Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson to respected genre authorities like historian Bill C. Malone.  Some of the more knowledgeable and entertaining voices include Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor, and solo singer and songwriter Jeannie Seely.


Taking a mostly linear chronological approach Burns’ eight episode walk viewers through the genre’s gradual synthesis from a mixture of folk music derived from rural blues, gospel, and Celtic balladry, into a discernible commercial market (originally called “hillbilly”) through the business acumen of producer and song publisher Ralph Peer whose recordings of The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers defined an emerging style. Burns effectively links major milestones such as the Great Depression, World War II, westward migration of families from the Midwest and south, the emergence of portable radios, and the Vietnam War to key developments in country music artistry and audience responses.


Country has sometimes been referred to as the “white man’s blues” and the film frequently invokes this association through yoking visual and aural elements to link the struggle of poor and working class white men to the music. The stylistic innovations of such major figures as Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Buck Owens are thoroughly explored. The film also covers Kris Kristofferson’s breakthroughs as a composer effectively and captures the friction posed to the establishment by “outlaws” Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, and the soulful singing of the troubled but compelling George Jones. The film glosses over the 70s era success of Ronnie Milsap and Charlie Rich, who are supremely underrated to this listener. Though the slick, commercial country-pop of Kenny Rogers is relentlessly bland, he established a commercial blueprint country continues to pursue. The film instead focuses its latter profiles of male singers to a mix of daredevils like Dwight Yoakam, sturdy craftsmen like as Vince Gill, and the commercial phenom Garth Brooks. The film gives Elvis Presley surprisingly limited coverage. Though his actual country records are tepid, his journey from a radical who scandalized the Grand Ole Opry to a reclaimed heritage artist seems germane, especially since country singers have borrowed liberally from him. I was also surprised at the complete absence of the country-punk scene (e.g. Jason & the Scorchers) and the No Depression movement (e.g., Son Volt, Uncle Tupelo) that emerged in the early 1990s. The film’s desire to serve as a primer and highlight outliers and anomalies sometimes veers too far in either direction, hence the inevitable oversights.


Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton are among the artists profiled and interviewed in the documentary.

Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton are among the artists profiled and interviewed in the documentary.

Like 2001’s Ken Burns’ Jazz there’s incessant discussion of music as a national metaphor via country music’s “mix” of cultures but the racial equity argument never quite holds. Burns draws much needed attention to overlooked Grand Ole Opry harmonica player DeFord Bailey and Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne’s influence on Hank Williams, the radical disruption of Ray Charles’s seminal Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music album and the requisite attention to Charley Pride (who possess a wonderful sense of humor and a great voice in his 80s). The film also includes Hootie frontman-turned-country phenomenon Darius Rucker and Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops) as younger black talking heads. Unexplored are the ways black singers like Solomon Burke, Etta James, Millie Jackson, Esther Phillips, Bobby Womack, Dorothy Moore, and Aaron Neville incorporated country music into their repertoires. Or the unique career of Dobie Gray who pioneered country-soul with 1973’s Drift Away and Loving Arms albums. Though the film’s focus on country music through 1996 rules out discussion of more recent country artists of color including Kane Brown and the ubiquitous “Old Town Country Road” country-rap hybrid song no one probes why there has not been a major black country singer since Pride. The film’s blandly optimistic investment in stylistic mélange as proof of racial unity mutes the specter of naming white exclusion explicitly as a defining aspect of country.


Major female artists mostly receive their proper due, including Maybelle Carter’s innovative guitar playing, alongside her sister Sara Carter’s autoharp, in the pioneering Carter Family, Rose Maddox, Brenda Lee, Patsy Cline, Wanda Jackson, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Reba McEntire, Kathy Mattea, and Trisha Yearwood. Burns also highlights important moments such as Kitty Wells’s radical 1952 hit “It Wasn’t God who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” Bobbie Gentry’s haunting 1967 hit “Ode to Billie Joe,” and Sammi Smith’s definitive rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night.” I was surprised by the absence of Dottie West, Linda Ronstadt, Gail Davies, Patty Loveless, and Lucinda Williams. The controversy over pop-oriented country that led some members of the Country Music Association (CMA) to leave and form the Academy of Country entertainers would have benefited from some discussion of the blurred lines of Olivia Newton-John, Anne Murray and Crystal Gayle’s music. Their music, along with that of Kenny Rogers, Ronnie Milsap, the Oak Ridge Brothers, all point to a relationship between country and pop that has always haunted the genre but became especially prominent from the mid-1970s and 1980s. In a section highlighting 80s and 90s artists who challenged the Nashville Sound the film describes the work of k.d. lang and Mary Chapin-Carter.  Odd also that it excluded K.T. Oslin whose songs “Younger Men,” “80’s Ladies” and “This Woman” were ground-breaking female-centric anthems.    


The film‘s sheer volume is actually insufficient to tell as comprehensive or incisive a story as it could. Examining issues of identity and musical authenticity requires an informed view of the genre’s history, as opposed to Burns who has acknowledged the film as a maiden voyage for him. The intimate knowledge required effort to build and sustain an argument exceeds the film’s hagiographic approach. Even a knowledgeable commentator can lapse into bland clichés that satisfy the bromides that go down easy on PBS. As a result, a curious viewer would do better to view the episodes as an on-ramp for further exploration. The ambitious film offers impeccable information about major arcs in the genre’s story and is highly watchable. For a deeper probing of complex narrative threads, however, I recommend reading Country Music USA: 50th Anniversary Edition (Bill Malone), Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music, 1800-2000 (Mary Bufwack and Robert Oermann), Hidden in the Mix: the African-American Presence in Country Music (Diane Pecknold, editor) and Are You Ready for the Country (Peter Doggett).



Not Ms. Congeniality: Kacey Musgraves the country rebel

I decided against reviewing albums on Riffs, Beats & Codas because I’m not sure that people read reviews anymore or have any real influence on what people buy. Further, writers usually review albums when they’re new which leaves little time for albums to sink in. Periodically I hear a notable recording and decide I can’t keep it to myself. In that spirit, my favorite album of 2015 so far, and by favorite I mean the album I find myself revisiting most often, is country singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves’s Pageant Material. Her popular and acclaimed debut Same Trailer Different Park instantly established her as country music’s resident rebel and wiseacre. Though country is notoriously conservative and stubborn even the industry conceded to her debut album’s achievement awarding her various honors including Album of the Year from the American Academy of Country Music (ACM), Grammies for Best Country Song (“Merry Go Round”) and Best Country Album, and the Country Music Academy's (CMA) Best New Artist and Song of the Year awards for her ode to freedom and acceptance “Follow Your Arrow.” Country has become so bland that anyone not singing about partying and trucks in sub-Springsteen melodies stands out, and industry insiders know it.

                                                                      A contender for Best Album of 2015? Possibly.   
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  ©  2015 Mercury Nashville.

                                                                      A contender for Best Album of 2015? Possibly. Copyright © 2015 Mercury Nashville.


But, rebelling on your debut does not a promising career make. What’s left once the novelty wears out? Surveying the title of her album and some of the song titles could easily suggest that she’s all too-willing to run her rebel image into the ground as the outsider-looking-in, but she surprises you at every turn. She refines the cheekiness of her debut without losing her edge. Musgraves is country-punk spiritually if not musically. Her spirit, and often her lyrics, matches the wit, humor, and insight of (formerly) young male punks like Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, and Nick Lowe but without their snark or profanity. Preferring spiced honey to acid she has mastered the ability to transform prized country tropes like home and family into vehicles for her personal values.

Like many outsiders to the white Southern culture commonly associated with country music she recognizes the hypocritical, conformist, judgmental, and intolerant aspects of Southern culture. Notably the way policing behaviors in the social realm undermines and contradicts the rhetoric of freedom, liberty, and choice in the political realm. This is one of the cruxes of the oft-cited cultural divide between Southern culture and the Northeast (i.e. Northern elite) and West Coast (i.e. “Hollyweird”). And as a Southerner herself she is uniquely capable of seeing through these elements and singing through them—as well as being heard. She empathizes with her targets rather than aiming to merely shoot them down. By doing so she humanizes the behaviors of the judgers, conformists, and enforcers locating these tendencies in vulnerability and fear rather than malice.

 Pageant Material is a fairly brisk album at 14 songs and 46 minutes. Each song is a clear-eyed sketch with an obvious, but not simplistic theme. Her economical approach reminds you of how over-padded most pop albums are. Musically brisk, melodically diverse, lyrically crisp, and emotionally dense Musgraves, and her collaborators, have assembled a compelling nominally country album using traditional tools (i.e. strings and pedal steels) and a few oddball ingredients.

 As a lyricist she covers a lot of territory. She knows that country girls who make it big are instantly perceived as big shots and traitors. She responds by declaring herself a “Dimestore Cowgirl” (“You can take me out of the country/You can’t take the country out of me”). This may sound like pandering, but if you listen she reminds you that she needed to leave her hometown (“Had to get away so I could grow”) in order to thrive. In this sense she is also a spiritual heir to the Dixie Chicks.  In “High Time” (ponder the title for a minute) she sings of her need to “To slow my roll/Let the grass just grow/And lean way back.”  I hear both a nod to listeners that she’s still a grounded person and a sincere reaction to post-fame.

 The title tracks lets you know that, “There are certain things you’re supposed to know/ When you’re a girl who grows up in the South.” She builds from this idea with humor and integrity noting: “My mama cried when she realized/I ain’t pageant material/I’m always higher than my hair/ And it ain’t that I don’t care about world peace/ But I don’t see how I can fix it in a swimsuit on a stage/ I ain’t exactly miss congenial/Sometimes I talk before I think/ I try to fake it but I can’t /I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t.” Buried in these funny couplets is a sincere and hard-won rejection of family expectations and “traditional” feminine values sung with playful but clear resignation.

 Affectionate but pointed insights and observations continue surfacing in her seemingly homespun anthems. She begins “Small Town” with two women gossiping about a drug addict with few teeth. She builds from there by reminding you that, “This town’s too small to be mean” since the reality is “…somebody’s mama knows somebody’s cousin/And somebody’s sister knows somebody’s husband/And somebody’s daughter knows somebody’s brother/And around here, we look out for each other.” Instead of sugarcoating things and rendering small towns in virtue she points out how tensions between human behavior and reality play out. Kindness and discretion aren’t always purely voluntary. “Family is Family” reminded me of some of the better episodes of the great sitcom Roseanne. She uses coded “white trash” language (‘em instead of them) and imagery like “They own too much wicker and drink too much liquor” to signify her country roots, but moves beyond this to more universal realities, “You might look just like ‘em/That don’t mean you’re like ‘em /But you love ‘em/Family is family, in church or in prison/You get what you get, and you don’t get to pick ‘em.” 

 Other solid songs like “Biscuits” (“Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy”) and “Cup of Tea” (“You can’t be everybody’s cup of tea”) are a little more on the nose about non-conformity but no less truthful. At her best she manages to employ the rebel persona to point out a range of behaviors, beyond the South. A person listening to “Good Ol’ Boys Club” could hear everything from a feminist rejection to a comment on white male privilege to an anti-corporate ode: “Don’t want to be a part of the Good Ol’ Boys Club/ Cigars and handshakes/I appreciate you but no thanks/ Another gear in a big machine don’t sound like fun to me.”

 Musgraves conveys a consistent persona in her songs but she possesses an emotional compass beyond social foibles. “Late to the Party” is a remarkably gentle, intimate love song. Under pressure to socialize with friends, she assures her mate “Never late to the party/If I’m late to the party with you.” On “Miserable” she soberly reminds a friend to get on with life and confront the emotional paradox neatly summarized as “You ain’t happy/Lest you’re miserable.”  She asks “Do we really have to grow up?” on “Die Fun” and says to hell with it all, “Lets love hard /Live fast/Die fun”; it’s her own “Born to Run.” Elsewhere she laments an unreliable lover on the waltz tune “Fine” and she and Willie Nelson, perhaps the quintessential country rebel generate genuine heat on the lovely duet “Are You Sure.”

 Musgraves who sings, plays and writes, is a bonafide country musician, and more. She makes the kind of music that people who “hate” country music might like if they listened more closely. Her debut album and its even stronger follow-up Pageant Material place her beside country rebels like Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash, k.d. lang, K.T. Oslin, Mary Chapin-Carpenter, and the Dixie Chicks.  They are boundary breakers who pushed expectations of women in country to the limit before transcending the genre entirely. Musgraves is too early in her career to leap towards pop or to become a “roots” musician which is what usually happens with country outsiders. I hope she sticks with country because she represents a vital sign of life for the genre that genuine rebels have a place; they offer something to aspire to for other musicians. Pop music periodically drowns itself in a sea of interchangeable conformists who generate immediate hits but fade from memory. When you listen to Kacey Musgraves’s clever songs you can’t unhear them.