“Country Music” on PBS: Jay Hamilton’s Comments (Episodes 5 & 6)

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Jay Hamilton is back with his thoughtful comments on Episodes 5 & 6 of the new PBS series “Country Music: A Film By Ken Burns.”  We have had a great response, including Emails and comments at Puget Sound Media and Facebook, giving a big thumbs up to Jay’s summary of the first four shows. If you need to catch up on that post, read it here.

Let me recap Jay’s career. His life in radio began in the early sixties — playing pop/rock music.  By the early ’70s, Jay was spinning country records — first in  Bellingham (KBFW), and then in Portland (KPOK). In the mid-70s, Jay moved to Austin TX (the heart of Outlaw Country), where he worked as a songwriter and as a deejay at an AOR station. He returned to the PNW in the late ’70s and was hired  as a DJ, and later as Promotion Director, at Country Giant KMPS-AM & FM in Seattle. for nearly a decade, Jay was the “in-house” Country Music “facts and history” guy. He produced and hosted two popular weekly Sunday night specialty programs: “Jay Hamilton’s Collector’s Items” and “The Old Time Country Music and Bluegrass Show.” Believe me, Jay knows his country music. Here’s what he has to say about Parts 5 and 6 of the Ken Burn’s series:

“I had two favorite moments in episode #5. The 1st provided by Dwight Yoakam. The 2nd was when they took time to acknowledge the great Nashville studio musicians. “For me, Dwight Yoakam provided the moment of the series, so far. Maybe it will be the moment of the entire series. It was a moment that, for me, emphasized why fans of the genre enjoy (love) Country Music. It came in the segment on Merle Haggard when Dwight was discussing the power in the lyrics of a Haggard penned song, “Holding Things Together”. As he slowly recited, from memory, the lyrics of one of Hag’s more poignant tunes, the emotion expressed in those amazingly crafted lyrics caused Yoakam’s voice to crack and tears appeared in the corners of his eyes. He needed to take several brief pauses to collect himself as he continued with his recitation. There was this great country music talent, in his own right, expressing his feelings about the wonderful song writing abilities of another country artist…and the beauty of the poetry and story-telling ability in those lyrics so touched him that he was unable to control his emotions. This is the power of Country Music and great Country Music songwriting. It touches us. We relate to these musical stories. Whether they’re poignant, funny, ironic, tragic, or historical. We may not be the characters in some of the songs, but we know them and we know their emotions. However, the real key is not so much the stories but how well the stories are told in amazingly crafted Country Music lyrics.

“There was much in series # 6 about the song writing ability of Kris Kristofferson and what a magnificent poet he is, and I absolutely totally agree. This guy can turn a phrase! I enjoyed the segment on Kris, but Kristofferson is a Rhodes Scholar…he’d better be able to turn a phrase! On the other hand, Merle Haggard never finished school, but his clever craftsmanship of words into song is completely remarkable. Plus, the volume of “great songs” he’s written is staggering! No other Country Music singer/songwriter comes close. Not Willie, not Kris, not Cash, or any of the great behind-the-scenes songwriters such as Don Schlitz, who wrote “The Gambler” or Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam writers of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” or Harland Howard with “I Fall to Pieces” and all the others! Haggard’s volume of great songs, puts everybody else out of his league.

 

“I’m happy Burns took note of the great Nashville recording session musicians. Hargus “Pig” Robbins (just think what his gifted/imaginative piano did for “Behind Closed Doors” or “Don’t It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue”), the multi-talented Charlie McCoy and the other great session guys. Just like excellent songwriting,  super talented session musicians are an enormous contributor to the success of any recording.

 

Loretta

“Again, let me state emphatically that I am truly enjoying the series. However, there are still a few strange things missing from this film. It’s my feeling a series on the History Of Country Music should also be a teaching tool. Tell me something I might not know. Don’t just rehash things the average person knows about the genre, but teach us something about what many may not know. We’ve all seen the Academy award-winning biopics on Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn (“I Walk the Line” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter”), so why spend nearly an entire segment retelling those movies? These stories, of course, make for good and perhaps engrossing television, but because they eat up so much valuable time they can become somewhat detrimental to a well-rounded and complete “history” of the genre. I’m assuming that some of this concentration, on a few major country names, is due to the availability of a tremendous amount of film and video on them, thus enhancing the “viewing” aspect of the show. Especially in the case of Johnny Cash.

 

 

“I’m almost tempted to title this section: “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou!”. The first brother to fall into this category is Tommy Cash, Johnny’s younger brother. There’s been endless mention of Johnny’s older brother Jack, who died tragically at 14, and its affects on John. But not a syllable about Tommy.  In the late 60s and early 70s Tommy had a number of top 10 Country  hits , including 1969’s “Six White Horses” (#4 on the Country charts and it also appeared on the Pop charts). Tommy had at least 3 other top-10 Country hits. With all the footage devoted to Johnny, I just found it surprising that Tommy didn’t deserve even the slightest mention. 

 

“Other than an early section on the Country/Pop duo of the Everly Brothers (again, performers that nearly everyone is aware of already) it’s almost as if there’s a plot to not include brother acts. Starting with The Wilburn Brothers (Teddy and Doyle). Not because they’re among my favorites, (because they certainly are not), but because of their tremendously important connection to Loretta Lynn. The Wilburns were never recognized as the most benevolent brothers in Nashville, but early on they took Loretta under their wings, made her a regular on their syndicated television show, providing Loretta with early exposure and they actually negotiated Loretta’s contract with Decca records. There has been no mention of the Wilburn’s contribution in the history of Loretta’s early career.

 

Louvin Brothers, (L to R) Ira & Charlie

“There’s still been little mention of my all-time favorite brother act in Nashville, the Louvin Brothers, influencing everyone from Emmylou Harris, Gail Davies to Country/Rocker Gram Parsons. Along with the Everly Brothers their sibling harmonies are unmatched. A quick look at a few of the other brother acts left by the wayside. The Osborne Brothers, Jim and Jesse, Delmore Brothers, and a couple who are not technically Brothers such as Johnny and Jack and the family act The Browns (2 sisters and a brother). Of all these performers perhaps the most startling omissions are The Browns (including Jim Ed Brown). Their recordings of “The Old Lamplighter”, “Scarlet Ribbon” and their signature song “The Three Bells”, were tremendous crossover hits in the late 50s, introducing many to Country music. For the life of me I cannot figure out why there was no mention, in any of the episodes so far, of The Browns.

The Browns: Bonnie, Jim Ed & Maxine

“Again, I will say that I find the series fun television to watch and enjoy, but not always great “history”. In 1972 I was the Program Director/Music Director of “Back To The Country”  KBFW in Bellingham, Washington…located in Whatcom County just  a few miles from where Loretta Lynn began her singing career.

Whatcom County Museum Photo of Loretta. Circa 1955. In her Custer, WA home. She won several Blue Ribbons for her canning abilities at the Northwest Washington Fair.
On episode #6, of the documentary, there was a great segment on The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s album “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”…and the narrator proclaimed that few if any Country stations aired the album. Well, in 1972 we played it at KBFW and proclaimed it our “Country Album of The Year”! Incidentally, that same year we also awarded “Female Vocalist of the Year” to a new young singer, Tanya Tucker, who had her first hit, at age 13, with “Delta Dawn”. Our “Male Vocalist of the Year” also went to a young, first time hitmaker, Johnny Rodriguez. The talented Mexican/American Country singer had his first hit in ’72 with “Pass Me By (If You’re Only Passin’ Through)”. So far, because of time constraints, I presume, no mention of these two fine Country Music performers.”……Jay

 

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Author: Steven Smith

Presently editor and historical writer with Puget Sound Media in Seattle. Former radio broadcaster and radio station owner, 1970-1999. Journalism and speech communications degrees. I enjoy researching articles and online reporting that allows me to meld together words, audio and video. P.S. I appreciate and encourage reader comments and opinions.

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