The reviews of Ken Burns’ documentary on country music are in, and most reviewers think that despite the sixteen hours spread over eight episodes the story it adds up to lacks something. On what that something is, opinions varied.
“Burns went broad but not deep,” according to one online review. “He dealt too much with the business and not with the music.” To another reviewer, Beverly Keel in the Nashville Tennessean, watching the documentary was like “watching the official memorial service for the Nashville I used to love so much,” the funeral oration for what Nashville and country music used to be.
The first reviewer missed a good deal of Burns’s point: For Nashville, country music is a business, big business, and has been since it became centered there. Hence when legendary guitarist and record producer Chet Atkins was asked to define the “Nashville sound,” he reportedly riffled a handful of money. Even though my own attention to the documentary was sporadic (only four and a half episodes) and distracted, Ms. Keel’s observation seems closer to the mark.
I am far from an expert on country music. In fact, I was late coming to a full appreciation of it, and that by an unusual route. I came to know in their later years both the late Georgia radio, print and television personality Billy Dilworth and Eastanollee’s own late “Doc” Tommy Scott, the legendary “medicine show man.” Billy was involved for years in promoting country music and knew many of the stars well. “Whispering Bill” Anderson was one of his closest friends. As for “Doc” Tommy, one of his earliest jobs was playing with Bill Monroe and Tommy himself began appearing on the Grand Ol’ Opry in the 1930s. Knowing both was like a graduate course in country music.
The “old tyme” country music, that is. A common complaint, one I’ve made myself, is that “country music doesn’t sound like country music anymore.” To me and many others I hear voicing opinions, it all tends to sound the same now. The music itself is so often hyper-amplified electronic squeals and clatter with little in common with the riffs of a Johnny Cash or a Buck Owens, more in common with a slow motion train wreck. In that, it’s virtually indistinguishable from modern rock. (But still preferable to rap.)
The lyrics, when they can be deciphered above the noise, tend to be inane. They have little in common with, say, the almost Shakespearean lyrics of Kris Kristofferson or the earthy refrains of Willie Nelson, to say nothing of lesser songsmiths. Both country music’s strength and appeal are rooted in its recording the highs and lows of the human experience. That was a lesson learned from knowing Tommy Scott’s beginnings reinforced by stories from my own family, stories of Depression-era gatherings where my grandfather brought out his violin and others brought their own instruments. The music offered relief from hard times and celebration of surviving them. But these days, as Ms. Keel put it, with so much happening in the world, “with so much that needs to be said … we’re hearing only about beer, trucks and boots.”
Of course, like Ms. Keel, whoever she is, I betray being of a certain age by making nostalgic paeans to the older country music that I had a certain fondness for even before I appreciated country music as an art. It stems from associations made early between certain songs and singers and particular memories held more closely as the years stack up. That’s why of the music I listen to the most, the music downloaded to files on my laptop, among the Beethoven, Dvorak, Elgar and Sinatra, to name a few, are complete albums of Marty Robbins, Charley Pride and a couple of other country and western stars. These latter all evoke particular memories. Both Robbins and Pride, for example, were well represented on the jukebox of a café in Calhoun Falls, South Carolina, just across the Savannah River, that was often the Saturday night out destination for our family in the ‘60s. The owner, a little, always smiling woman named Lillie Mae Christley, served hamburgers in which the meat wasn’t a patty but a scoop of sautéed, seasoned ground beef, messy but still among the best I’ve ever had across half a century. If there was an “in” place in the mill town, Lillie Mae’s was it and a lot of beer was served over a counter bordering the full length of the open kitchen, but it was still a family place. A quiet wraith of a man, J.L. Ayers, hung around a pool table at the back, sometimes helping out at the counter but always keeping order on the rare occasions that was needed. Anyone downing enough Pabst Blue Ribbon to get loud, vulgar and rowdy would learn the little man could use both ends of a cue stick with equal efficacy. And Charley Pride was often providing the background music. Hearing the same songs now, I can still see it to myself just as it was then.
I wax too much into maudlin nostalgia here, but it all does underscore a key point. It’s doubtful any of modern country music will conjure up the same sort of associated memories for anyone decades down the line.
One theme of Burns’s documentary is that the genre even in its early years was always gradually changing, the business as a business steadily growing, the “crossover hit” bridging two or more genres being a brass ring the producers increasingly sought. So the amalgam of it all, the fast, slick packaged, gibberish-laced cacophony that is so much of Nashville’s “country music” will endure and prosper so long as it finds a paying audience, as it evidently does. But bigger and flashier isn’t always better, in music and a few other areas, and maybe it would do well to no longer regard a good deal of what’s now the “Nashville sound” as “country music.”
Now genuine country music is still a going concern, but you find it most often, it seems to me, in the quiet hideaways similar to where it began. There are still places around where talented amateurs gather and play some of the best to be heard.
There are many such places, but sometimes they have to be dug for like rare gems. One such I know of, a country store in Long Creek, South Carolina, just across from Rabun County, has been a gathering place on Saturday nights for years, drawing players from both Georgia and the local neighborhood. The store isn’t far from the stretch of the Chattooga River where “Deliverance” was filmed, and on a clear evening any urbanite rafters and kayakers still caught out on the river can likely hear the music. Of course, if the players think that’s the case, they tend to play the banjoes a little louder.
After all, traditional country music, real country music, has always included a little comedy, too.