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Johnny Cash at his home in California in the 1960s, seen in the Ken Burns documentary, "Country Music," airing Sept. 15-22 and Sept. 22-25 on NET.

Sometime in the mid ‘60s -- I’ve forgotten exactly what year -- my dad loaded me in the car and we drove a good ways to see The Johnny Cash Show.

It included not only Cash and the Tennessee Three, but the Carter Family -- Mother Maybelle and her three daughters, Anita, Helen and June.

I don’t recall many details of the concert. I was about 10 at the time. But I was hit by that memory shortly after I started watching “Country Music,” Ken Burns' 14-hour documentary series that premieres at 7 p.m. Sunday on NET.

The first two-hour installment, titled “The Rub” starts at the beginning of “hillbilly music” and runs through 1933, concentrating on Maybelle, A.P. and Sara Carter, the original Carter Family,along with Jimmie Rodgers -- country’s founding icons.

That I saw Maybelle and, I’m sure, heard her play her acoustic guitar with her still copied “Carter scratch” along with Johnny and June drove two things home for me -- that country music as we know it hasn’t been around all that long and that its stars and icons have always been real folk, accessible to their audiences.

The series, directed by Burns and written by Dayton Duncan, operates much as did their 2001 look at “Jazz.”

Divided chronologically, it moves from the earliest recordings by the Carters and Rodgers, through the Depression and World War II with singing cowboys and Western swing to  “Hillbilly Shakespeare” Hank Williams and the rise of honky tonk in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

From there, the story journeys to Nashville and the development of the countrypolitan sound by producers Chet Aktins and Owen Bradley to Bakersfield, California for its twangy antidote from Buck Owens and Johnny Cash, and then to Texas with songwriters Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and the genre-changing outlaws, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

As with "Jazz,"  it tells that history through old film clips and photographs -- the Burns-style panning of a still photo is now simultaneously legend and cliche -- informative narration by Peter Coyote and the observations of a host of artists, radio personalities and writers.

The latter include many who are the subject of the stories,. including Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Nelson, Haggard, Marty Stuart, Hank WIlliams Jr., Roseanne Cash and Rodney Crowell, easily identifiable media figures such as Ralph Emery and little known characters like writer Hazel Smith.

Smith was the office manager at “Hillbilly Central,” the Music Row recording studio and hangout run by Tompall Glaser, a Nebraskan who became pals with Jennings and the rest of the gang that turned Nashville upside down in the 1970s. It was Smith that coined the term “outlaw country” to describe them.

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I knew that before hearing Smith talk about it during “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?,” the series’ final installment. But there were plenty of other little tidbits scattered throughout the 14 hours that were entertaining revelations, at least to me.

The basic history that Burns and Duncan tell is relatively standard -- viewed through the music’s primary figures, like Cash, Haggard, Nelson, Bill Monroe, who “invented” bluegrass in the 1940s, Western swing icon Bob Wills, singing cowboy Gene Autry, Kris Kristofferson, Parton, Lynn, Patsy Cline, George Jones and, of course, Hank Sr., the Carters and Rodgers.

That’s likely to get “Country Music” the same kind of “too conservative, too establishment, too long” criticism that hit “Jazz.”

But, like that series, “Country Music” isn’t designed to look at the fringes of music -- although it goes there with Van Zandt and his song “Pancho and Lefty” that literally ends the show.

And it does aim at being inclusive, looking at the cross pollination of black and white music in the South in the first half of the 20th century, bringing in Charley Pride, the first African American country star, Johnny Rodriquez, the first Latino country star and via Lynn and Parton looking at the role of independent women in the music.

I’m pretty well steeped in country music history. I’ve read the massive tome of Bill C. Malone, who provides the series’ historical timeline, plenty of other books and articles about the music and its artists and, over the last three decades interviewed and/or hung out with many of those in the series, including Nelson (many times), Haggard, Kristofferson, Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, Wanda Jackson, Lynn, Stuart, Ricky Skaggs, Freddy Fender and more.

And I found “Country Music” to be a beautifully crafted history of the music I grew up hearing. I very likely know the words to every country hit from 1962 to 1974, courtesy of my dad’s radio, which was rarely off.

“Country Music” ends its narrative in 1983 -- just before the emergence of Garth Brooks -- who turns up a few times to offer some commentary as does his wife, Trisha Yearwood.

In the late 1980s, Brooks was seen by some as the ruination of country music, which we laughed about before one of his Pinnacle Bank Arena shows a couple years ago. Now he’s an icon and Lil’ Nas X is ruining Country with “Old Town Road.”

Whether that’s a Country song -- Cody Johnson definitively says it isn’t -- it's “bro country” and new traditionalism is more in step in the decades-long process of musical amalgamation. 

But make no mistake, its string-music roots is the story of “Country Music” captured in Burns' series.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSWolgamott.


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