What I learned from “Country Music”

Since the series is so sprawling, I an only going to present thoughts I have arising from the last three episodes of Country Music:

Bluegrass banjo and mandolin players: how do they DO that? It makes my fingers hurt just to watch them.

This series is inspiring me to look up (and buy) music, both by artists I love (Marty Stuart, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson) and ones I haven’t heard before (Townes Van Zandt, Asleep at the Wheel, Bill Monroe).

When I die, along with “Amazing Grace,” I want “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and “Go Rest High On That Mountain” performed at my funeral. And “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Good luck in finding someone to play that last one.

I really like how the series mostly relies on artists, songwriters, producers, and executives (i.e. people who have first hand knowledge of the events) to talk rather than historians.

I have always loved Kathy Mattea’s music, but now I want to go out to have coffee with her. Or a beer.

The number of singers following in the steps of Hank Williams — including his son — is sad. That quite a number of them survived it is reassuring.

Of all the remarkable origin stories in country music, the none was more so than Kris Kristofferson’s. Rhodes scholar, studying the romantic poets? Helicopter pilot and instructor at West Point who drops everything to move to Nashville to become a songwriter, and who becomes a janitor to make enough money to live, before getting his break and making it big? It sounds like an over-the-top drama from Miramax.

Also, how many country singers — or American singers in any genre, for that matter — have their most well-known song inspired by a Frederico Fellini film?

Dwight Yoakam is a handsome man. In the nineties he was totally hot. Sort of like Tom Petty if Tom Petty wasn’t ugly.

I have come to be fond of “Wagon Wheel” just from the snatch of it in the commercial at the front of the show.

I am even more astounded by Johnny Cash than I was before. I loved his music, but now I cherish his activism and concern for social justice. The trolls would call him an SJW, and I’m sure he would wear the label proudly.

Singing “I Walk the Line” when you’re having an affair with a singer you are traveling with (even if she does turn out to be the love of your life) is hypocritical, though.

Aretha Franklin may be the voice of God, but all the angels sound like Emmylou Harris.

John Denver may not have been a country singer, as people asserted, but he was definitely a country songwriter. “Back Home Again”? “Sunshine on My Shoulders”? “On the Road”? “Matthew”? If they had been sung by Vince Gill, everyone would say what great country songs they were.

I’m so glad they saved the Ryman. It is an irreplaceable part of American cultural history.

My second favorite story was how Willie Nelson’s label put out Red-Headed Stranger thinking it would crater and so in the future he would be more likely to do what they wanted. It spent over 100 weeks on the country charts, and is considered one of the best albums ever made. (His producer said that after that no one interfered with Willie, “including me.”)

My very favorite story is how Vince Gill’s bluegrass band was at the last minute signed to open for… KISS. Needless to say, it did not go well. As Gill said as he was laughingly recalling the story, you couldn’t script this.

I had a lot of other thoughts, but I’ll spare you.

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