America's Music: The Roots Of Country

This appeared in the Nashville Banner - May 31. 1996

The reason that no filmmaker had ever put together a major documentary on the history of country music had little to do with lack of interest or mass media snobbishness about country music. The subject was just too dadburn big. There were hundreds of sources and stories. Each style of country music has its own roots and is expressed in a unique style. And from a practical standpoint, getting the rights cleared for each of the hundreds of songs needed would create a mountain of legal work. But producer Tom Neff started the project some three years ago because no one else had.

"I think it was the greatest untold story," Neff says. "I think it is a story that needed to be told." It is told in America's Music: The Roots of Country starting with the first of three, two-hour segments at 6 p.m. Sunday on TBS and continuing June 9 and 16. Originally, Neff and country music historian Robert Oermann had envisioned a 12-part series. But even when that was cut to six, it didn't cut down on the piles of source material they had to gather.

"There were 500 hours of film involved, thousands of photographs," Neff says. "We culled a song list of about 500 songs down to 225. We did over 250 interviews." They found a treasure of history in old photos, recordings and film clips--like Roy Acuff singing a World War II ditty; like Jimmy Dickens, Faron Young or Webb Pierce in all their 1950s technicolor-suited glory; or like Ernest Tubb introducing a young Patsy Cline.
Oermann, former music writer for The Tennessean, says he has been collecting material throughout his career for just such a project. "I knew where a lot of it was, particularly the early stuff, because I had been wanting to do this a long time," Oermann says. "Actually, the surprise stuff came with the more modern things. We found a piece of Patsy Cline footage that had never been seen. We found a piece of footage of Earl Scruggs and the banjo on TV that was found in the Newport Folk Festival."

The Cline footage, which also contained a priceless clip of Tony Bennett singing My Cold, Cold Heart was found "by a collector in Germany." But what Neff calls the film's "chorus of voices" comes from the artists, producers and musicians themselves.

It would be easier to just say who they didn't interview than who they did (George Jones and Tammy Wynette couldn't because of illness, Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire just couldn't). Originally, the idea had been to have at least one country music historian to give perspective much in the same way that Ken Burns used historians to hold together his Civil War and Baseball series. "As we filmed, the more it became clear that the musicians and music could tell their own story," Oermann says.

"We felt it was their story," Neff says. "We felt no one could tell it better than them. Not only did we interview musicians, but executives, managers, sidemen, fans, promoters, pitch artists, songwriters, all aspects of the music industry were covered. I just felt very strongly from a stylistic standpoint that it had to be told with as little narration as possible. Kris Kristofferson has bridge narration in it, but that is it. And I felt the whole story should be woven together from the participants in the music itself, because who can tell it better than the people who were in it?"

Marty Stuart, a country music expert who just happens to be a country music star, was only too happy to provide commentary that bridges the stars of old and today. "There is a whole lot to be proud of from our past," Stuart says. "The characters were colorful. A lot of the songs were timeless. It's a great tradition to hang onto."

Most artists chosen to comment on a particular area are logical choices, like Riders in the Sky and Ray Benson talking about Bob Wills or Trisha Yearwood talking about Tammy Wynette. "We deliberately chose artists who were particular scholars of another artist's work and maybe had a direct stylistic influence by them," Neff says.

While the stars interviewed in the special are chosen for their appreciation of the past, the same can't be said of the entire new crop of country singers, Stuart says. "I think if you held a gun between the eyes of most country singers who are just coming to town, they couldn't sing you a Ray Price song if you had the hammer back," Stuart says. "And I don't think half of them care, which is all right. It is just a different way of thinking, a different world. I was kind of taught it was important to know a lot of those things.

"The thing about it is, from my perspective, it is a family matter. Country music was basically a family for years. I still look at it that way. It was so against the world because we were a hillbilly fraternity to the rest of the world. As people come and go, you don't forget your family. It is that simple."

The series is organized stylistically into sub-genres like Western Swing, Honky Tonk and The Nashville Sound. "It was never designed to be a chronological history of country music," Oermann says. "I think that would be boring. I wanted it to be entertaining. This is not dead music. People still enjoy Western swing. All of country music's root styles are not museum pieces, they are living musics."

Maybe it is just as well that it took so long to get a documentary about country music made, as now may be as good a time as any to give the movement perspective. "I think this is a great time because country went through the doldrums in the 1970s, was revitalized with the young country of today and now the young country of today is much more mature," Neff says. "This is a perfect time to really look back and say 'Where did we come from and how have we changed?' "

Says Stuart: "I think it is a good time for mom and pop America to see this. I think it will take them beyond the surface of play lists. This will take them just as deep as they can possibly stand to go. For a lot of the old entertainers, it probably served as a wonderful remembrance. For new entertainers, it is a good reference point to what is going on."

"I am very proud of our heritage," Stuart says. 'It verified the fact that we are a solid American art form. We are based on good songs and good people."

By Jim Molpus

Return To Articles Return To Home Page