America’s Music: The Roots of Country

TBS, June 29

By Chris Varias

Television has always been a great simplifier. So when television devotes time to cover a major topic, it’s bound to be a bit disappointing. A documentary series can’t tell the whole story, and as the scope of a topic is widened, more detail gets left out. If the filmmaker wants to take a more conceptual approach to the subject, addressing various unifying themes and traits, significant individuals are sure to be absent. And just as often the filmmaker’s prejudice shows through. There’s nothing wrong with a filmmaker’s perspective informing his work, but it can be limiting when the work purports to be broad and all-encompassing. Think of the recent small-screen histories of baseball and rock ‘n’ roll, both told with a distinctly Northeastern accent.

Robert Oermann, the writer of America’s Music: The Roots of Country, a six-hour series that will be reshown in its entirety this Saturday on cable network TBS from 11 AM to 5 PM, doesn’t exactly sail through the dilemmas of scope and prejudice, but he doesn’t entirely stumble over them either. He tries to dole out coverage based on merit and significance. Ultimately, though, he’s bit off more than he can chew, so the results are unsatisfying. If the folk revival of the 1950s and ’60s–which was resurrecting music that Nashville had long understood–gets an entire hour, surely Hank Williams shouldn’t be relegated to a fraction of one episode on the “Honky Tonk Kings and Queens.” And where’s Conway Twitty? Twitty’s talent might be questionable, but he has the most number ones in country history, and few would disagree that he’s better than Brenda Lee and Eddy Arnold, who are all over this production.

The Roots of Country illustrates where some of country’s ingredients came from (folk tunes from the British Isles, gospel from the Pentecostal church, the banjo from Africa, and so forth), but it doesn’t nail down how they came together. Moreover, blues music’s contribution is greatly underrated. Narrator Kris Kristofferson hints that there was something black about Jimmie Rodgers’s music, and Hank Williams Jr. says that his daddy’s music teacher was a black singer named Teetot. It goes without saying that these acknowledgments are not enough. Black music has affected just about every style of country music. If there were no 12-bar blues, there would be no David Lee Murphy singles.

Oermann makes up for historical shortcomings with some insightful profiles of big country stars and interviews with an odd mix of performers. In keeping with the Nashville tradition, no one really bad-mouths anyone else, but pictures and comments at times slyly undermine the subject. Take, for example, the profile of Roy Acuff. Acuff was the Vince Gill of his day–a bland, buttoned-down industry favorite whose schmoozing was just as vital to his career as his songs. Here, he’s credited for shifting the focus of country songwriting to the vocalist, but nobody has anything nice to say about his music. A clip of Acuff on the stage of Ryman Auditorium, swapping yucks with Richard Nixon, makes him look silly.

At other times Oermann allows the stars to yammer away, mouthing the worst cliches without being challenged. Hot country boy Rick Trevino, a breathing slab of processed cheese adorned in a purple Oxford and a black cowpoke hat, reckons, “I think paying attention to the roots of country music is extremely important. I mean, the authenticity of country music isn’t really as evident as it used to be.” Shoot. What does Trevino know about authenticity? Historical knowledge may augment talent, but it’s no substitute for heart and soul. Sappy snoozers like Trevino couldn’t be made right if Buck Owens strung his guitar and offered a private tutorial.

Billy Dean, Trevino’s close cousin in the dairy-products family, should be commended for trying to prove his credentials with a ridiculous story. After reading that his hero Merle Haggard used to hop freights around the country to see Lefty Frizzell, Dean says he decided to take a freight-train pilgrimage to Haggard’s California home. Billy hopped a train, which went three miles to the end of town, turned around, went back three miles, and stopped. “Freight trains, they don’t go cross country no more,” Dean concludes. “I told Haggard that story when I got a chance to work with him this year, and I’ve never seen him laugh so hard.”

There are some spots with genuine insight. Profiles of Ernest Tubb and Patsy Cline are done particularly well. Tubb’s credited with popularizing the electric guitar in country. He helped Cline, Hank Williams, and Loretta Lynn get on to the Grand Ole Opry, and generally comes off as a nurturing presence. We learn that when Tubb was on his deathbed he gave Willie Nelson a call to see if there were any jobs for members of his out-of-work band. We also get to see Tubb picking his classic “I’m Walking the Floor Over You.”

Cline sometimes seems sentimental and syrupy on wax, but here we see that she was a shrewd player who understood the business. “She didn’t like slow songs, because fast ones had always done her good for bread and butter,” says Ray Walker, a Jordanaire. Faron Young says, “I loved Patsy Cline for one good reason. She was tough. She’d get in a limousine or a bus with a bunch of guys and somebody’d start smartin’ her off. She could smart you off right back. She didn’t take no baloney off of nobody.” But then a jive-ass, dragged-out version of “Crazy” by Lari White brings the viewer back to thoughts of syrup.

The Roots of Country has moments of honesty and revelation but not enough. Often it wants to be honest without being difficult. Legend remains intact. Controversy regarding today’s Nashville sound is kept low. Ray Price calls the music 1970s rock ‘n’ roll, and you’re left to assume he’s not a fan of Boston or Wings. He’s not only saying it’s without roots, he’s saying it blows. Leave it to Haggard to lay it down plain and simple: “There’s something emotional about country music, or at least there was. I’m a little worried about that part of country music. I hear a lot of people in tune, and I hear a lot of perfect records, but I don’t hear a lot of emotion.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Hank Williams from Les Leverett Collection.