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Rock and Roll Book Club

Rock and Roll Book Club: Ken Burns 'Country Music' book tells generations of stories

'Country Music: An Illustrated History.'
'Country Music: An Illustrated History.'Jay Gabler/MPR

by Jay Gabler

September 18, 2019

Why does it always seem like country music is having an identity crisis? Does R&B have identity crises? Does pop? Does hip-hop? Sure, but somehow with country music there always seems to be a tension between some idea of "real country" and whatever genres, ideas, or textures are influencing the sound of music made by artists who consider themselves country.

In his landmark book Country Music USA, Bill C. Malone (with co-author Tracey E.W. Laird for the most recent edition) tackles that question head-on and brings it right up to the minute, with Beyoncé’s "Daddy Lessons" hanging as the unanswered question for country music in this decade. Can an African-American woman who gained fame for pop R&B make the country charts?

Even more recently, Lil Nas X prompted another round of headlines about what counts as "country music" — and specifically, whether the genre's gatekeepers will ever allow a return to the dialogue with African-American musical traditions that produced the genre in the first place.

Judging by the companion volume, though, Ken Burns's new documentary series about country music doesn't go there. Burns shines a welcome spotlight on the contributions of artists of color, and women, from the genre's inception, but he doesn't ask a lot of tough questions. Instead, Country Music: An Illustrated History, co-authored with Dayton Duncan, functions as a visual timeline of country music from Fiddlin' John Carson in 1923 until the death of Johnny Cash in 2003.

However incomplete this 533-page coffee table book may be, it's still an epic American story full of larger-than-life characters who have been singing and playing their truths, truths that have resonated with generations of listeners.

For all its emphasis on live performance and down-home authenticity, "country music," the genre, is a product of technology — and, ironically, cities. Recordings and radio performances accelerated the convergence of strains of music including folk fiddling, banjo playing based on percussive African string instruments, and community singing. In the Jazz Age, string-band music was tagged as "old time," thus instituting the notion that there was a discrete type of music that spoke to the concerns and experiences of ordinary (read: rural) people.

The book quickly picks up the stories of the iconic artists whose performances shaped the emerging genre. A main through-line follows the Carter Family, "the first family of country music." From the original 1920s recordings of the original family (married couple A.P. and Sara Carter, with Sara's cousin Maybelle who became a Carter when she married A.P.'s cousin), the Carters were sacred to everything anyone meant by "old time," "hillbilly," "country and western," and finally "country" music.

Then there was Jimmie Rodgers, the "Singing Brakeman" whose affable songs reified themes like long rambling, hard working, and lovelorn longing, incorporating the "blue yodel" that added a sharp edge to his guitar-based sound. His acolyte Gene Autry made the cowboy aesthetic central to country music, and became the genre's first multimedia star with his movie and serial appearances.

There are Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, incorporating a swinging sound that crossed over to pop jazz thanks to artists like Bing Crosby. Of course there's the Grand Ole Opry, a radio show with a cast that became the most exclusive club in country music; and Bill Monroe's bluegrass, a style that deeply influenced the genre even if it never quite became mainstream.

These stories might be new to you or they might not, but the book is worth a look for any music fan to appreciate the stunning images, many of them rare, that fill its pages. There's a gorgeously stark shot of the Carter Family — now including young June — created for Life magazine. There are several powerful images of Hank Williams, the tall and troubled artist who brought country music firmly into the age of the charismatic singer-songwriter, as easy on the eyes as on the ears.

Choose for yourself which baby is cuter: Hank Williams Jr. or Rosanne Cash. Both have incredible stories, with Williams forging his own path after surviving a near-deadly fall, and Cash finding breakout success in the controversial but wildly popular "countrypolitan" scene of the 1980s, even as her father was unceremoniously dropped by his record label.

Johnny Cash, the great iconoclast whose music remained rooted in country but whose appeal transcended genre, is seen literally emerging from the cotton fields of his Arkansas home. The book takes an extended detour through Sam Phillips's Sun Studios, where Elvis Presley and his peers recorded music that came out of country traditions but could no longer be contained by them, precipitating yet another identity crisis for the increasingly polished, Nashville-centered genre that continued on. (The "Million Dollar Quartet" shot with Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins is perhaps the best-known photo featured in the volume.)

Duncan and Burns devote much, richly-deserved, attention to the lineage of great country women: Patsy Cline, inimitable voice and mentor to many younger artists despite her tragically short life. Loretta Lynn, the coal miner's daughter who drove around from one radio station to the next, sometimes pulling her own records out of the trash to wave in the DJs' faces. Tammy Wynette, who met her match in her musical hero and eventual husband George Jones; her previous husband, songwriter Don Chapel, got the message when Wynette kept spinning Jones's latest hit, even though it was written by Chapel.

Are there Nudie Suits? You know it, from the classic versions sported by the likes of "Alligator Man" Jimmy C. Newman to the ironic, 420-friendly version rocked by Gram Parsons. (For best outfit in the book, Parsons's only competitor is Dwight Yoakam in gold lamé.) There's also a page devoted to some of the best song titles in country music history: "My Wife Ran Off with My Best Friend and I Sure Do Miss Him," "I've Been Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart," and of course the immortal Conway Twitty/Loretta Lynn duet "You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly."

As the Johnny Cash saga continues — divorce and remarriage, TV show, prison records, Bob Dylan collaboration, the Man in Black with a backwards American flag billowing out behind him as he stands on a mountain — Burns and Duncan pick up on another winding road through country music. Is that Willie Nelson on a golf course? Yep, on the cover of his 1968 album Good Times. How about that yellow turtleneck look he tried, or the Johnny Cash wannabe pose wearing black and smoking a cigarette? Nelson finally hit his stride in Austin, a long-haired party-starter who could write a pretty darn good song.

By the time the book hits the mid-1970s, Charlie Rich is burning a card announcing John Denver as Entertainer of the Year, even as he reads the name at the podium for the Country Music Awards. Country artists reached massive new audiences with polished pop in the '70s and '80s, and from today's standpoint, it's the women who got it right. John Denver proved a taste not everyone could acquire, despite his unquestionable gift for melody, and Kenny Rogers is better-known for his Dolly Parton duets than for his multiple TV movies based on "The Gambler."

The Judds, though, buried the hatchet of their mother-daughter squabbles and took a series of sterling songs to the bank throughout the '80s, before mother Naomi retired and Wynonna launched a successful solo career. Even more remarkable were the stars who recorded two albums as the "Trio": Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and the incredible Parton.

Parton has what may be the best line in the book — "I'm not offended by all the dumb-blonde jokes, because I know I'm not dumb...and I'm not blonde, either" — and an inspiring story that starts with her Smoky Mountain upbringing and includes several years with mentor Porter Wagoner, who brought Parton on tour and TV and recorded multiple duets with her in the late '60s and early '70s. Eventually, she decided to set out on her own and wrote "I Will Always Love You" to thank him for his faith in her, even as she knew her dreams were bigger than anything she could achieve in the older artist's shadow.

The book goes up through country's commercial boom in the '90s — there's an incredible shot of Garth Brooks flying above a record-setting Texas Stadium crowd in 1993 — but skips the alt-country movement, bro country, and pretty much everything else in the 21st century. As the authors acknowledge at the volume's end, though, you can't tell all the stories...certainly not in one book.

"This represents our collective best effort," they write, "in telling the sprawling, complicated story of what many people consider a simple art form."

Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns 2CD Soundtrack giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's Country Music the Soundtrack giveaway between 8 a.m. Central on Wednesday, September 18, 2019 and 11:59 p.m. Central on Tuesday, September 24, 2019.

Three (3) winners will receive the 2CD version of Country Music: A Film By Ken Burns "The Soundtrack" Four (4) back up names will be drawn.

Prize retail value: $15.99

Winners will be notified via email on Wednesday, September 24, 2019. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. Central on Friday, September 26, 2019.

This giveaway is subject to Minnesota Public Radio's 2019 Official Giveaway Rules.

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

Sept. 25: High School by Sara Quin and Tegan Quin

Oct. 2: Face It by Debbie Harry

Oct. 9: On Time by Morris Day

Oct. 16: Me by Elton John