‘Not Just Merle Haggard and Garth Brooks’: Ken Burns’ ‘Country Music’< < Back to
On September 18, 1973, 26-year-old Gram Parsons was partying.
The former member of The Byrds and founder of short-lived but greatly revered acts The Flying Burrito Brothers and the International Submarine Band was, at the time, not a celebrated, enormously influential figure in country western music. He was an alcoholic trust-fund kid with a serious drug problem who had left a series of destroyed relationships — personal and professional, in his wake.
He was vacationing at the Joshua Tree National Monument in southeastern California with his roommates at the time, and that night had decided to drink for “all three of them,” before allegedly downing six tequila doubles. He then headed back to the Joshua Tree Inn, where he bought opiates from a stranger and proceeded to inject them before passing out — for good. Parsons would be declared dead early in the morning on September 19, after his roommates scrambled to unsuccessfully revive him.
Fast forward some 46 years later, (almost to the exact day, in Parsons’ case,) and such devastatingly American stories are being immortalized by lauded filmmaker Ken Burns, whose eight-part, 16-hour documentary series Country Music will debut on WOUB-TV on Sunday, September 15 at 8 p.m. EDT. The series features over 101 interviews with legends such as Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Garth Brooks, and many more.
The documentary series takes a broad examination of the deeply American art form: from it’s roots in African American blues music, the spiritual songs of early America, and Anglo-American folk, to what it means to be creating country music in 2019. The series also looks at the many genres that branched out from country western, such as rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, and Americana.
In addition, on Sunday, September 8 at 8 p.m., WOUB-TV will broadcast Country Music: Live at the Ryman, a set of live performances by the likes of Kathy Mattea, Vince Gill, Rhiannon Giddens, Dierks Bentley, and more, to further promote Country Music. As a part of the celebration of Burns’ deep-dive into one of the genres that is cherished the most by WOUB’s readers, listeners, and watchers, WOUB Culture reached out to a few country western enthusiasts in the area.
John Borchard is a local musician who spent his childhood in a suburb of Chicago, absorbing the sounds of Motown and blues on the radio until he moved to Athens with his parents when he was 16.
“At the time, country was considered a bit… like, low class. But I did like what I heard. When I came down here, I was still into the blues. I started playing guitar when I was about 13. I’d been playing kind of blues and rock ‘n’ roll, and when I got down here of course there was a lot of bluegrass music down here; but there was also a fair amount of country music,” said Borchard.
Andrew Lampela, another local musician, said his familiarity with country music sprang initially by growing up in Athens.
“Being a kid in the late ’70s, early ’80s, it was really hard to escape country music around here,” Lampela said. “I definitely rebelled against it all until maybe my 20s, when I started to appreciate some of that stuff. I started to see how absolutely awesome Waylon Jennings is, and then I started digging around for other things. Then I found Charlie Feathers, and then suddenly I was like ‘Wow, rockabilly! It’s an offshoot of country.’ Then I tried listening to the Carter Family, which is pretty bizarre to modern ears.”
For Lampela, it helped that alternative country started to put a less conventional, and more punk-rock friendly spin on the genre of country as he came into his 20s, with acts like Uncle Tupelo and The Jayhawks penning fantastic albums throughout the late ‘80s and into the early ‘90s, perhaps especially Uncle Tupelo’s seminal 1990 release No Depression and The Jayhawks’ 1992 album Hollywood Town Hall.
“Being a kid in the late ’70s, early ’80s, it was really hard to escape country music around here. I definitely rebelled against it all until maybe my 20s, when I started to appreciate some of that stuff. I started to see how absolutely awesome Waylon Jennings is, and then I started digging around for other things. Then I found Charlie Feathers, and then suddenly I was like ‘Wow, rockabilly! It’s an offshoot of country.’ Then I tried listening to the Carter Family, which is pretty bizarre to modern ears.” – Andrew Lampela, regional musician
“You know, country is one of those things that everyone should get into on a much deeper level, because it’s not just country,” he said. “There’s such a depth to it that you should definitely explore more. If you think it’s just Merle Haggard and Garth Brooks, you’re so totally wrong.”
When Borchard moved to Texas at the age of 26, he started playing at and around honky-tonks near Austin.
“Texas has this dance tradition that we don’t really have up here in the north,” Borchard said. “In some places, other than the dance halls, there’s nothing. Absolutely nothing out there except scrubland, live oak trees and mesquite trees and cattle. Then you’d come over a hill and there’d be this giant structure that could hold like 3,000 people. On Friday and Saturday nights they’d be packed to the rafters. Everybody dances. I mean, there are people from age two to age 102 that are dancing!”
Borchard’s wife recently found a tape of the band that Borchard played with in Texas.
“Texas has this dance tradition that we don’t really have up here in the north. […] On Friday and Saturday nights they’d be packed to the rafters. Everybody dances. I mean, there are people from age two to age 102 that are dancing!” – John Borchard, regional musician
“With my familiarity with the venues then, I listen to it now and I go, I can’t believe we got away with that stuff!” he said, referencing the wide array of pop and rock style songs that the band would play, even though those venues were pretty strictly about playing country western. For example, Borchard’s group once got kicked out of a venue for playing The Eagles’ country-inspired pop song “Tequila Sunrise.”
One of Borchard’s bandmates during this time period in his life was Monty Holmes, a songwriter who wrote a number of hits for George Strait (“When Did You Stop Loving Me,” “I Know She Still Loves Me,” “Troubadour,”), as well as Lee Ann Womack (“Never Again, Again”).
“So we had credit, in playing the dance halls, because we had somebody (Holmes) who could do the country stuff, and people just loved that. But it also gave us the ability to go beyond that, play some other stuff. Bert Rivera, who was Hank Thompson’s steel player for many years, had a band that played the dances at the same places that we played. And one of the tunes they would always play was Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train.” And it used to blow my mind!” said Borchard. “The first time I heard him I went ‘oh my god, they’re going to stone him alive!’ But no, they all got out there and danced. And he’d been doing it for a while, and I asked him, I said “How? How’s that fit? I mean, what possessed you?” And he said “Well, you know we play all the hits. We play the country hits, we play a smattering of the rock hits of the day, but that doesn’t mean you can’t educate your audience.”
Borchard said that lesson really stuck with him.
“Even when I was playing up here back before I moved to Texas, I played in a number of bands up here and that was kind of our mode too. We’d play a Hank Williams tune, and then play a Jimmy Reed tune. So, we had pretty eclectic tastes and it’s like Ellington said: “there’s two kinds of music, good, and bad.’” he said. “I kind of adhere to that. The genre is not that important. There’s more to it than that. You can do good music in any format, and you can also do really bad music, obviously.”
Both Borchard and Lampela expressed that they are very excited for Ken Burns’ Country Music.
“The one thing I really like about Ken Burns is he not only makes history watchable, but he also humanizes it. He shows that there are a lot of layers to things, and it’s going to be really fun to watch him dispel the myth that country is a certain thing, because it definitely is not,” said Lampela. “You have Merle Haggard and that stuff is great, but you also have Dwight Yoakam. Totally different thing, but it’s also country and it’s awesome. And like I said, you have Uncle Tupelo, who took all of those old Carter Family traditionals and made them into kind of hillbilly punk rock. I’m sure there will be a lot of really cool stuff buried in there.”