GARTH BROOKS: THE ROAD I’M ON (Netflix)
COUNTRY MUSIC: A FILM BY KEN BURNS (ViaVision & SBS By Demand)
Garth Brooks doesn’t appear until the final episode of Ken Burns’ 16 hour history of American country music, a climax to the story which runs from the mid-1920s to the mid-1990s (more about that in a bit). And while he’s not afforded the space and time already given to the likes of Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, the Carter family or even Emmylou Harris (but certainly more than given to Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett and the blink-and-you’ve-missed-her Lucinda Williams), he is the centrepiece of that episode.
Not just the centrepiece, but the culmination of country’s move from outsider to fringe to virtually defining the mainstream – the heartland, the “real” America. As we’re told more than a few times in the Netflix bio-doc The Road I’m On, Brooks sold more albums in the USA through the 1990s than anyone else, and became by some counts the most successful solo artist of all time.
And as country star, and his second wife, Trisha Yearwood says, Brooks’ sales was the tide that lifted all country boats. While the limit for country sales 20 years earlier, as Burns shows, was generally around half a million copies, in Brooks’ wake million+ sales became common, not the exception, The chances are if you bought one commercial country album around then, you probably bought two or three - and it was down to him.
Does that weigh heavily on Brooks? In one way, yes, given that as his first marriage broke up at the end of the century he took a look at his family life and decided to give up music to spend time with his three daughters – and not just for a summer or a year or two, a bit of token fathering, but for a decade of total immersion in their day-to-day life alongside his ex-wife.
Contrast that with the stories Burns tells of Jimmie Rodgers and Cash virtually abandoning homes and health for lives on the road, of Audrey Williams trying to mould Hank Williams Jr into a moneymaking copy of his father, or of George Jones and Tammy Wynette set on mutual self-destruction during and after their marriage.
In another way, given most of Brooks’ interviews in the two-part series are conducted as he sits astride a turned chair – Christine Keeler (but dressed) style – manspreading with abandon, and working up earnest tales of early hardship, love of his audience of “angels” and why just about everything brings him to tears, hell yeah it weighs heavily on him.
That’s the best explanation for why he regularly looks straight down the camera to deliver another workaday homily in slowed down, whispered, dramatic tones that suggest this is wisdom cast in stone or the kind of revelation only his minister or wife have heard before this.
(A friend of mine while watching this texted me, with increasing hysteria, “This is like Country Music meets Spinal Tap. WHY IS HE WHISPERING AT ME???”. Another, who had recommended I watch this, later confessed that “I repeatedly find myself stopping what I’m doing, staring down a non-existent camera, and whispering the last few words of every sentence.” Adding “If you ever interview me again, look the fuck out!!”)
While Country Music is made up of two hour episodes which engross and enhance your spirit as much as your knowledge, to survive each 90 minutes of Brooks you can either go, yeah, that’s deep man, sing a line like “Sometimes you have to die to live again”, and believe it, or you laugh your head off at the mannered self-regard borne of too many years of watching 60 Minutes profiles, Behind The Music stories of fame/crash/redemption, and Oprah/Dr Phil afternoon TV life advice, and thinking that’s how you’re meant to portray yourself in front of a camera.
This is the only slice of comedy available in this documentary which runs on high octane American exceptionalism and quasi-religious fervour, fuelled by a genuinely staggering success story of a hyperactive kid in Yukon, Oklahoma, who became a hyperactive young man playing bars in the college town of Stillwater, Oklahoma, who – through trials and tribulations, stints selling boots and singing on other people’s demo tapes – became a hyperactive live performer who made country concerts the sonic, visual and financial equivalent of U2 or Springsteen or Madonna.
And interestingly, a figure who, in contrast to the inherent conservatism assumed of him, broke the race politics and sexuality/gender politics line in country which, despite Burns’ impressive efforts to broaden the stories beyond the white standard, has a shameful past of whitewashing, pure racism, and denial.
Brooks’ explanations of those moves during the culture wars of the ‘90s, and the resistance to them, and his explanation of the Chris Gaines thing - when he created a pop/rock persona for an album meant to presage a film, later abandoned, confusing media and public but still selling two million copies – are a welcome reminder that there is more to him than those homilies and those high-range hokum antics.
What you might wonder if you haven’t watched the Burns series beforehand, is how Brooks’ long run of hit songs – mostly written by Nashville writers with mixed pedigrees before he amplified and enriched them – came to be seen as either the epitome of heart, soul and life’s eternal message as once lived by Mother Maybelle Carter, or if you were of a dissident mind, the pre-packaged, pre-chewed bastardised standard that put the blinkers on at the Grand Ole Opry for decade upon decade?
After all this was a style of music that had never been any one thing, no matter how many times someone tried to set the rules of instrumentation, clothes, religion, roots, hair length, drugs, politics, genre cross-pollination, or accent. If nothing else, the rehabilitation of country from treacly niceness of countrypolitan to the hairy, smoky, leathery alternative of outlaw country that broke the million-sales mark, as played out in episode 7, showed that anyone who claimed “no, only this is country” knew nothing.
The ‘90s merging of pop/rock dynamics and production with the storytelling and melody traditions reshaped American country (and given it was replicated in enthusiastic miniature by Lee Kernaghan and the clones who came in his wake, Australian country music too) but the malleability of the genre is one constant through Country Music.
Rather than on movements or philosophies, the series is hinged on key figures, especially ones whose multi-generational line is strong (the Carters & Cash family lines, the Williams line) or whose connection to those generations via shared stages is still vivid (one of whom, the spectacularly coiffed Marty Stuart, is ever-present in the commentary).
This causes problems in the subtitled claim of the series to be telling “a story of America, one song at a time”, when the development of a folk music drawing from African and European sources in equal measure into popular song is an American story of putting down roots widely, as much as travelling.
But it enables the documentary to obscure the fact it does not have a central thesis, preferring instead to let the iterations of several landmark songs, from the 1930s through to the 1970s, from the Carters to The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, from Rodgers to Parton, make their own point.
In the Burns’ manner, archival photographs and film are mixed with contemporary interviews, providing context and history and personal observation, especially non-white takes. And it is here especially that the folly of watching this series on SBS rather than getting the DVD is shown.
For reasons known only to the producers, the ten-hour international version made available to SBS – and others such as the BBC – doesn’t just cut out a lot of fascinating material and expansive explorations, doesn’t just all but remove stories of small but pivotal people like Gram Parsons or undersell significant dealings of major figures like Roy Acuff, it heavily excises the black experience and the black perspective that so enriches the full program.
It’s a very weird move, especially when the full series has fascinating contributions from the likes of Rhiannon Giddens and Wynton Marsalis. Do they think that non-Americans have no interest or investment in these narratives? It’s as bizarre a move as the decision to finish the country story effectively before the turn of the century, crunching the end of the tale into a rushed, glib wrap-up that exchanges the narrative thread, and several essential writers and performers who ploughed an alternative path again, for a too neat headline.
Tellingly, it’s the same fault Burns’ Jazz series suffered from as it floundered with jazz after the mid-‘60s, and that call means missing altogether the revival of bluegrass post-O Brother Where Art Thou (which would close the unbroken circle, again) the alt.country/Americana reshaping of non-traditional audiences into people who began to see roots not genre surfaces, the restacking of publisher shelves with writers for hire and producers as leaders as the basis of the industry, and the creation of a more female-led creative strength in the 21st century. For a start.
Still, those previous 14 hours, flaws and all, have done enough – and here you must imagine me, ala Garth Brooks, turning to the camera, and whispering this meaningfully – to make the story of country music fascinating and compelling.