Can the circle be unbroken? asks The Carter Family on the opening track of Legacy Recordings’ new 5-CD, 105-song soundtrack to Ken Burns’ epic documentary Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns. The 1935 funeral hymn is a most appropriate way to begin this collection exploring the manifold branches of country music, but the tone on the box set is far from funereal as it gallops from “hillbilly music” to blues, folk, western swing, rockabilly, countrypolitan, outlaw country, and beyond. Country Music is currently airing on PBS stations nationwide, and this set functions as both a companion and a fascinating, standalone survey of the genre in its own right.
The five discs are arranged in rough chronological order, making each one a survey in miniature of a certain period of country history. The first disc primarily covers 1928-1947, representing the first two episodes in the documentary series. The spirit of the yodeling “Singing Brakeman,” Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933), looms large, as does The Carter Family. Hymns, blues, and folk songs all helped shape what we today think of as country music, and they’re all heard here. So are many of the familiar tropes of the genre, from alcohol (Charlie Poole with the North Carolina Ramblers’ “If the River Was Whiskey”) to prison (Rodgers’ “In the Jailhouse Now”) and sickness (“T.B. Blues,” also from Rodgers).
The early recordings (which largely sound vibrant and beautiful, a credit to mastering engineer Vic Anesini) have rawness and grit which gradually smooths out with the appearance of Hollywood’s “Singing Cowboy,” Gene Autry, the western swing band Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, and the vocal group Sons of the Pioneers. There was often a certain romanticized glamour of the West in their recordings, like Autry’s “Home on the Range.” But as the disc illustrates, there was still a divide between “cowboy music” and the slicker forms like western swing with its electric instruments and dash of big-band jazz. Another major figure here is Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, whose rendition of Rodgers’ “Mule Skinner Blues” closes the first disc. The strains of both joy and despair run prominently throughout these influential songs. Note that Burns and his fellow compilers give full due, too, to the often-unsung female pioneers of the country genre including Martha Carson, The Coon Creek Girls, Patsy Montana, and the women of the Carter Family.
Disc Two, the soundtracks to Episodes 3 and 4, introduces many talents with whom we’re still intimately familiar today: Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold (“The Tennessee Plowboy”), Flatt and Scruggs, Johnny Cash, Ray Price, Marty Robbins, Patsy Cline, and Willie Nelson. Williams (1923-1953) dominates the program, with five songs as artist and one more as songwriter (“Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” as sung by Brenda Lee). This underscores Williams’ impossible-to-understate influence as a writer. His craft broadened the scope of country music, combining indelible imagery with universal themes that appealed to a wider audience than once thought possible. It wasn’t for nothing that he was referred to as The Hillbilly Shakespeare; songs like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Hey, Good Lookin'” are even today an inextricable part of the cultural lexicon.
Other highlights here include Marty Robbins’ folk ballad-styled “El Paso,” Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire,” and the trio of songs which introduce Willie Nelson as a jobbing songwriter: Ray Price’s “Night Life,” Faron Young’s “Hello, Walls,” and Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” Nelson, like Williams before him, tapped into the genre in a way that made it accessible to all. “Night Life” attracted covers from artists like America’s sweetheart, Doris Day; Cline’s “Crazy” crossed over to the Billboard top 10 Pop chart and No. 2 Easy Listening. Burns and co. further cleverly demonstrate how the borders of country were evaporating with Ray Charles’ immortal “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and The Everly Brothers’ C&W-influenced rocker “Bye Bye Love.”
Well, dang me! Come the 1960s, a new crop of country songwriters and performers was making waves in Nashville (by 1960, the second-largest recording capital in America after only Los Angeles, per Colin Escott’s fine essay here) and elsewhere as seen in Episodes 5 and 6 and chronicled on Disc Three of the box set. Roger Miller brought his quirky sense of humor to the genre, Cash made country hip, and Loretta Lynn took no prisoners with her powerful attitude. Yet there were sharp divisions, too. RCA’s Nashville head Chet Atkins – not coincidentally one of the most influential guitarists in popular music history, though he’s not represented here as a solo artist – was steering C&W in the direction of pop with his Nashville Sound of lush vocal choirs, strings, and pop trappings. 2,000 or so miles away in Bakersfield, California, Buck Owens was doing just the opposite, practicing his devotion to fiddles and traditional honky-tonk sounds. But, as Country Music amply proves, the genre had room for both styles, and more. Owens’ Bakersfield brother Merle Haggard (with whom Buck shared a wife – not at the same time, naturally!) would develop the persona that helped create “outlaw” country. Bob Dylan and The Byrds were just two of the rock artists who brought the country sound to their own productions; the set features The Byrds’ harmony-filled take on Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” as well as Dylan’s own duet with Johnny Cash on the folk-inspired “Girl from the North Country.”
This compelling disc also introduces Charley Pride, a Chet Atkins signing who helped open the door to African-Americans in the country field, and key figures like Tammy Wynette, George Jones, and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. But most significant might well be Kris Kristofferson, whose unconventional approach to songwriting shook Music City to its core. His own recordings of “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down” are featured here, along with Sammi Smith’s crossover hit interpretation of “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Kristofferson was a true outlaw, while the alluringly dangerous image was burnished, too, by Johnny Cash. His song “Man in Black” gave him a nickname that would stick with him through his death and after that, too. The Country Music soundtrack doesn’t answer what Merle Haggard really meant by “Okie from Muskogee,” but it’s here as a vivid illustration of the period in which it was written.
“Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” asked Waylon Jennings on the opening track of Disc Four, covering Episode 7. While country had moved on in many respects from the days of Hank Williams, the writers for whom he opened the door were crafting new masterworks in their own styles. Chief among these young talents was Dolly Parton, who emerged from the shadow of Porter Wagoner with such gorgeous, well-crafted compositions as the pair selected here, “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You.” Parton became an industry unto herself, but never sacrificed her musical integrity in doing so. Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt epitomize the modern country folksinger, while Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris represent the height of country-rock, or “cosmic American music” if you’d prefer. Willie Nelson appears numerous times on this disc as an artist having come into his own, while Hank Williams, Jr. and Rosanne Cash carried on the family tradition, drinking in rock and pop influences alongside the traditional music that flowed in their veins. There’s plenty of cross-pollination on this disc, with Emmylou Harris covering Rodney Crowell (“Bluebird Wine”), Crowell producing Rosanne Cash (“Seven Year Ache”), and Nelson and Merle Haggard doing Van Zandt (“Pancho and Lefty”) underscoring the documentary’s themes of family and connections in the community.
The final disc here, a companion to Episode 8, covers the 1980s – another transitional period for country. The slick sounds that informed country were, in a way, an extension of the Nashville Sound with its pop stylings; one could argue that the tracks on this disc paved the way for today’s world of top 40 Country acts like Florida Georgia Line, Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum, and Jason Aldean. (Not to mention country-rapper Lil Nas X, whose “Old Town Road,” featuring Billy Ray Cyrus, topped the Hot 100 for a record-breaking nineteen weeks – and has controversially been excluded from the Country survey. As ever, the sound of country keeps changing…) So, you’ll hear artists like George Strait, Reba McEntire, Kathy Mattea, Vince Gill, Guy Clark disciple Steve Earle, and Trisha Yearwood as well as Bakersfield Sound devotee Dwight Yoakam and mother-and-daughter duo The Judds. Many of these artists were traditionalists, canny enough to keep the old style alive within a new sonic framework. This box set concludes with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s version of the song that started the set, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Full circle, indeed.
Country Music: The Soundtrack is housed in an attractive slipcase emblazoned with the film’s artwork. The discs are housed in slots within a folder illustrated with classic country posters, and a squarebound, 70-page booklet is also included. It boasts essays by Burns, documentary writer Dayton Duncan and producer Julie Dunfey; Bill C. Malone; Colin Escott; and Tamara Saviano as well as credits and discography for each track.
Some major artists are noticeably missing from these five discs, including Chet Atkins, Porter Wagoner, Jim Reeves, Glen Campbell, Garth Brooks, The Oak Ridge Boys, and Kenny Rogers (to name a few), but Burns acknowledges that. As he writes, “Like our film, this isn’t meant to be the definitive catalogue of country music’s sweeping history. It constitutes our best effort at providing a representative sampling of some of the classic songs, performed by some of the music’s greatest artists.” On those counts, this collection succeeds admirably. Whether to remind you of a favorite moment in the documentary or simply as a standalone sampler, Country Music: The Soundtrack is a vivid reminder of the power of this quintessentially American genre.
Country Music: The Soundtrack is available from Legacy Recordings in a variety of formats:
5CD: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
2CD: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
2LP: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
Red, White & Blue Swirl Vinyl with Ken Burns signature: Barnes & Noble