'COUNTRY MUSIC': THE KEN BURNS CONCERT
Updated: Jan 10
Smashing night at the Ryman marks new documentary, salutes depth of country music
“To me, it’s soul music. It’s white man’s soul music, and it comes from the heart.” -Kris Kristofferson
NASHVILLE--The broad range of influences, branches and impacts of country music were on full display March 27 at the concert to mark Ken Burns’ new documentary, Country Music, at the Ryman Auditorium.
“We have gathered here in the beautiful and historic Ryman Auditorium, the mother church of country music,” the filmmaker told the audience, to celebrate country’s “many styles,” that woven together form “a complete chorus of American voices.”
In an introductory film clip of an interview with Kris Kristofferson, the master-songwriter proclaimed about country: “To me, it’s soul music. It’s white man’s soul music, and it comes from the heart.”
The concert was taped for PBS and will premiere nationwide on Sunday. Sept. 8, one week before the 16.5-hour documentary series begins on Sept. 15. All the artists from the concert appear in the film. (UPDATE: The full concert is available on the PBS website for a limited run.)
Burns, who narrated much of the concert, began with a story that reached across oceans and color. “The fiddle came from Europe. The banjo came from Africa. And when they met,” magic happened, he said.
He then introduced fiddler and singer Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, bedecked in an over-the-top gray suit, bowtie and hat, and the brilliant singer and banjoist Rhiannon Giddens (also a gifted fiddler) for the early bluegrass number, “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?” The song has been recorded and performed often by Giddens’ string band, the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, a group that has worked with country-soul artist and producer Buddy Miller.
(UPDATE: Read our curator Alan Richard's full interview with Ken Burns in American Way, the American Airlines magazine.)
Country star Vince Gill, a gifted singer and guitarist, played lead guitar and sang harmony on many of the evening’s performances, fronting a veteran Nashville band.
Gill introduced the next film clip, describing how Mississippi’s Singing Brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers, was influenced by black railroad workers and brought the influence of the blues (and yodeling) to country. Secor returned to the stage and energetically strummed a steel resonator guitar on a vaudeville song credited to and recorded by Rodgers in 1928, “He’s in the Jailhouse Now.” (The tune was revived much later in 2000 in the Coen Brothers' film, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?")
Then came the cowboys. After a film clip showed how Gene Autry and Roy Rogers brought cowboy songs to popularity in country music and films, the delightful and talented Riders in the Sky, most of them elderly, in full western regalia, harmonized beautifully on Rodgers’ “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds,” complete with accordion and two-stepping.
Jazz goes country
Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel were next, celebrating western swing and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, who combined jazz and swing with small-town and country themes to the delight of many Texas dancehall-goers, including my own late maternal grandparents who when they were young.
Of all of country’s subgenres, bluegrass is maybe the most soulful, as shown by standard-bearers Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart, both now with silver-gray hair, who were joined by Gill for a tribute version of “Uncle Pen,” by Skaggs’ mentor, the great Bill Monroe. Founder of the genre that grew out of his Kentucky string band that played on the Grand Ole Opry, Monroe was heavily influenced by the pickin’ of his own actual Uncle Pen. (Skaggs got Monroe himself to portray Uncle Pen in Skaggs' 1985 music video for "Country Boy," featuring Monroe buck dancing on a New York subway with breakdancing teenagers looking on. It's ridiculous, and I love it.)
Burns returned to tell us about honky-tonk music, another variety of country music dripping with soul. Hank Williams from Alabama embodied the style more than anyone. “He was the Hillbilly Shakespeare,” Burns remarked. Americana singer Holly Williams then sang a plodding, moving rendition of her grandfather's classic, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” which as Burns has pointed out, is poetry:
Hear that lonesome whippoorwill He sounds too blue to fly That means he's lost the will to live I'm so lonesome I could cry
Did you ever see a night so slow As time goes draggin' by The moon just went behind the clouds
To hide its face and cry
The silence of a falling star Lights up a purple sky And as I wonder where you are I'm so lonesome I could cry I'm so lonesome I could cry I'm so lonesome I could cry
Contemporary country star Dierks Bentley appeared at the podium and noted that in 1954, singers Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash showed up at Sun Studio in Memphis to play music “that combined elements of rhythm and blues with country” to make rockabilly. Marty Stuart, who joined Cash’s touring band after his bluegrass mentor Lester Flatt had passed on, then showed the gifts he had shared as a teenager in Flatt’s band by playing Cash favorite “Orange Blossom Special” solo on mandolin.
“The first records I could ever call my own were by Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash,” Stuart said.
A film clip then showed country legend Brenda Lee as a spritely teenager singing her early, rockin’ hit "Dynamite," which transcends genre. “To me, it was all intertwined,” she said of her style in a clip from the film. “All of a sudden I was rock. … All of a sudden I became country.”
“It’s music. That’s all it is,” she said.
'Crazy' and coal
Much-honored country singer Kathy Mattea then introduced a segment of the show about Patsy Cline, one of country’s most soulful and sultry singers of all time. Mattea inserted that Brenda Lee had toured when she was only 11 with a bill that included Cline, the great George Jones, the Louvin Brothers, and others.
Rhiannon Giddens returned to regale us with Cline’s 1961 classic, “Crazy,” although I would’ve preferred her sing Cline’s “She’s Got You,” which Giddens performed wonderfully on her first solo album.
A film clip showed “Crazy” writer Willie Nelson describing how the song landed with Cline: He played his own earlier version one late night on the jukebox at Tootsie’s bar, still across the alley from the Ryman, for Cline's husband, Charlie. The pair drove straight to her house late that night, and Nelson played it for her after she beckoned him inside.
Around the same time, 2,000 miles away in California’s San Joaquin Valley, a film clip explained, the Bakersfield Sound was being developed by singers Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, “the poet of the common man,” as Burns called him. One-of-a-kind Kentuckian-turned-Californian Dwight Yoakam then ambled on stage in his cowboy hat and tight jeans to sing Haggard’s “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” and Owens' “Streets of Bakersfield,” with whom he’d sung a hit duet with an aged Owens. Dierks Bentley harmonized with Yoakam on the latter.
Singer and Grand Ole Opry member Jeannie Seely introduced the next segment, invoking the names of Sara and Mother Maybelle Carter, two-thirds of the Carter Family, whose recording of “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?” (known today as "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?") and other classics are considered some of the first popular country music recordings, from 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia. (Maybelle also became June Carter Cash’s mother and was a longtime member of Johnny Cash’s group. Incredibly, the guitar she brought to those Bristol sessions is now on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame.)
“Country music already had a history of strong women … in the 60s… (when) more of us were stepping forward…,” Seely said, introducing a segment on the incomparable Loretta Lynn.
“Loretta didn’t consider herself part of any movement,” she said, noting that Lynn’s classic “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ with Lovin’ On Your Mind,” was released in 1967 as the women's and African-American civil rights movements were blossoming. Women country fans “believed someone was speaking for them.”
Seely introduced Mattea, a coal miner’s granddaughter from West Virginia, to sing Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ the brilliant straightforward narrative about growing up in Butcher Holler, Kentucky.
Legendary country singer-songwriter Whisperin' Bill Anderson introduced a concert segment on Kristofferson, a Rhodes Scholar, songwriter and performer who brought new literary sensibilities to Nashville. A film clip showed legendary country singer Charley Pride singing the first verse of “Loving Her Was Easier,” marveling at the narrative in every line.
Then singer Larry Gatlin took a stool and delivered a solemn version of Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down," made a classic by Gatlin's and Kristofferson's late friend Johnny Cash.
Nashville's best storytellers
The next clip showed a welcome look at Nashville’s original alternative songwriters, with a young Guy Clark picking his bluesy “Texas Cookin’." The film pays tribute to some the singers and players who in the 1970s often darkened Guy and his songwriter and painter wife Susanna Clark’s door, including future luminaries Steve Earle, John Hiatt and the fabulous Emmylou Harris. Another of those, Texas-born Rodney Crowell, then beautifully and mournfully sang Townes Van Zandt’s mystical western classic, “Pancho and Lefty,” made perfect by Harris and immortalized by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. Van Zandt was like an eccentric brother to the Clarks and was worshipped by that community of songwriters. (For a fascinating look at Van Zandt, check out the documentary Heartworn Highways, if you haven't already.)
Then talk turned back to Willie. Frustrated with Nashville’s “countrypolitan” trend, Burns' film charts how he’d moved to Austin, where the filmmaker said Nelson found that truck drivers and hippy college students both loved his music.
Willie’s friend Waylon Jennings stayed back in Nashville and rewrote the formula for superstardom, founding the “Outlaw” movement with Willie, songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, and others, all of whom chose songwriting over rhinestoned flash. Waylon hit it big with “Good Hearted Woman,” sung with Willie, sending their collective album “Wanted: Outlaws” album straight to No. 1 on the country charts. In a film clip, the matriarch of country music Hazel Smith let her feelings known about “Good Hearted Woman.”
“Boy, was that a song worth singing!” Smith declared. After that hit, the film’s narrator explains, Waylon felt that real artists no longer needed Nashville. Instead, Jennings said “Nashville needed us.”
Dierks Bentley then stepped back on stage and acquitted himself well on Waylon’s stomping, rocking “battle cry,” as Burns called it, “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” (containing the blunt lyric, “We need a change.”)
Veteran singer-songwriter Connie Smith, also the spouse of Marty Stuart, described coming to Nashville in the 1960s and finding mentors in Lynn and the masterful Dolly Parton, who had come to town the day after she graduated from high school in the Smokey Mountains of East Tennessee.
Gill then stepped forward from the band and performed a stunning version of Parton’s goodbye ode to her producer and TV singing partner Porter Waggoner, “I Will Always Love You,” later made one of popular music’s all-time smashes by Whitney Houston (in yet another example of country’s crossroads).
Marty Stuart returned to the stage to describe the rise of country’s crossover popularity in the 1980s and 90s, re-introducing his friend Skaggs, who in a film clip was shown as a child playing “Ruby…,” the same song brought by Giddens and Secor to start the show. “I didn’t know what she was mad about!” Skaggs said as an adult in the clip, laughing. Then on stage he launched into his 1980s hit, “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’,” reflecting a strong, eternal theme in country music.
Last came a tribute to Johnny Cash and how country music’s many styles show “we’re all in this together,” Burns said. “No one, no one, reminded us of that more than Johnny Cash,” who might have done more than anyone to enshrine country “into something that would last into the ages.”
Rosanne Cash then performed a mournful version of her late father’s “I Still Miss Someone.” An eager standing ovation moved her to tears, hand on her heart as she left the stage.
The ensemble gathered for the closing number, with the audience singing along to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” Burns said the song reflects country’s gospel roots and “offers up the hope that awaits us, by and by.”
(UPDATE: The entire two-hour concert is now available on the PBS website for a limited run.)