“What’s country?” and “Who’s country?”
September 10, 2019 6:59 AM   Subscribe

 
I am so excited for this. Time to listen to some Jason Isbell while I wait.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 7:04 AM on September 10 [3 favorites]


Super interesting, thank you! I definitely want to check out the documentary.

It is such a potentially great moment for women in country music right now. The new Highwomen album is truly great. Also, Yola, who is featured on the first track of that album, is opening for Kacey Musgraves on her tour right now, and blew the socks off the show I saw last night. Margo Price is producing a new Jessi Colter album. The Dixie Chicks are recording a new album. Let's hope radio stations wake up and start putting women in some serious rotation.
posted by hepta at 7:06 AM on September 10 [10 favorites]


I hope he doesn't just parrot Wynton Marsalis' opinions on country music.
posted by thelonius at 7:08 AM on September 10 [18 favorites]


I hope he doesn't just parrot Wynton Marsalis' opinions on country music.

He'll find country's equivalent spokesman, I'm pretty sure of it. I don't hate Burns, but does tend to sand the eccentric, the undigestable, the thorny (and creepy and the just plain weird), and the difficult to classify off of what he tackles, and I doubt if this will be any different.

There is plenty of that in country music, obviously.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:18 AM on September 10 [10 favorites]


I think a fair amount of people are going to be surprised to find that country music isn't as stale as they thought. It's just that the rawer, less slick, more relatable, and more diverse stuff has been siloed out as "Americana."

Honestly, it's not that different than when the boomers behind AOR insisted the college rock of the late 80's/90's needed to siloed out as "Alternative."
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:20 AM on September 10 [10 favorites]


I have had this diarized in my calendar for most of this past year. I'm a fan -- not of everything, mostly the old timers -- and I'm looking forward to learning a lot more and getting some much-needed context.

The other night, they had a preview concert on about this, and I was already Emotionally Involved.
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:23 AM on September 10 [5 favorites]


Robert Johnson and Hank Sr are the yin and yang of Americana
posted by NoMich at 7:25 AM on September 10 [3 favorites]


"Burns’ film arrives at a time when a larger question — whose country is it? — stands as one of the most daunting challenges to our nation’s health, a hate-fueled sword sharper than any since the Civil War and Reconstruction. “Country Music” offers a way of seeing ourselves – all of us – as necessary elements of a larger whole, and that to cling to illegitimate stereotypes is to deny ourselves a great measure of our common humanity."

"I was a Highwoman
And a mother from my youth
For my children I did what I had to do
My family left Honduras when they killed the Sandinistas
We followed a coyote through the dust of Mexico
Every one of them except for me survived
And I am still alive..."
(Highwomen/Webb)
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:26 AM on September 10 [16 favorites]


A while back YouTube recommended me this video of Ken Burns where he gushes about Lil Nas X, and also tells the boringest drug story in the history of time. No matter what you think of Burns (and I'll probably watch this documentary at some point), enthusiastic Dad Thoughts about Lil Nas X is a Very Burns.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:27 AM on September 10 [8 favorites]


I know some people who worked on this with Burns and I'm looking forward to seeing it.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:29 AM on September 10 [3 favorites]




One of the luckiest things that ever happened to me was having a music professor who specialized in American Roots Music randomly assigned as my advisor my first year of college. I went in there to ask about the accounting classes my parents suggested and came out with a different schedule, including his class. I’m guessing (hoping) we’ll see some of the forerunners he taught me about, many of whom aren’t white or men, in this Burns thing.
posted by sallybrown at 7:35 AM on September 10 [10 favorites]


PBS home page for Ken Burns' Country Music with 25 minute preview video and a full concert video
posted by ZeusHumms at 7:38 AM on September 10


"Robert Johnson and Hank Sr are the yin and yang of Americana."

And both were dead before they were 30.

Those black and white photos sometimes make us forget just how young those geniuses were.
posted by MrJM at 7:39 AM on September 10 [4 favorites]


It's just that the rawer, less slick, more relatable, and more diverse stuff has been siloed out as "Americana."

And the stuff that's just a little too electric for "Americana" gets shuffled off into "alt-country" instead.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:47 AM on September 10 [4 favorites]


Honestly, it's not that different than when the boomers behind AOR insisted the college rock of the late 80's/90's needed to siloed out as "Alternative."

Hot take: the Boomers version of rock n roll was more inclusive than the current AOR version, which is 80% Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sublime, Foo Fighters, 1-2 songs from Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots, and I guess the female artist is the Cranberries.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:55 AM on September 10 [4 favorites]


Hot take: the Boomers version of rock n roll was more inclusive than the current AOR version, which is 80% Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sublime, Foo Fighters, 1-2 songs from Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots, and I guess the female artist is the Cranberries.

And my point back to thread is literally thousands of songs were released in the 1990s, and probably hundreds of thousands since then, and since my job is not radio, tv, official song chooser, it's not my problem if I don't know the full breath of country music or whatever other genre. It's yours music industry, and you royally suck at it.

I actually do know about 'alternative' country because there is exactly one station in my major metro that plays it, versus half a station that plays new 'rock/indie/whatever', and 20 stations that are genre-specific that have playlists that are maybe 100 songs a day.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:00 AM on September 10


So often the songs I hear labelled Country are a constant twangy hammerstrike of patriarchy, patriarchy, patriarchy, reinforcing the sick status quo of pickup trucks, dogs, rifles, sad men and hurt women -- my gorge rises when it I hear it. I guess it's deeply ironic that some of the most acidly feminist music of the 20th century was sung by women in the CW genre. And yet somehow the message never seemed to move the needle. For every head-snapping lyric telling women they were better than him and she should throw his ass out, there were fifty just talking 'bout what good ol' boys wanted & needed.

It's like, what if a Christian preacher actually held his flock accountable to the teachings of Jesus rather than being a bully pulpit for the Moral Majority?

So, I guess, if Ken Burns wants to tell me that country music isn't pickup trucks, rifles, and sad hound dogs and would like to show me differently, I sure believe it's out there, but I also believe it's not having an effect on the mass market of people who listen. But probably making a difference for the kids who haven't yet ventured out of the genre.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:00 AM on September 10 [4 favorites]


Derail: man I miss AOR stations from the late 80s-early 90's, back when stations were still locally programmed. I heard stuff on the radio then that'd never get airplay now, period: stuff that would be considered too long, too weird, too prog, whatever. Maybe this was just the station in Atlanta at the time (WKLS-FM). I've made a couple of half-attempts to recreate the sound through a Spotify playlist but the catalog was just too damn big.

But thanks, monkeytoes, for highlighting The Highwomen. Though I live near Nashville I don't follow the music scene very closely at all. I'd caught one or two mentions of them but hadn't listened to any of their stuff yet and that's colossally good stuff.
posted by jquinby at 8:02 AM on September 10 [3 favorites]


Oh and for your Americana streaming needs, I'm going to plug this college radio station in my area.
posted by jquinby at 8:04 AM on September 10 [1 favorite]


Interesting that alot of people commenting haven’t RTFA and are already erasing Rhiannon Giddens’s commentary in favour of talking about Burns.

Patriarchy, indeed.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 8:05 AM on September 10 [10 favorites]


Obligatory plug for the podcast Cocaine and Rhinestones, which also challenges some smug assumptions about what country music is (and who owns it), but without the Ken-Burns-y-ness.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:08 AM on September 10 [11 favorites]


Watched part of the live concert for this the other night and was getting some heavy white, old person "Tales from Lake Wobegone" "A Prairie Home Companion" vibes from it.

I can't stomach that stuff.
posted by SoberHighland at 8:15 AM on September 10 [1 favorite]


As in most of his films, Burns presents a varied cast of characters to serve as a Greek Chorus, whose members take us from the 1927 sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, when producer Ralph Peer first recorded the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, up through the massive commercial resurgence of country in the mid-90s.
Yay, Bristol VA/TN, the birthplace of country music. Old family tales recount how the city council didn't want the attention and purposefully didn't pick up the mantle because they didn't want to town to be an attraction. Hence, Nashville TN is the capitol.

If you ever drop by (probably for NASCAR), check out The Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

Disclosure: grew up in Bristol. Half of names are familiar and an old high school buddy is on the board.

I myself don't particularly like country except for maybe Hank Williams Jr. and Johnny Cash (really a goth).
posted by zengargoyle at 8:19 AM on September 10 [2 favorites]


I hope he doesn't just parrot Wynton Marsalis' opinions on country music.

Yeah. I'm still annoyed about that. His Jazz miniseries was such a disappointment, I'm not interested in anything else Burns does.
posted by JeffL at 8:19 AM on September 10 [2 favorites]


Looking forward to this but don't have high hopes. When I think of the people NOT mentioned in Ken Burns' Jazz documentary...

Also, been revisiting Freakwater lately. Had forgotten how terrific they are.
posted by dobbs at 8:19 AM on September 10 [4 favorites]


Just a couple of random tidbits to add about the origins of country music: the banjo is an African instrument, the only physical artifact to survive the trans-Atlantic slave trade AFAIK; some contemporary musicians are trying to rediscover and reclaim the role that African-American musicians played in the origins of styles like country and bluegrass; my favorite group along these lines is the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who are awesome.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:21 AM on September 10 [13 favorites]


When I think of the people NOT mentioned in Ken Burns' Jazz documentary...
Indeed, the lacuna were mighty. Django Reinhardt and jazz manouche in its entirety for one, and Stan Getz reduced to one single mention as an addict bank robber. Dolphy was less than 30 seconds I believe. I've never finished watching that skewed series since.
posted by Harry Caul at 8:24 AM on September 10 [6 favorites]


“The Lacunae of Ken Burns” would be a great series.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 8:26 AM on September 10 [5 favorites]


my favorite group along these lines is the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who are awesome.

Then you'll be delighted with reading the article, a significant section of which is an interview with Rhiannon Giddens.
posted by zamboni at 8:28 AM on September 10 [10 favorites]


I'd agree with criticisms of the Jazz series. I'd also recommend reading the Bitter Southerner article at the top.
posted by ovvl at 8:34 AM on September 10 [3 favorites]


LooseFilter, you might be interested in his episode of 1A, The Long Ride To ‘Old Town Road’: Black Artists And Their Contributions To Country Music. Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens are guests.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:40 AM on September 10 [5 favorites]


I myself don't particularly like country except for maybe Hank Williams Jr. and Johnny Cash (really a goth).

Hank Williams Jr.? Like don't get me wrong, I was raised on a steady diet of Bocephus, that I mostly ignore now because the politics of a lot of his songs are abysmal, but if you like Hank Williams Jr., there's plenty of country music out there for you. He's not really sui generis.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:54 AM on September 10 [5 favorites]


Indeed, the lacuna were mighty.

Basically the bulk of what happened after about 1960-65 - there are episodes purporting to cover 1960-present, but they focus only very selectively on that period. It effectively treats contemporary jazz as a Civil War reenactment, discounting the deep and continuously blossoming influences of the more politically and culturally confrontational free/improvised music of the mid-late 60s and 70s, which are at the center of much of what's happening that's of interest in jazz today (which has obv. long since become an art music).

Or what gets called jazz, anyway, because those artists began the process - or accelerated it, arguably - of smashing genre barriers and incorporating many other musics. My impression is that Burns is trying to tackle huge, seething topics, and to make them into neat, linear stories that will not make the average PBS viewer uncomfortable or challenge them too much. Also that he's interested in popular culture, and not so much in the countercultures that always flow in parallel to the mainstream, and that, in intersecting with it, are its primary source of innovation and vitality.

So, I'll probably watch it, but knowing it's going to be the herbal tea version of country history, not the whiskey, blood, and hollering one.
posted by ryanshepard at 9:11 AM on September 10 [3 favorites]


Rhiannon Ghiddens is a treasure.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:17 AM on September 10 [7 favorites]


It's just that the rawer, less slick, more relatable, and more diverse stuff has been siloed out as "Americana."

On this tangent, this is as good a place as any to plug Live From Here, Chris Thile's public radio show of Americana music. It started as the continuation of Prairie Home Companion but after Keillor went out in a blaze of disgrace they rebranded the show and doubled down on amazing Americana music. Every week is a pleasure to hear, a diverse collection of music sort of rooted in folk and country but unafraid to bring in hip hop or electronica or whatever, as well. My one complaint is I still haven't figured out how to listen to it conveniently offline as a podcast. I feel like you almost have to catch it live on the radio station, although at least I see you can stream the most recent episode from the website.
posted by Nelson at 9:23 AM on September 10 [12 favorites]


They should make a TV show out of Nick Tosches' book Country instead.
posted by rfs at 9:46 AM on September 10 [2 favorites]


The article was good, and I'm delighted that he includes Giddons cause she's a bad ass.

However, I do feel like there's starting to be a bit of a bandwagon for the "deep thought country" ala Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell. Both of those guys do some amazing shit, but I feel like there are folks coming out on their coattails that are less awesome.

My husband sings the praises of Tyler Childers, but to me he feels like a knockoff Isbell with a side of Jamey Johnston.

On the bluegrass side, I love the daylights out of Old Crow, but I do worry that some folks love them for reasons that aren't about the lyrics and the thoughts and are more for the "old timey" music = white folks. We went to see them at the Ryman for New Years Eve this year and there were a number of folks who were a little whiffy about the "politics" the band was talking about. Shit like, Love your neighbor and we are a nation of immigrants made some folks in the crowd uncomfortable.

But hell, if there are more songs out there like "White Man's World", "The Warden," and "Call to Arms" then I'm not gonna complain.
posted by teleri025 at 10:38 AM on September 10 [4 favorites]


In the "Americana" genre, it's worth noting that 9 Bullets Radio has rebooted. I listened to the first show last night (while driving an electric BMW across 37 along the the north end of San Francisco Bay), and really enjoyed it.
posted by straw at 10:55 AM on September 10 [6 favorites]


MetaFilter: a constant twangy hammerstrike of patriarchy, patriarchy, patriarchy, reinforcing the sick status quo of pickup trucks, dogs, rifles, sad men and hurt women.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:56 AM on September 10 [7 favorites]


We went to see them at the Ryman for New Years Eve this year and there were a number of folks who were a little whiffy about the "politics" the band was talking about.

My dad loves Old Crow, so I got him tickets to a similar Ryman New Years show a few years back. I hadn't even thought about the fact that, even though he loves live music, he's pushing 70, hates standing, and doesn't like rowdy crowds. He had a substantially less good time than I had hoped.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:40 AM on September 10 [1 favorite]




a diverse collection of music sort of rooted in folk and country but unafraid to bring in hip hop or electronica or whatever, as well.

I haven't heard the show, but your description helps crystallize some things for me.

I have been comfortably wrestling with this lately having moved out to some form of the "country" with a rich musical history. I've learned to appreciate fiddle and bluegrass. I've learned that bands like Lavender Country are a thing. There's a local jam band steeped in the bluegrass/Dead axis and some of their explorations sound like a lost New Order or Joy Division prog/new wave jam, or sometimes Pink Floyd at Pompei or even Meddle. I've heard jug bands spinning out fiddle, jug, klezmer, jazz. I've seen all kinds of impromptu jams on stage or on the street blending a lot of American musical influences and it's been amazing.

I have a hope and feeling there's going to be a musical revival soon that embraces a lot of Americana roots music and re-folds and re-mixes it into something new, not unlike how the Grateful Dead borrowed from bluegrass, blues and rock updated yet again with the newer or modern musical traditions.

The total wildfire breakout hit of Lil Nas X's remix/cover of Horses in the Back is a sign that people are receptive if not hungry for it, like people are craving more traditional songwriting, live acoustic instruments but also not wanting to hold it apart from electronic/rhythm music as some other thing. Because, really, they're not. All of those electronic drum patterns and polyrhythm really come from acoustic hand drums, jazz/rock trap drum kits and African roots rhythms - just like in blues and rock

Combining skilled roots instrumentation, craft and songwriting with equally skilled hip hop, house and drum machine sensibilities has almost always been a winner.
posted by loquacious at 12:02 PM on September 10 [3 favorites]


Based on Burns' past record, I get the feeling that more left-of-center folks like Peter Grudzien, etc. won't be getting a name-check.

I mean, I'm willing to be happily surprised, but....
posted by gtrwolf at 1:59 PM on September 10 [2 favorites]


What are the odds that Lavender Country even gets a mention in this doc?
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:39 PM on September 10


Yeah, Burns likes to select a main narrator to guide the voyage so there's a distinct voice to focus the narrative on, which kinda makes sense from a storytelling view. But yeah, Wynton seemed like the right person at the time because he had a high profile and was articulate, but was the wrong person in retrospect for obvious reasons. I think Burns has moved away from having a main narrator for his last couple of projects.

Would I watch a History of Country Music doc with Roseanne Cash as point person? Yes I would. Could be pretty good.

(In a perfect world Burns should hire the Cocaine & Rhinestones writer because he's a great writer, insightful and quite funny!)
posted by ovvl at 2:55 PM on September 10 [5 favorites]


Burns' Civil War take centered Shelby Foote, lost cause propagandist extraordinary, so nah.
posted by PMdixon at 4:18 PM on September 10 [6 favorites]


Then you'll be delighted with reading the article

LooseFilter, you might be interested in his episode of 1A, The Long Ride To ‘Old Town Road’: Black Artists And Their Contributions To Country Music. Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens are guests.

D'oh! RTFA before commenting!!

Rhiannon Ghiddens is a treasure.

Hell yeah.
posted by LooseFilter at 5:25 PM on September 10 [3 favorites]


Seconding that recommendation for 9 Bullets Radio -- I've picked up on a ton of great country, alt-country, Americana, whatever artists based on what the guy who runs that show plays and talks about. (Most recent discovery from him: The Highwomen, who he was raving about a month before I heard anybody else mention them...)
posted by genehack at 6:16 PM on September 10 [3 favorites]


Lotta talk about the Highwomen in here and OK, great, but if we’re talking country supergroups I just want to make sure y’all know Pistol Annies are on their third album. Also Carolina Chocolate Drops are boss. That’s all.
posted by Mothlight at 6:28 PM on September 10 [4 favorites]


Pistol Annies, "Got My Name Changed Back."

And thank you for the heads-up about the return of 9 Bullets!
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:45 PM on September 10 [2 favorites]


MetaFilter: I'd also recommend reading the article at the top.
posted by bryon at 10:14 PM on September 10 [2 favorites]


The total wildfire breakout hit of Lil Nas X's remix/cover of Horses in the Back

just to clarify, "old town road" was written by lil nas x and is not a cover of any kind, the version you're probably talking about is in fact a remix that billy ray cyrus jumped onto after the viral success of the original, not the other way around. i feel like this distinction is important because so much of the controversy surrounding the song in the country music scene seems to be because it was made by a black teenager reappropriating country music for his rap song, as opposed to a huge strain of popular country music today where middle aged white men reappropriate hiphop culture to make their own watered down hybrids of the two genres.
posted by JimBennett at 12:18 AM on September 11 [14 favorites]


dobbs: Also, been revisiting Freakwater lately. Had forgotten how terrific they are.

I ran into them via the Kentucky music issue of the Oxford American ("My Old Drunk Friend" was in the compilation). There's a profile of them in that issue:

Bean and Irwin also have a minor genius for flipping the script on songs written by men, from Nick Lowe’s “You Make Me” to Loudon Wainwright III’s “Out of This World” to their utterly successful cover of Conway Twitty’s slightly pedophilic “You’ve Never Been This Far Before.” To hear Irwin sing the seduction of this tyro—“I don’t know what I’m saying as my trembling fingers touch forbidden places / I only know I’ve waited for so long for the chance that we are taking”—feels almost like a feminist appropriation of Twitty’s leering sentiment. And it’s funny.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:14 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


This live version of "Cloak of Frogs" is...well, if hairs don't stand up on the back of your neck, you're probably dead inside.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:28 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


Pistol Annies are very good.

Angaleena Presley is wildly overdue for a FPP. MeFi should be all over her.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:34 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]


This quote really does it for me:
Rhiannon Giddens: "Does it speak to your heart? Then it will be authentic. Not if you're trying to wage war with it."
I never loved the commercial, truck/beer, twangy, stadium-filling crap that's squatting on the name "country" lately. But Johnny Cash and Delta blues and harmonizing and field hollers and gospel -- that's all just American music.

I am looking forward to this series. Afterwards I will call my oldest daughter at college and ask her what local country stations to add to my radio's presets for when she's in the car with me. :7)
posted by wenestvedt at 1:02 PM on September 13 [3 favorites]


Just want to, as a long-time country fan, say I love y'all for being so locked into what's good as far as country goes.

Whenever I talk to my progressive pals about country I get side-eye, and whenever I talk to my ahem less progressive pals about country I get Florida Georgia Line.

Country music, much like metal, has a thriving beating heart that just won't die no matter what happens and if you're willing, you can find the good shit. You just have to want to find the good shit.



Now, let me tell you about the time I mistakenly played White Man's World at an ultra progressive dive bar in Chicago with BLM posters all over the bathroom, and hooooooo boy nobody heard the lyrics of that track. I caught so much evil eye I could feel it from all the way across the room. I don't think I've run away from people I politically agree with faster. We live in strange times. And I sometimes make poor decisions.
posted by Ephelump Jockey at 1:12 PM on September 13 [6 favorites]


The total wildfire breakout hit of Lil Nas X's remix/cover of Horses in the Back is a sign that people are receptive if not hungry for it, like people are craving more traditional songwriting, live acoustic instruments but also not wanting to hold it apart from electronic/rhythm music as some other thing. Because, really, they're not

The more I hear Old Town Road, the more I hear it's pop influence (rather than it feeling anything like a country song) in the vein of Wanna be a Cowboy by Boys Don't Cry. Which doesn't make me want to classify it as 'pop' rather than 'country' because I am not the official decider for such things but rather wonder if the same controversy would arise if Wanna be Cowboy was released today instead of 1986, since then what was described as 'country' music was a bit more rigid.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:15 PM on September 13


Pistol Annies, "Got My Name Changed Back."

aaaaaaand it's stuck in my head again

goddammit
posted by schroedinger at 2:39 PM on September 14


I do worry that some folks love them for reasons that aren't about the lyrics and the thoughts and are more for the "old timey" music = white folks

Yeah. Me and a bandmate had a sort of identity crisis about playing this kinda music right around the 2016 election, to the point that it pretty much killed that band. I have some serious country/bluegrass/twangy shit anxiety these days, to the point that I haven't really been able to play banjo consistently in over a year.

Ken Burns isn't gonna help that, I don't think. Freakwater might. From that approximate scene I'd also like to see Robbie Fulks get a nod.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:32 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]


WOOT WOOT

I watched the first episode, thinking I'd just listen a little and get something else done this evening, and instead I was completely captivated by the story and the music. Tonight's installment was about the Blues and other (real or simulated) African-American music, the "hill billy" vinyl record business, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. I've been hitting YouTube for more of the same all night. Tomorrow we're going whurr there's no Dee-pression.

HARVEY K. SAYS CHECK IT OUT
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 8:35 PM on September 15


« Older "Nothing looks worse than faded-out DayGlo."   |   What Happened the Day a Giant, Dinosaur-Killing... Newer »


You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.