This voluminous and hugely entertaining introduction to country music coincides with the release of the eponymous PBS series, by producer and writer Duncan (Out West) and producer and filmmaker Burns (The Civil War). The authors take readers through the history of country music, including Jimmie Rodgers’s performance on Asheville’s first radio station in 1927, the gospel-infused strains of the Carter Family in the 1930s and ’40s, the country and western stylings of Ernest Tubb in the 1950s, the strings-drenched Nashville Sound of the 1960s, later, the outlaw country of Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson and the California country of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard; and the 1980s and ’90s pop country sound of Garth Brooks, the Judd sisters, and Reba McEntire. The narrative—supported by concert photos and images of album jackets and various memorabilia—moves at a quick clip as the authors highlight the lives and music of such influential musicians as Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Hank Williams. They also celebrate the venues that have become like holy temples, especially Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium—home of the Grand Ole Opry—and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, across the alley from the Ryman. Interspersed throughout are interviews with such country music stars as Rosanne Cash, Guy Clark, Marty Stuart, and Emmylou Harris (“The simplicity of country music is one of the most important things about it,” Harris says). Duncan’s and Burns’s lavishly illustrated and cinematic narrative will stand as the definitive history of the genre. (Sept.)
"Master documentarian Burns and his stellar, longtime writer collaborator Duncan have produced another large, handsome, avidly researched volume bursting with vivid anecdotes and rare archival photographs... This dynamic and monumental history captures the spirit, resonance, variety, and power of country music as a balm for hard times, catalyst for good times, and vibrant expression of life’s obdurate complexities. While the Country Music documentary series offers sound and motion, the book offers a still, at-your-own-pace immersion that enriches the video experience and stands steady on its own."
—Booklist, starred review
"This voluminous and hugely entertaining introduction to country music coincides with the release of the eponymous PBS series, by producer and writer Duncan (Out West) and producer and filmmaker Burns (The Civil War)... The narrative—supported by concert photos and images of album jackets and various memorabilia—moves at a quick clip as the authors highlight the lives and music of such influential musicians as Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Hank Williams... Duncan’s and Burns’s lavishly illustrated and cinematic narrative will stand as the definitive history of the genre."
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
"A lucid, jam-packed, richly illustrated companion to the Ken Burns documentary series... Country music is America's music—which is to say, music from every culture and ethnicity. An essential guide."
—Kirkus, starred review
Lucid, jam-packed, richly illustrated companion to the Ken Burns documentary series.
Was Earl Scruggs the Eddie Van Halen of his day? Quoting John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Duncan (Seed of the Future: Yosemite and the Evolution of the National Park Idea, 2013, etc.) makes the connection between the banjo master and the guitar shredder: "It was so fast. It was what excited people." In the same way, Hank Williams was a punk rocker in his time, while Willie Nelson—well, Willie is unmistakably himself. As Rhiannon Giddens, of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, has lately been demonstrating, country music is the music of rural blacks, whites, and Native people, a style, writes the author, that "was not invented; it emerged." Rising from the bottom up and drawing, like the blues, on black gospel, country music was popularized by the new medium of radio, becoming a staple through "hillbilly" variety shows throughout the South. As a mix of ethnic forms, it ironically slipped through Henry Ford's racist denunciation of jazz, gaining in popularity at the same time. Some country stars came to prominence accidentally: Roy Acuff might have been a baseball star had it not been for a case of sunstroke, and had he not been abused as a child, Hank Snow might not have run away from home. And then there are the working-class strivers: the ill-fated Williams, Wanda Jackson, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline. Duncan has broad tastes and an appreciation for the many strains that feed into the musical form, so that Dwight Yoakam, the Judds, Gram Parsons, and Guy Clark get as much play as Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash, and George Jones. He also tracks the rising and waning commercial fortunes of country, which found plenty of room for the likes of Garth Brooks and new pop-y stars while freezing out old-timers like Nelson and Cash.
Country music is America's music—which is to say, music from every culture and ethnicity. An essential guide.
This companion volume to the similarly titled Burns documentary is worth a look, chiefly for interweaving the origins and development of country music with profiles of its biggest and most influential personalities. Cowritten by Burns and filmmaker and author Duncan (Out West), the book is lavishly illustrated and studded with detail, emphasizing the influence of such massive historical events as the Great Depression and World War II on the rise of one of America's major musical genres. The authors stress that country has been inextricably intertwined with blues, folk, rock and roll, and even jazz, making the brouhaha over Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" seem even sillier than it already was. It turns out that the denigration and isolation of country from other forms of American music—it's the "I like everything except" for a lot of people—are arbitrary distinctions that Burns's documentary, and this work, should help correct. A discography would have been useful, but on the other hand you could drop the name of any artist profiled here into Spotify and end up with a solid accompanying playlist for your reading. VERDICT A pleasing, thorough, but not unwieldy survey. For country music fans and neophytes alike.—Genevieve Williams, Pacific Lutheran Univ. Lib., Tacoma