Ken Burns’ Country Music

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I listen to a wide variety of musical styles and one of my favorites is what I call Old Timey. This general label can include early blues, ragtime, folk, jug band and early country. So I eagerly anticipated Ken Burns’ latest documentary, titled simply Country Music. Little did I realize that my version of reality was about to be blown up like a trout in a mountain lake. 

Volume One of this monumental work looks at the folks who invented what we have come to know as country music, including the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry. Beautiful photographs mix with audio recordings and narrated histories. Although I’m more familiar with this music than many people, I still found myself watching with wonderment, learning stories (including scandals) that I’d not known, feeling as if I were present in the photos, cipherin’ the importance of individual performers.

For example, I did not know that Maybelle Carter, guitarist for the Carter Family, created her own style of guitar picking called, among other things, the thumb brush. Or that Jimmie Rodgers was so weak from tuberculosis during his final recording session that he had to rest on a cot between takes. And that Gene Autry’s singing cowboy films were vitally important in spreading country music to a national audience.

Someone I do know a bit about is Mr. Hank Williams, whose short but fertile career began to unfold in the 1940s. From his first hit in 1948 to his death in 1953, Williams created a litany of country standards that continue to be popular 70 years later. Outstanding songwriting skills and an appealing voice were the perfect combination to catapult Hank to stardom. But it was perhaps his lyrics that drew in listeners. Tales of heartache and ways to combat said heartache spoke to people in a way that popular music seldom did.

Country Music moves on to tell of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs developing a new style called bluegrass, of Elvis Presley and others taking country in a new direction that would eventually become rock and roll, and of Ray Charles’ importance in popularizing country with the release of his album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. The amount of information in this documentary is phenomenal and we’ve only scratched the surface today. And, there’s also a Volume Two!

Part of the beauty of country music, and American music in general, is the combination of influences. Nobody woke up on a Tuesday and said, “Ah, I think I’ll invent country music!” American folk music, which is derived from European folk music, along with African influences, blues, jazz and swing all had an impact on the growth of country. For example, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys modeled themselves after swing bands, employing horn sections, drums, instrumental solos and a swing feel. And in the early 1950s honky tonk, boogie woogie and country, as well as other genres, coalesced into rockabilly and then rock and roll. It’s all intertwined.

So sit back and prepare to be stunned. Volume One is about eight hours of viewing time, so make sure you have a comfy chair and an adequate supply of beverages. And do not sit too close to the screen as this is bad for your eyes. And please, as always, allow time for bathroom breaks.

More Favorite Music From 2017

Welcome to Part 2 of my favorite 2017 albums. Today we explore the varied worlds of punk, country and blues. As always, please do not adjust your sets until the transmission is complete.

Punk, in various forms and incarnations, is alive and well. Whether it be straight ahead, Celtic or post-punk (I know, this is a stretch), it can be found on an album released in 2017.

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Seekers and Finders by Gogol Bordello
Question: What do you get when you combine elements of traditional Gypsy music with punk, dub and other genres? Answer: A passel of fun known as Gogol Bordello. If you’re looking for something unusual and exciting, Seekers and Finders is a good place to start.

11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory by Dropkick Murphys
Speaking of unusual mergers, Celtic music and punk make for a powerful combination. Dropkick Murphys have a catalog of solid albums and the latest does not disappoint.

Life is Good by Flogging Molly
Speaking of Celtic punk… Well, Flogging Molly is another band that creates outstanding music by mixing diffuse and disparate sources. Their emphasis is a bit more on the Celtic end of the spectrum, a reeling and rollicking mix of dancing and drinking tunes.

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English Tapas by Sleaford Mods
Demonstrating a minimalist approach reminiscent of early punk/post-punk groups such as The Adverts and The Raincoats, Sleaford Mods take a traditional punk stance on lyrics. Their groovy, repetitive songs touch on subjects ranging from unemployment to social injustices. For a truly unusual and excellent 2017 album, check this one out.

Nothing Feels Natural by Priests
Perhaps the most unusual of these 2017 releases, Nothing Feels Natural borrows elements of funk, darkwave, post-punk and a variety of other genres. Strongly political lyrics combine with this mix of styles to create a riveting and infectious album.

Country music and blues also flourished in 2017.

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Down Hearted Blues by Eilen Jewell
Eilen Jewell takes her amazing, honey-infused voice and turns it loose on blues and country for her latest album. The tunes, they are great and the performances, they are superb. Sure to please even the most curmudgeonly.

50 Years of Blonde on Blonde by Old Crow Medicine Show
This live tribute to Bob Dylan, served up with a typical OCMS old timey flavor, has a little something for everyone. Whether you love bluegrass or love Zimbo (the internets assure me that this is a Bob Dylan nickname) you are certain to love this album.

Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm by Robert Cray
Straight from the guitar of Portland blues legend Robert Cray we find a new release filled to the brim with soulful licks and catchy tunes. Cray continues to put out high-quality material nearly 40 years after his debut.

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Northern Passages by Sadies
Perhaps you’re not ready to commit to full-on country music. The Sadies deliver another great platter of alt-country tunes, which is a fancy way of saying music with some sort of country flavor. If you like the band Cracker, this might be just what the psychiatrist ordered.

Rough Guide to Jug Band Blues by Various Artists
Speaking of old-timey, this collection of jug band tunes from the 1920s and 1930s is a must-listen for blues and country enthusiasts. A fine collection of songs presented in their raw and original form.

The Last Shade of Blue Before Black by Original Blues Brothers Band
Including only one member of the Blues Brothers band, the Original Blues Brothers Band, along with many guests from the original Blues Brothers band (get it?), have put together a fine album of, well, blues. Check out this unexpected gem.

And there you have it. Great music never went away, but you might have to hunt a bit to find it. And perhaps, oh I don’t know, Everett Public Library is a good place to start? As always, check it out.

The Queen of the Blues

One of my favorite albums of 2017 is, surprisingly, made up entirely of old blues covers. Typically, I’m attracted to artists who produce original music. However, as a performer, I love creating exciting arrangements of other people’s songs. If a cover is simply a faithful reproduction of the original, it holds little interest for me. But if it provides a new take, a different feel, startling insights… wellsir, that can make for some mighty fine music.

JewellEilen Jewell, who created this album, is an amazing singer, with a sultry voice reminiscent of Sarah Vaughan or Madeline Peyroux. Her music is typically categorized as country, although it contains a variety of other influences. For her 2017 release, Down Hearted Blues, Jewell borrows songs from some of blues’ greatest artists: Lonnie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, Little Walter and Otis Rush, among others. The result is both an enjoyable listen and a delightful lesson in music history.

The album opens with Charles Sheffield’s It’s Your Voodoo Working, a song that defies any attempts at listener immobility. This tune is a perfect match for Jewell’s seductive vocalizations. Not to be outdone, the instrumentalists provide some of the finest chops this side of Chesapeake Bay.

Alberta Hunter’s Down Hearted Blues is transformed into a Hank Williams Sr. soundalike, oozing those white country blues in treacly globules of gratification. Here the band is at its finest, making a seamless transition from blues to country. Of all the songs on the album, this title track is the least similar to the original.

Next up is Clarence Johnson and Betty James’ I’m a Little Mixed Up, here delivered as a mixture of bottleneck blues, rockabilly Travis-style picking and a Texas two-step. The original, performed by Betty James in 1961, sets up more of an early R&B feel, but this updating of the song is equally delicious.

For a different beast altogether, look no further than Don’t Leave Poor Me, originally sung by Big Maybelle in 1955. Here we find Latin-tinged percussion, strong vocals and killer distorted guitar. The band is once again impeccable, demonstrating a keen agility to move convincingly between styles.

Finally on today’s whirlwind tour, The Poor Girl’s Story is a song that was recorded by Moonshine Kate, one of the first female country performers to be recorded, in the early 1930s. Jewell and her band take this tune on an authentic old-timey acoustic ramble through America’s musical heartland, complete with unwashed men riding the rails and folks heading west to escape poverty and dust.

In short, Down Hearted Blues is one of the finest albums of 2017. Whether you like blues, country, folk or simply fine musicianship, this one is worth a spin. And don’t forget to check out the originals as well. Jewell said of this album, “We really love to uncover the past. It’s almost like digging for buried treasure.” And here she has already done the grunt work for you. So sit back and enjoy this treasure.

Both Kinds of Music

“Oh, we got both kinds [of music] … country and western.”

This sentiment from The Blues Brothers movie neatly encapsulates my understanding of country music in 1980. 

The first time I saw a record album by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys I mercilessly made fun of my friend Dave for purchasing cowboy music. (Of course, I also made fun of him for buying a [now valuable] Gretsch Chet Atkins Country Gentleman guitar, but that’s not relevant to this story.) Having grown up in a household overflowing with the vocal stylings of Tammy Wynette and Charley Pride, my tolerance for what I assumed to be country music was quite low. How much I had to learn.

Some years later, for obscure reasons lost in the annals of time, I checked out a Bob Wills record from my local public library. The album, a prime example of Western swing, quickly became and remains one of my favorites. Ultimately my friend Dave was proved to be right (and he still has a very cool guitar).

Western swing, kind of a cross between country and big band, features cowboy singers, fiddlers, pedal steel guitar, a horn section, and sometimes even drums. The music is often referred to as “hot,” indicating speedy tempos and virtuosic soloing. Lyrics typically focus on rural life in the south of a bygone time. If you like big band but shudder uncontrollably at the thought of country music, you might be surprised to find yourself digging Western swing. Conversely, if you wear cowboy boots and sing Ricky Skaggs in the shower but find jazz to be a fruitless exercise in musical narcissism, you might still find enough country in Western swing to float your Conastoga.

Although Western swing flourished between the 1920’s  and 1940’s, it still lives on today in groups such as Hot Club of Cowtown and Asleep at the Wheel. Here are a few titles available at Everett Public Library.

 Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys 1935-1947         

Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – Tiffany Transcriptions Vol. 9

 Al Clauser and his Oklahoma Outlaws           Speedy West – Stratosphere Boogie

Hot Club of Cowtown – Wishful Thinking

Asleep at the Wheel

Ron