Country Music – A Film By Ken Burns – Universal Music Group, *****:

by | Oct 21, 2019 | Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews | 0 comments

Country Music – A Film By Ken Burns – Deluxe 5 CD Soundtrack + 698-page booklet – Universal Music Group, *****:

(Featuring the music of The Carter Family; Jimmy Rodgers; Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys; Johnny Cash; Dolly Parton; Loretta Lynn; Bill Monroe And The Blue Grass Boys; George Jones; Tammy Wynette; Patsy Cline; Willie Nelson; Emmylou Harris; Kris Kristofferson; Buck Owens; Merle Haggard; Charley Pride; Roy Acuff, Waylon Jennings and many others)

Ken Burns’ latest PBS documentary Country Music is a comprehensive look at the origins and legacy of an American cultural genre. Exploring a century of history, archival performance footage, photographs and interviews with stars like Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Roseann Cash, Dwight Yoakam and a host of others, the common threads and musical dynamics of this complicated phenomenon are celebrated. Originally marginalized as “hilbilly” music (and recorded on “race” labels), country performers experienced the dichotomy of embracing their hardscrabble roots and trying to crossover as mainstream. This 16 hour documentary is an affectionate, quasi-defensive retrospective of  intrinsic storytelling that defines country music. As many of the interviewees intone…”Listen to the songs”. And the music is what elevates Country Music as entertainment.

Sony/Universal has released a 5-CD collection of songs from the documentary. The selections vary from primitive recordings of the 1920’s to the mid 90’s. With over 100 songs, the various styles of country music are on display in linear chronological sequence. Disc One focuses on re-mastered 78’s that showcase influential performers. In particular, The Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers (“The Singing Brakeman”) are featured. Hearing Sara Carter and her cousin Maybelle (also on lead guitar) harmonize on “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” and “Wildwood Flower” is a vivid reminder of the Appalachian/gospel spirituality inherent in this culture. “Keep On The Sunnyside” is joyous. At the other “honky tonkin’” end of the spectrum, Rodgers yodels away on “Blue Yodel No. 9”and “Mule Skinner Blues”. His humorous take on dubious lifestyle,”In The Jailhouse Now” is timeless.  Bluegrass pioneers Bob Wills (“Whoa Babe”) and Bill Monroe (“Mule Skinner Blues”) with the help of Opry stalwart Roy Acuff (“Wabash Cannonball”) breeze into Disc Two. Here, the greatest country singer of all time Hank Williams takes over. “Honky Tonkin’”, “Lovesick Blues”, “I Saw The Light” and the best ode to solitude, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is a fitting testament to the influence of the Hillbilly Shakespeare. “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” (popularized in the Bonnie And Clyde flick) is bluegrass magic. The songs on this soundtrack are simply brilliant and moving. “Long Black Veil” (Lefty Frisell), “I Fall To Pieces” (Patsy Cline), “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (Ray Charles”), “Hello Walls” (Faron Young) and “El Paso” (Marty Robbins) are just a few gems. Another key individual, Johnny Cash is introduced with “I Walk The Line” and “Ring Of Fire”. His deep baritone and multi-dimensional musical approach set him apart from his peers. Of course “Folsom Prison Blues” is included.

As the 60’s evolve, the listener experiences Bakersfield with Buck Owens (“I’ve Got a Tiger By The Tail”) and Merle Haggard (“Mama Tried”/“Hungry Eyes”). Female songwriters are an important element to country. Loretta Lynn (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”/“Don’t Come Home A’ Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind”) was a trendsetter that led to ensuing female artists. The inimitable George Jones (“She Thinks I Still Care”/“He Stopped Loving Her Today”) and his wife Tammy Wynette (“Stand By Your Man”) are unforgettable. Mainstream success helped introduce country music to rock audiences. Kris Kristofferson (“Me And Bobby McGee”/“Sunday Morning Coming Down”) conveys an articulate elegance to composition. And the venerable Johnny Cash teams up with Bob Dylan on “Girl From The North Country”. Icon Dolly Parton livens up Disc Four with “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You”. Duets are represented with eternal standards like “We’re Gonna Hold On” (George Jones/Tammy Wynette). The outlaw movement gets its due with Waylon Jennings (“Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”/“It’s Been A Long Time Leaving/But I’ll Be A Long Time Gone”) and several Willie Nelson numbers (“Whiskey River”/“Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”/“On The Road Again”). He and Jennings team up on two classics, “Pancho And Lefty” and “Good Hearted Woman” Lesser known singers like Townes Van Zandt (“If I Needed You”), Guy Clark (“Texas Cookin’”) and Gram Parsons (“Love Hurts”, a duet with reverse crossover folk singer Emmylou Harris) are a welcome addition. The final disc is devoted to “modern” sounds. Ricky Skaggs (“Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’”), Dwight Yoakam (“Honky Tonk Man”), Vince Gill (“Go Rest High On That Mountain”), Keith Whitley (I’m No Stranger To The Rain”) and Roseanne Cash (“Tennessee Flat Top Box”) carry on the troubadour essence. The musical history lesson concludes with a reprise of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Country Music by Ken Burns is a great film. And this soundtrack may be the best part!

CD 1: Will There Circle Be Unbroken (Bye And Bye); Mule Skinner Blues/Blue Yodel No. 8; Barbara Allen; I’ll Fly Away; If The River Was Whiskey; Fox Chase; Blue Yodel No. 9 (Standin’ On The Corner); Wildwood Flower; In The Jailhouse Now; Comin’ Round The Mountain; Pretty Polly; T.B. Blues; Mountain Dew; Home On The Range; I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart; Tumbling Tumbleweeds; Keep On The Sunny Side/I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes; The Great Speckled Bird; Whoa Babe; New San Antonio Rose; Wabash Cannon Ball; Mule Skinner Blues

CD 2: Honky Tonkin’ It’s Mighty Dark To Travel; New Mule Skinner Blues; I’ll Hold You In My Heart (Till I Can Hold You In My Heart); Foggy Mountain Breakdown; Molly And Tenbrook; Lovesick Blues; I Saw The Light; Hey Good Lookin’; It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels; I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry; Jambalaya (On The Bayou); New Step It Up And Go; I Walk The Line; Crazy Arms; Bye Bye Love; The Long Black Veil; Hello Walls; I Fall To Pieces; Ring Of Fire; Crazy; I Can’t Stop Loving You

CD 3: Dang Me; I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail; Don’t Come Home A’ Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind); Coal Miner’s Daughter; Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’; Hungry Eyes; Mama Tried; Harper Valley P.T.A.; Don’t Touch Me; Folsom Prison Blues; Stand By Your Man; She Thinks I Still Care; You Ain’t Going Nowhere; Me And Bobby McGee; Help Me Make It Through The Night; Sunday Morning Coming Down; Okie From Muskogee; Man In Black; Girl From The North Country; Grand Ole Opry Song; Will The Circle Be Unbroken

CD 4: Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way; Mule Skinner Blues (Blue Yodel No. 8); Jolene; I Will Always Love You; We’re Gonna Hold On; Texas Cookin’; If I Needed You; I Can’t Stop Loving You; I’ve Been A Long Time Leaving (But I’ll Be A Long Time Gone); Love Hurts (Live); Boulder To Birmingham; Bluebird Wine; Whiskey River; Miles And Miles Of Texas; Blue Eyes Cryin’ In The Rain; Good Hearted Woman; Family Tradition; Seven Year Ache; Pancho And Lefty; He Stopped Loving Her Today

CD 5: Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’; On The Road Again; Amarillo By Morning; Somebody Should Leave; Diggin’ Up Bones; Why Not Me; Honky Tonk Man; Streets Of Bakersfield; Where You’ve Been; I’m No Stranger To The Rain; Go Rest High On That Mountain; Guitar Town; She’s In Love With The Boy; Tennessee Flat Top Box; Get Up John; Uncle Pen; I Still Miss Someone Will The Circle Be Unbroken

-Robbie Gerson

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