Several people sent messages to me a few weeks ago — old friends, newer ones, some acquaintances I hadn’t heard from in a good while. They all wanted to be sure I was aware of a particular program scheduled on public television. I was, but I deeply appreciated the fact that so many wanted to be sure I didn’t miss something they knew I would enjoy.
Oh, yes! Ken Burns’ documentary on country music was well advertised. And I had no intention of missing it.
It wasn’t cool at all to be a country music fan when I was a kid. Most folks called it “hillbilly music.” Too often, as far as I was concerned, the words were said with an obvious sneer. Rock and roll was still in the foggy future.
I’ve seen enough of Burns’s films to know that he is very good at what he does. I eagerly looked forward to his newest project.
After watching the first couple of episodes, I messaged my younger sister Peg, the one most likely to share memories. I knew she would be watching.
“Did those first few episodes make you think of our kitchen on Saturday nights? Dishpans of water heating on the stove because our water heater wasn’t big enough to keep up with bathwater for all of us kids? Dad’s precious radio on the shelf tuned to WSM Nashville Tennessee and the Grand ‘Ol Opry?”
And she said, “Oh, yeah!” I could hear the grin in her voice.
We grew up on that stuff. We remember the Carters, Mother Maybelle and her daughters long ago when they called June Carter “Junebug,” as well as Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe and many others.
I have no memory of Jimmy Rodgers singing but our parents did and obviously had enjoyed his music.
No one played a guitar or fiddle in our family but we sang. Oh, yes, we sang. Our Dad had a very good bass voice and it just came naturally to sing along with him.
As I grew up, even though it wasn’t cool, I still preferred the country and western music to anything else, including rock and roll. One of my best friends did her best to raise my musical sights a bit when we were kids, but didn’t succeed. These days, she loves to tell me that she has become a country music fan. In fact, she was one of the first to make sure I would be watching the documentary.
I’m not a big television fan and usually turn it off no later than nine o’clock. However, for eight nights — on two separate weekends — I stayed up well past 10 watching Burns’s production with absolute fascination. I sat in my comfortable chair, not taking any breaks, and realized that I had a goofy grin on my face for the entire while.
Just in case anyone reading this did not watch it, I promise you, fan of the genre or not, you really missed something: from Jimmy Rodgers and the early Carter Family, from Gene Autry and Bob Wills, and on to Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs — the gut-wrenching heart-breaking and at times hilarious music became more and more popular.
Hank Williams, dubbed the Hillbilly Shakespeare, appeared on the scene before I was 10 years old. As young as I was, his songs just reached the center of my soul. I began learning to play some of them on our piano by ear. I was way to young to really understand the words to songs such as “Your Cheating Heart” and “Cold Cold Heart.” Despite Williams’ flaws, he also wrote the popular gospel song “I Saw the Light.”
Then, along came Johnny Cash. I was an instant fan and when he partnered up with June Carter … well, I didn’t think it could get any better than that.
Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Charlie Pride, Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton, the Judds, Reba McIntyre, Kathy Mattea — the list goes on and on. They wrote and sang the songs of America.
And there are still times, now and then when I hear an old familiar country tune, that I can almost see that old radio on the shelf in Mom’s kitchen and the steam rising from the dishpans on the stove.
And yes, there is our Daddy, our Daddy singing bass.