My moment of revelation about country music happened years ago at the old T&T Western Lounge on Niagara Street. It was a big, barn-like joint that would subsequently become known in Buffalo for its policy providing unusual, for the time, welcome to gay and lesbian audiences.
At that moment, though, it was just a place I had been dragged against my will by a woman who felt she had every right to make up for all the jazz and R&B clubs I’d dragged her to — sometimes with her indulgent affection, but no genuine interest.
My guess is that most of the jazz-loving males in the world have similar stories.
The band that night at the T&T was on a break, which meant the jukebox — that wonderful invention — was playing.
As I listened to all of the music that was sucking up the quarters I had my startling, semi-revelatory moment.
I knew the lyrics to three quarters of the country songs being played.
Not all the words for each song, of course, but at least one verse of the song and the chorus for three quarters of them.
Please understand I had prided myself throughout my teens and early ’20’s for being, among other things, completely dismissive of country music. I made it plain to anyone who might want to know for whatever reason, that it just wasn’t for me.
You’d never catch me putting quarters in a machine for that — not the way I’d throw them into local jukeboxes that had Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly, Eddie Harris, Dave Brubeck, etc. The old Parkway on Elmwood, which later became J. P. Bullfeathers, had a particularly fine and unpretentious jazz outlay on their jukebox.
But there I was at the T&T lounge listening to others’ country favorites with their lyrics in my head — not just on obvious records like Ray Charles’ version of “You Are My Sunshine,” but for Buck Owens’ delightful Bakersfield “Bubblegum Country,” too. Most of the country sophisticates I knew dismissed Buck as beneath discussion back then, but there I was singing along with “Tiger by the Tail.”
Yes, it was true all my life I’d had a weakness for the native surrealism of novelty country hit-makers like Roger Miller and Jerry Reed (and even some Ray Peters, too), but Buck presented to the world a special kind of prime-time-ready “what, me worry?” picking and grinning.
Without my nobler tastes and more ambitious sensibility being consulted, it seems my ears were fond of it.
I was The Buffalo News’ recordings editor right from the beginning of our record columns in 1972. Our first country record reviewer was Gary Deeb, who’d fallen under the music’s spell at a country radio station. Then, after Gary, they were reviewed by Jim Brennan, a former editor-in-chief of the UB Spectrum and eventual News TV Topics editor.
I teased both of them about their tastes, but I also learned from them about this strange new thing happening — “Outlaw Country,” which I sometimes liked a lot. When, years later, I heard Waylon Jennings’ slowed-down, plaintive version of Little Richard’s old primal rock screamer “Lucille,” I was flabbergasted by its total re-creation of a landmark hit record. It readjusted completely what I assumed to be true about country singles.
I honestly don’t know how many of my unaccountable and idiosyncratic affections for country music will make it down the road in Ken Burns’ “Country Music” epic history, which began Sunday on PBS. I tend to doubt strongly it will be much. Simple seems to outweigh sophistication almost entirely in my country affections.
“Country Music” on PBS, as is almost always the case, finds Burns wanting to fry much bigger fish than my willfulness. Nor do I blame Burns in the slightest for rapping his lectern after clearing his throat.
I always like his essential point about American vernacular activities, whether jazz or country music or baseball, which is the all-color ethnic melange of it all. In the case of music, using instruments and traditions from all over European and African diasporas.
What characterized American music from almost everywhere is what Burns, bless him, is almost always eager to remind us: its universality. Long may he wave.
But unfortunately I found the first installment of Burns’ “Country Music” a bit of an admirable bore. It was punctiliously accurate about the relationship of radio and recorded technology to the music itself and its audience capture, but almost seemed to be reluctant to be as engaging as its subject.
Jazz historian Ted Gioia has said that Burns, in “Jazz,” never seemed all that engaged by jazz as music in his series. That’s because his usual practice is to relegate music itself to soundtracks for lecturing exposition and in brief snippets. Even when adequate footage is available he’s reluctant to run it with any sort of length and explanatory commentary.
To put it as simply as possible: Burns’ histories always depend on his writing collaborators. His current one, Dayton Duncan, co-produced the fine companion book to the “Country Music” series, but in its television form seems to be afraid of introducing too much that might actually make it popular. Respectability, unfortunately, seems to have been preferred.
. . .
That, of course, will never be the case with what we call “reality TV” in the 21st century, even though that tubal excrescence actually gave us a president.
In the case of this week’s reality TV finales, may I offer the notably eccentric view that reality TV actually created commanding television. In the case of “Big Brother” and “America’s Got Talent,” both have been cunning indeed about pleasing mass audiences.
“Big Brother” in particular presented a shrewdly entertaining show Sunday in which the show’s seemingly indomitable male competitor — who is called “Mickey” by everyone — suddenly broke down into plausible tears over the “showmance” he said will eventually lead to actual marriage when the show ends.
It was uncommonly artful manipulation, reality TV style. Speaking of reality show genius, did you happen to catch what the costume designers of “Dancing with the Stars” forced Sean Spicer to wear for his debut on the show Monday night? No op-ed column anywhere could ever make the point better.
That’s why I’d like to offer another personally revelatory moment.
I think I have the perfect subject for Burns to deal with after he finishes with “Country Music.”
He has dealt already with such American subjects as the Civil War, jazz, baseball, the Vietnam War and now country music.
What better subject for Burns to deal with in the major epic that lies within him is a series many times the size of the Civil War on television itself — one far weightier and more sophisticated than the mere clip shows CNN has done up to now.
It’s just a thought I offer Mr. Burns free of charge from my well-modulated and somewhat wary fandom.