The demise of country music, “Lost Highway” informs, came at a time when the powers that be of Nashville decided to discard the twang and bring in elements of pop. It’s an argument we’ve been hearing for at least a decade. And while this BBC-produced docu takes that attitude, they don’t lay the blame with “Achy Breaky Heart,” Faith Hill or the hat acts. They date it back to the arrival of the Nashville Sound in the late 1950s that stripped country of its rural, hard-livin’ roots and emphasized treacly ballads, baritones and girl choruses. “Lost Highway” is the rare musical doc with attitude. Its wholly defendable point of view is that country was best in its early days and that no matter how much the establishment tries to disregard it, bluegrass keeps plowing along by sustaining strong ties to its origins.
Four-parter is narrated nearly sotto voce by Lyle Lovett, opening with “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and its “true country music.” Or, as Emmylou Harris says: “songs that speak of timeless issues … nothing clever, just life.” Impressed with the commercial viability of the project — it had sold more than 6 million copies when “Lost Highway” was shot — doc traces bluegrass as an offshoot from the first country music recording sessions, held in 1927 in Bristol, Tenn.
Taking an approach not unlike that of Ken Burns’ “Jazz,” doc explores the great country artists — the Carter Family, Ralph Peer, Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and Ricky Skaggs in the first part; Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell and Ray Price in the second. It’s the second hour, though, that the filmmakers get their historical feathers in a ruffle, chastising the invention of the Nashville Sound that effectively killed the honky-tonk legacy of Williams in favor of bland, family-oriented tunes.
While Eddy Arnold defends — with a bit of cockeyed logic — the soulless music he and Jim Reeves popularized when Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins held sway in Music City, there’s no denying the music lost its regional footing as it attempted to reach a more urbane pop audience offended by early rock ‘n’ roll. Docmakers enjoy the bad boys of country, though, as they don’t connect the dots of the honky-tonkers of yore to their contempo kin, many of which don’t lead the colorful lives of their predecessors.
Historical clips are plentiful and the modern performers and historians interviewed are all highly credible sources. For novices learning what made country music significant, “Lost Highway” is a fabulous introduction; for longtime fans, its superficiality doesn’t weaken the quality of the perfs and clips.
The second two hours of “Lost Highway” air Sunday 8 to 10 p.m. As part of Trio’s “Country Is Cool” slate, Saturday show is followed by the 90-minute doc “High Lonesome — The Story of Bluegrass Music,” while Sunday’s two hours will be followed by the insightful Wilco doc “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”