The documentary snuck up on me. I don’t think I realized it was a thing until less than a week before it debuted, but everyone from my in-laws to my Vanderbilt tailgate crew to my Alabama relations asked if I was watching it. And I spent a good chunk of the spring re-watching the entirety of the Ken Burns Baseball documentary, so sixteen hours on the history of country music? Sure, I’ll give it a whirl.
This is a masterpiece.
I was raised on country music, obviously. WZZK, the powerhouse FM country station, was the soundtrack of most of my life from the time it went on-air until 1983 or so, and three years in Nashville sent me to WSM-AM occasionally, and when I was in DC I often found myself riding around to Eddie Stubbs on WAMU, sending a bluegrass show back to his old patch from Nashville, but I hadn’t really been plugged into it in any meaningful way for a long, long time. Not least because the current state of country music is kind of dire, what with bro-country as the newest Nashville Sound. Insert generic pickup truck dirt road cutoff jeans beer drinking here.
But in the background of everything is the fact that country music is what my family was raised on, from the forties to when I was born. I knew that it all went back to the Carter Family, and that a Vanderbilt professor once told me that if modern media existed in the 1930s that Elvis Presley would have spent his career as a third-rate Jimmie Rodgers impersonator, but I don’t think I ever grasped how Ralph Peer was basically the midwife of the popular music recording industry – or how the Bristol sessions were the Big Bang of country music. But I didn’t see the line of history. Jimmie Rodgers gives the world the singing cowboy as a concept, and thus Gene Autry, but also inspires Ernest Tubb (far more influential than I realized) and Hank Williams. I had no idea what a star Roy Acuff was in the 1940s, the bridge between the hillbilly Opry of Deford Bailey and Uncle Dave Macon and the cementing of Nashville as the capital of country music. I don’t think I’d ever heard of the Maddox Brothers and Rose, let alone that they were from Alabama and made their way to California during the depression – through the Bay Area, natch.
And you could see the path. The Irish music I gravitated to these last twenty years, colliding with the songs of African slaves and freedmen. Fiddle meets banjo meets mandolin and guitar. You could make a case that the proto-American music first divided into hillbilly and jazz, based on whether it was rural or urban. Then hillbilly went west, found drums and electricity and the Mexican border, and became western and then honky-tonk, while hillbilly carromed off the black blues and became bluegrass, and then when that western music washed back up on the blues in Memphis, became rock and roll. Hank Williams Jr isn’t wrong when he points out that “Rock Around The Clock” is basically “Move It On Over.”
The funny thing is, as early as a few days before the series started, I glanced right past the “Boot Liquor” channel on SomaFM for “Americana” and roots music. Now it’s at the top of my favorites list. Willie’s Roadhouse on SiriusXM is in the preset where Yacht Rock was all summer. And I’ve rewatched the first two episodes over and over. It took me ages to get around to the final episode (which my wife still hasn’t seen) just because I didn’t want it to end – and because the seventh episode, all of which is basically living memory for me, was kind of a wrench in ways I wasn’t expecting.
Because this is the music of my people. This is the music that came down from the holler in East Tennessee and up from the cotton patch in north Alabama. This is music that came from the whole of the South, white and black alike, music that spoke of sin and redemption, of the assurance of better days in the middle of hard times. This is my patrimony. This is my inheritance. This is something that I didn’t realize was missing from my life, a part of the puzzle, something I can call my own – and something that makes me wish I’d gone to the Bluebird more than once, or the Ryman more than once (and for an actual show, not a play), or the Exit/In or the Grand Old Opry at all.
I don’t even have to engage with the new stuff if I don’t want to. There are plenty of people still making it in the old ways, bluegrass pickers and Neo-traditionalists and Old Crow Medicine Show and a talented young woman from North Carolina named Rhiannon Giddens fronting out a band called Carolina Chocolate Drops who I’ll definitely be playing now. And there’s something as simple as Jimmie Rodgers singing from ninety-one years in the past, about hanging around a water tank waiting for a train, that still hits the nail on the head about being a long way from home and slowly finding your way back.
It’s a good thing to have again.