On Monday the 14th, I watched “I Can’t Stop Loving You” which is episode 4 in the Country Music Documentary by Ken Burns. It included the many of the careers that began between 1953 – 1963 including the stories of The Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Brenda Lee, Ray Price, and Ray Charles. The producer, Ken Burns, also wanted to highlight the story of two Tennessee towns, Memphis and Nashville, and how they became the musical epicenter of country, blues, rock, and how all these genres mixed together. Also, how the clash between commercial success and creative freedom and how it spawned “Music Row” founded by Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins in Nashville which still exists and pumps out music with some of the same methods it did almost 60 years ago.
This documentary deals with the aftermath of the death of Hank Williams and how country music had to figure out how to turn itself into a business in order to survive. With rock’n roll becoming the most popular genre of music in the world, country music needed to find its place in American culture and needed big stars to do establish their place. I agree that for any genre to become mainstream there needs to be the first breakthrough star that paves the way for the rest of the smaller musicians so that they may gain a foothold. This is where artists such as Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley were introduced into the documentary and how they were able to mix their own style of country roots with rock and blues to create a “contemporary country”. This became known as “Nashville Sound” which Chet Atkins had coined saying that this new style was “all about the money” as it was the only way country would continue to be played in homes across the country.
This episode also dealt with how some artists refused to adapt their music to rock’n roll or the “Nashville Sound” even though most musicians believed it was the only option in order to survive the decade. For example, Ray Price, who opted to maintain his country roots and choose to keep more authentic country instrumentation in his music as opposed to adding more strings and a more chorus orientated composition. Another artist being Loretta Lyn who also refused to give up her true country musicianship and refused to use anything but a steel guitar and fiddles. I agree with this idea of staying true to your roots because as an artist your music comes from a more genuine and comfortable place than it would if you changed your sound to conform to what was more popular at the time. However, I also don’t see the harm in creating your own unique style by mixing your roots with another established genre such as rock’n roll. Ken Burns shows that both of these roads allowed for mainstream success by highlighting each type of artist's style and how it allowed them to achieve fame. The episode also drew attention to how some country musicians were beginning to lose creative control over their music as the corporate side of music began to become larger. This is an issue that has spanned over the history of music in America where artists are locked in by contracts that obligate them to release records and take away their creative control. Its seen in news all the time where artists are in legal battles against their record labels trying to fight for their music and against the contracts that they signed after they find how out how restricted they have become by their labels.
This episode shows that country can not only be a captivating subject matter but also be something that rises above being just a “genre of music”. The stories of the artists’ rise to fame mixed with a compelling narrative that shows how each of these musician’s success enabled and broke the barriers for the next wave of country musicians. The stories of each of the musicians are shown through impactful photos such as ones from Patsy Cline’s plane crash which included Hawkshaw Haskin’s guitar strap underneath a pile of debris or Patsy’s body covered in a sheet being carried on a stretcher. Burn’s uses these moving photos to show how these artists captivated the world and how their deaths were national tragedies in the country music community, and this was one of the most moving parts of the episode.
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