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  • September 27th, 2019


By Joel M. Vance


When I was five or six years old, living in Chicago, my parents took me to the WLS Barn Dance downtown. My father socialized with a member of the Barn Dance orchestra and got tickets. It was my first experience with country music, although the Barn Dance was an eclectic mixture of all kinds of music. The Grand Ole Opry generally is thought of as the Citadel of country music, but the WLS Barn Dance truly deserves that honor (WLS stands for World’s Largest Store— the station was owned by Sears and Roebuck).

The Barn Dance debuted in April, 1924, and ran until 1968. Among its stars were Gene Autry and Red Foley (who would go on to become one of the stars of the Grand Ole Opry) I don’t remember who was on stage the night I saw the Barn Dance, but probably Arky,the Arkansas Wood Chopper, Lulu Belle and Scotty and maybe Rex Allen, a singing cowboy, who would become the narrator for Walt Disney’s anthropomorphic nature documentaries.


Ironically, George Hay, the announcer on the Barn Dance, later moved to Nashville’s powerful radio station WSM, where he drew on his experience with the Chicago down-home music show to originate what he named the Grand Ole Opry. He claimed to have originated the Barn Dance, but he didn’t and apparently used his experience there to help him get a job with WSM.


So the Barn Dance, sadly, vanished , overtaken by whatever social changes have made its type of entertainment obsolete. The Opry came pretty close to suffering the same fate in the 1950s when rock ‘n roll rolled over popular music tastes. Rockers, in combination with faux folk singers like the Kingston Trio almost doomed the music that I had grown to cherish.


Documentary film guru Ken Burns has compressed a century of country music into 16 hours of television. I watched all eight episodes, 16 hours carrying country music from about 1920 into the 1980s. I suspected that, although I was thoroughly engrossed by and, thrilled by what I saw, I would abandon Mr. Burns’ examination of country music at about the same time period I did country music in general.


When Garth Brooks and his ilk ushered in the smarmy goop that today passes for “country” music, I retreated to my Jimmie Rodgers and Carter Family recordings, punctuated by occasional detours into the more modern realm of St. Willie and a few of his fellow followers of real country (i.e. Waylon, JR Cash, Merle, and the Old Possum). In fact, I am wearing an old Possum T-shirt at present, a tribute to (in case you didn’t know) Mr. George Jones.


As an aside why, can’t anyone learn how to spell Jimmie Rodgers name? It even appears on a poster in the documentary as “Jimmy Rogers.” I was a teenager, crouched in front of the old Zenith upright radio, listening to the Ernest Tubb record shop broadcast past midnight on a Saturday in Dalton, Missouri when I heard the Texas Troubadour introduce a recording by his hero Jimmie Rodgers titled “Away Out on the Mountain,” an optimistic song about someone heading for the great beyond where things were bound to be better than where he was.


About three minutes later, I was hooked for life on the songs of Mr. Rodgers and have been ever since. I was born a year after Jimmie Rodgers departed life, having failed to— as he bragged he would in a song— whip that old TB. By that night in the 1950s I had become a devotee of country music and was eagerly seeking out records by the senior Hank Williams (whose turbulent career was just as short as that of Jimmie Rodgers.


The records of Ernest Tubb, Elton Britt, and Roy Acuff were omnipresent on the jukeboxes of the 1940s when we visited my mother’s birthplace in the tiny resort town of Birchwood, in northwest Wisconsin. The music of those good old boys echoed from the jukebox in Hud’s Bluegill Bar where my cousins and I lingered while the aunts and uncles drank Bruenig’s lager beer and talked about the war. The Japanese during suicide attacks in the Pacific were reputed to shout “the hell with Roy Acuff!” to rally their troops.


Years later, I would stop in Meridian Mississippi, Jimmie Rodgers’ hometown, where there is a modest museum in a city park, an old railroad car converted into a shrine for The Singing Brakeman. One of his Martin guitars is in a display case, though not the one with his name inlaid in pearl on the fingerboard. After a couple hours in the museum, I traveled out to the simple country graveyard where he, his wife, Carrie, and daughter, Anita are buried side-by-side. There was no one in the sunlit graveyard so much like the Asbury Church graveyard where my ancestors are buried, and I stood before my idol’s grave saw that some pilgrim like me had left a guitar pick on the gravestone and I kicked myself for not having thought of a similar gesture since the chances were slim that I ever would pass that way again.


I haven’t made a similar pilgrimage to Hank Williams’ final resting spot but I did work with Ed Mohr at the Alabama Journal in Montgomery, Hank’s hometown, for more than a year. Ed had been a radio announcer on a local station earlier in his career and had hosted an early morning show, featuring the usual format of many stations of the day— news, interspersed with livestock reports, and live entertainment from country music hopefuls. One of those unknowns was Hank Williams who would sometimes show up for his predawn appearance drunk from the night before or, as also happened, not show up at all. That left Ed, a refined and erudite fan of grand opera (with no Ole in the middle) with many minutes to fill ad lib.  He hated Hank Williams.


Nor have I made a pilgrimage to Graceland, the resting spot of Elvis in Memphis but I confess I have profited in a minor way from his meteoric and enduring fame— while I worked in Montgomery I haunted a record shop, featuring used discs from local jukeboxes. I bought a copy of Elvis’s first recording “That’s All Right Mama” backed with a hopped up version of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” for a few cents. Someone had mistakenly pasted the same label on both sides of the record and had written in pen the correct title (maybe Sam Phillips himself?). Several years later, I sold that 78 RPM record to a collector for $350. No telling what it would be worth today— like Elvis himself, it no doubt has appreciated in value better than most stocks.


The Ken Burns documentary has had the good sense to recruit three articulate and history minded spokesmen to comment on the early years of country music since those who could have related history firsthand virtually all have died. Marty Stuart, Vince Gill, and Ricky Skaggs all three grew up in the tradition of what I consider real country music, and are delightful commentators on the way it was. Willie Nelson pops up occasionally, looking older than dirt which he is, a last dinosaur from the glory days of country. Several of the commentators have died between the making of the documentary and its airing— Merle Haggard is a notable example as are Mel Tillis, Roy Clark and Larry Gatlin.


It’s not fair of me to categorize all today’s country music as Garth Brooks oatmeal. There have been wonderful singers scattered throughout the genre’s history from the Carter family to right now, but the fact is that all too much of today’s country music has an insipid sameness devoid of inspiration, overproduced, and so far from country music as I define it that it might as well be played in elevators or while you’re waiting on the phone to talk to someone in India who can tell you, incomprehensibly, how to fix a problem on your computer.


Trying to capture country music in 16 hours or 6000 hours is like the blind men trying to describe an elephant after feeling it with their hands. Today’s young fans think of country music as what they see on the CMA awards show which to me is like watching a Las Vegas casino extravaganza with show girls and Wayne Newton warbling and equating it with Pavarotti at the Met, singing the lead role in Aida.


Is folk music considered country music? All country music derives from it. The original Carter family, true children of the backwoods and hollers, obviously were folk and just as obviously laid the foundation for everything that came to be called country music. But Doc Watson who was to flat pick guitar what Earl Scruggs was to the five string banjo, was every bit as “folk” as the Carters. Woody Guthrie practically defined the itinerant songster and was an inspiration for an army of devoted Guthrie groupies, including Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. What about rockabilly, that crossbreeding of rock ‘n roll and country? Jerry Lee Lewis, the last dinosaur among country rockers, got no mention from Burns, only appearing in a photo of him, Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash, the million-dollar quartet of Sun records. He is the last survivor of that historic quartet of superstars.  They don’t get more country than Jayree Lee.


There is irony in the fact that Chet Atkins, a performer so beloved by me that we named our first dog Chet also is one of the people most responsible for transforming traditional country music from country to whatever claptrap it is today. And it’s not as if Chet didn’t know what real country was— he was recruited as a young and almost unknown guitar picker by Mother Maybelle Carter to join her and her three daughters on their touring roadshow. When the Grand Ole Opry in turn, recruited the Carters but said they’d have to leave the guitar player behind, Mother Maybelle told them “no Chet, no us.”


The Opry backed down, Chet Atkins joined the cast, became a Nashville fixture, and later became heavily responsible for creating what came to be known as the Nashville Sound— which is what we have today– horns and violins rather than fiddles, syrupy backup singers, overproduction and a bland sameness with all the character of overcooked Quaker Oats.


However, just as I would be about to abandon the documentary as having progressed beyond my musical tastes, it would dive into another segment of musical history that can’t be ignored. Even as Chet Atkins and the Bradley brothers were transforming country music into the Nashville Sound, that same transformation included Patsy Cline who, along with Anita Carter (with her deep country roots), was an authentic country girl.  Both had angelic voices that melted the boundaries between hillbilly and Music Row.


Burns deserves enormous credit for documenting the rise of women as superstars in what had been a male-dominated music genre. Patsy Cline was among the first women to adopt an in-your-face, take no prisoners persona, followed by her protégé Loretta Lynn (I have seen “Coal Miner’s Daughter” where Sissy Spacek spookily channels Ms. Lynn numerous times and will again the next time it airs). There is a telling scene captured by Burns when Porter Wagoner pushes Dolly Parton off-camera so he can hog the mic and it’s too bad the fabulous and feisty Dolly didn’t grab the mic and cram it down his throat.


There haven’t been enough tragic deaths to end each segment of the documentary with a defining country artist’s final act, but Burns made use of existing ones to wind up at least three of the segments— Jimmie Rodgers funeral train winding the long way back to Meridian, Mississippi, to end segment one, the drug and alcohol addled end of Hank Williams in another segment, and the fiery plane crash that killed Patsy Cline to end a third. There is no mention of the ironic death of Opry star Dottie West who offered Cline a ride in her car back to Nashville instead of Cline flying in the fatal plane, only to die herself in a car wreck years later, at the entrance to Opryland, the glitzy substitute for the historical Ryman Auditorium, the home of the Opry for so many years.


Not present in the documentary is a film clip from years ago featuring Bill Monroe and Emmylou Harris clog dancing together, a magic marriage of the old and the new—perhaps the best single example of how country music can retain its historic identity, despite its evolution from the hills and hollers to the streets and skyscrapers. They can take the bodies from the Ryman to the roller coasters of Opryland, but they can’t totally kill the spirit of the music itself.


Just when  I was ready to dump the Ken Burns documentary for dwelling on Nashville Sound junk music, Burns shoved my musical nose in Kris Kristoferson, the chaotic romance of Old Possum and Tammy, Dylan and Johnny Cash together and an extensive look back at the smooth faced Willie Nelson, along with the manic pill fueled craziness of Roger Miller.  So Ken Burns’ documentary pulled me along through the years allowing me to fleetingly experience the lives of entertainers I have cherished for decades, waiting for the moment when, disgusted at the sloppy syrup of today’s country music, I would be forced to abandon it.


I decided I would watch until Burns trotted out the pudgy little guy from Oklahoma who, sadly, is today’s symbol of what country music has become to me. But if the Nashville Sound erodes what few brain cells I have left, I have an extensive Carter Family record collection and can always switch off the television set and listen to “Keep on the Sunny Side”. That attitude, worked for the Carters during the dark days of the Depression and maybe it will for me.

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1 Comment

  1. CJ

    October 11th, 2019 at 8:31 am


    Give ole Garth a break!

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