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Five-CD box reflects film maker Ken Burns' upcoming "Country Music" series on PBS

A rousing counterpart to Ken Burns' forthcoming eight-episode PBS documentary “Country Music,” this astutely assembled 105-song box traces the music's evolution since its early recordings.
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By Bruce Sylvester


A rousing counterpart to Ken Burns' forthcoming eight-episode PBS documentary “Country Music,” this astutely assembled 105-song box traces the music's evolution since its early recordings. The Big Bang of country music – perhaps we could even say of American music – came in 1927 in Bristol, TN, when in a single day a talent search turned up both The Carter Family and singing brakeman Jimmie Rodgers. The notes remark that the Carters showed where country music had been, while Rodgers showed where it was going.

The box's nicely illustrated 70-page booklet points out, “Once it started being recorded and broadcast in the 1920s, the music grew and evolved, sprouting many new branches … from bluegrass to Western swing, the smooth Nashville Sound to the harder-edged Bakersfield Sound, Memphis rockabilly to Austin's outlaws, to name just a few – ultimately creating a complicated chorus of American voices, joining together to tell a complicated American story, one song at a time.”

Tracks are sequenced more or less chronologically, with a few singers' and writers' songs mostly together. Among the thematic sequences, Lefty Frizzell's die-for-love tale “The Long Black Veil” segues to Marty Robbins' “El Paso.” Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt are placed together. Four cuts after Ray Price's keening, twangy 1956 “Crazy Arms,” he gets a sophisticated uptown arrangement on 1963's “Night Life” (one of Willie Nelson's earliest hits as a writer), which is sensibly followed by Faron Young's '61 “Hello Walls” (Willie's breakthrough as a songsmith). Mother having been almost sacred in country songs, Merle Haggard's fictional “Hungry Eyes” and partly autobiographical “Mama Tried” precede Jeannie C. Riley's “Harper Valley P.T.A,” where a miniskirted mom stands up to small-town hypocrisy.

Country music has often been characterized as three chords and the truth. The booklet is honest enough to share Rodney Crowell's observation “Country music, at its best, is truth telling, even when it's a big fat lie.” As a discreet comment, disc 2 opens with Hank Williams' “Honky Tonkin',” disc 4 with Waylon Jennings' “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.”

Hank's four cuts reveal the care going into preparing the box. “Honky Tonkin'” and “Lovesick Blues” are original hit singles from studio sessions. Then come “I Saw the Light” and “Hey, Good Lookin'” from his daily 1952 radio show sponsored by Mother's Best flour, for whom he does an ad. Some of those shows were pretaped on acetate, which captured a singer's heart and soul way better than the more-durable magnetic tapes used in most recording sessions. A few tracks later, Little Brenda Lee (as she was then billed) knocks out his “Jambalaya” with professionalism way beyond her 11 years.

Along with stars and heroes, a few less famous folks appear. Take The Maddox Brothers and Rose with their unhinged hillbilly precursors to rock and roll. For that matter, James and Martha Carson's 1951 “I'll Fly Away” shows gospel veering toward rock before rock was a concept.

Subtly the box reveals links on the chain. The easy-going crooning style stretches from Rodgers to Frizzell to Hag to George Strait. Over the five discs, we hear Rodgers' laconic original 1931 “Muleskinner Blues (Blue Yodel No. 8),” Bill Monroe's hard-driving bluegrass rendition (1940), the Maddoxes' raucous 1948 version, and Dolly Parton's bravado-filled 1970 take. Near the close, Ricky Skaggs covers Monroe's “Uncle Pen,” Big Mon's paean to the uncle who taught him the musical ropes.

As for the First Family of Country Music, the set opens with the original Carter Family (A.P., Sara, and Maybelle) on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” from 1935. Disc 2 has Maybelle's future son-in-law Johnny Cash doing “I Walk the Line” (from Sun Studios in Memphis) and “Ring of Fire.” Disc 3 has his “Man in Black” and “Folsom Prison Blues” and closes with Maybelle sharing lead vocal on the title track to Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1972 three-LP extravaganza “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” an encyclopedia of bluegrass history. Rosanne Cash sings her own “Seven Year Ache” on disc 4 and then on disc 5 covers two of her dad's songs. By the time the box closes with the Nitty Gritties' 1989 all-star ensemble redoing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” we've essentially been told that yes, the circle is unbroken.