Judged by country music radio today, there’s no indication that the Art Formerly Known as Country & Western was a tent under which a wild variety of sounds, styles and influences could creatively thrive. The music expressed the social changes, moods, anxieties and dreams of Americans from the coal mines of Kentucky to the California shores. Thanks to veteran CBS news correspondent Bob Schieffer and a hard-working team of producers, archivists and historians, “Century of Country” takes the subject both seriously and passionately. Though the thematic organization of material in this 13-part series for The Nashville Network often seems arbitrary, “Century” rocks and rivets thanks to clips of such popular music giants as Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, the Carter Family and Merle Haggard.
Starting with an illuminating analysis of the famed “Big Bang” of country music — the 1927 visit of Victor Records producer Ralph Peer to Bristol, Tenn. — the series wisely lingers on the contributions of Peer and musical pioneers such as the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Pointing out that Rodgers sold millions of records, recorded with Louis Armstrong and embodied the ideals of working-class Americans, “Century” properly places country music in its correct niche as the traveling companion of blues, jazz and Tin Pan Alley/Broadway pop in the formation of contemporary American musical arts.
The series ambitiously covers the importance of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, which, thanks to radio, took country far beyond its rural Southern roots and created legions of country stars, as well as the emergence of the various strains of country, including the singing cowboys of Hollywood, bluegrass, honky tonk, swing, rockabilly and Bakersfield. There are also entire segments devoted to Nashville itself, which in no small part thanks to the Opry, centralized country music publishing and recording operations; the tremendous range and quality of the great women artists; the pop era as signified by Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and others; the Urban Cowboy phenomenon of the ’70s; a spin through the current scene and a look at life on the road for one of the current top acts.
Judging by the segments reviewed, including the premiere on the origins of country music, “Honk Tonk Nights” and “Bakersfield and the Outlaws,” the series ably demonstrates the wealth of footage available to document the perfs of storied singers and songwriters. Especially touching are scenes of Buck Owens and the late Don Rich practically inventing a whole brand of American music. The clips of Rodgers (the famed Singing Brakeman) performing his hits is a treat that is amplified and explained by interviews with figures such as Merle Haggard, who eloquently assesses the impact and accomplishments of Rodgers. Unfortunately, the docu does suffer from the traditional TV habit of talking over the performances of the artists they’re lauding.
Thanks to sharp research work from the CBS team and courage on the part of the producers, there’s little effort made to sugarcoat the personal problems that plagued so many of country’s finest. Williams’ problems with pills and alcohol are graphically described, as are Lefty Frizzell’s early demise brought on by alcoholism and the workaday challenges faced by virtually everyone from players to stars.
It isn’t overstating the importance of the TNN series to say that it arrives at a critical juncture in the history of the popular musical art form. Despite the solid sales figures posted by the current crop of country stars, country music’s current state of health is precarious.
The question that “Century” underscores is whether any of today’s male models in cowboy hats and pinup-quality glamour gals are carrying the seeds of greatness and courage for innovation. One wonders if any of them will grow into vital artists capable of penning such cultural treasures as “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” or invent new hybrids like “Cherokee Maiden” or express trials and toils as eloquently as “Mama Tried,” “Crazy” or “For the Good Times.”
On the downside of “Century,” the somewhat arbitrary organization of material scrambles the chronological facts on too many of the careers, blithely placing Hank Snow only in the ’50s, when he actually began his career in the ’30s, and lumping George Jones’ performance of his late-’70s hit “He Stopped Loving Her Today” into a discussion about country music in the ’50s. Bookending host spots by James Garner are perfunctory.
Central irony of the docu is that the musical giants profiled and lionized can’t be heard on most of country radio today, which makes this retrospective all the more powerful and essential to understanding how far country has wandered off course in pursuit of crossing over to a larger, younger and more affluent audience.