The history of country music

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During the busy run-up to Christmas I became aware that BBC television was putting out a total of eight one-hour programs culled and edited from the Ken Burns ‘County Music’ series, of which I guess you have seen the full version in the States. Saving the programs on the hard drive for future reference I was able to return to them during the post-Christmas lull and had time to give them the attention they deserved.

The experience has confirmed my feeling that country music cannot really be categorised. As a teenager I never knew quite what the term meant. If pushed I would have said, back in the early 60s, that Jim Reeves was obviously country, but how could Elvis be country, surely he was rock ‘n’ roll? And how could the Beatles be country, they were Merseybeat – at least until ‘Sergeant Pepper’.

Half a century later I’m wary of rigid categorisation. Ken Burns has produced a glorious spread of music and film from the 1920s onwards which is worthy of the attention of anyone who has the slightest interest in the history and development of popular music in the 20th century. Of course I was particularly drawn to the first few programs, which included the Carter Family and Bill Monroe, though I was a bit disappointed that (at any rate in the BBC offering) there wasn’t much attention given to further developments in bluegrass. The ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken’ album of 1972 got the nod for bringing together earlier and later generations of players, from Maybelle Carter onwards. And Ricky Skaggs’ move into mainstream country music in the 1980s was also featured.

As you may have gathered from my previous columns I am a sucker for musical documentaries of all kinds. I am always interested to hear the artists themselves making pertinent and revealing comments about their music and their lives. A particular moment for me was when Kris Kristofferson revealed that in his student days his father had disapproved of his musical activities as not being appropriate for someone brought up in a respectable professional family, where the kids were presumably required to become ‘doctors and lawyers and business executives’. Fortunately for the rest of us Kris resisted the pressure to give up his music, and became one of the most influential songwriters and performers in the business.

Ken Burns’ series draws on a rich variety of country music and its historical, social and political significance. If by any chance you have not seen it yet, make sure that you do in 2020. It has given me a greater awareness of what composers, singers and instrumentalists have been able to achieve over the years with three chords and the truth. I wish you all every happiness and success in continuing this tradition in the New Year!

John Baldry January 202

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