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Ken Burns: Country Music, Episode 2: “Hard Times (1933-1945)” reviewed


Episode 2 of the Ken Burns documentary series “Country Music” covers 1933 to 1945, in many ways the leanest years of the genre. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl left most potential consumers too cash strapped to purchase records. Also, while not mentioned in the documentary, World War II created a shortage of shellac, the original substance used for record production prior to the transition to vinyl. Also, from an artistic standpoint, the War created a heavy demand for simplistic, jingoistic material that hasn’t aged well.

However, to backtrack, the “Hard Times” episode begins with the migration to the Maddox family from Alabama to California. Although not explicitly stated, in was during this era when the “Western” part of the outdated “Country and Western” terminology originated. The Maddox Brothers and Rose weren’t musicians until they decided that performing might result in a better lifestyle than field work. Entertainers more than purists, they eventually wore elaborate Western costumes as part of their stage appeal. Equally adept at understanding the power of marketing was Gene Autry, who transformed from a Jimmie Rodgers imitator into the original Singing Cowboy, taking his gimmick to the silver screen and television on his way to international stardom.

The other featured performers in this episode are Bob Wills, Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Minnie Pearl, and a continuation of the musical contributions and family drama within the Carter Family. Radio became the most popular means of promoting the music during this timeframe, with the strength of the National Barn Dance in Chicago, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and the XERA Mexican border radio station that could be heard throughout the United States and became the Carter Family’s regular gig.

Unfortunately, the series continues to give short shrift to many important figures in country music history, going for depth on a few subjects rather than breadth. One would think from this episode that the Carter Family invented country music, instead of using their talents to popularize it. Bob Wills is undoubtedly the “King of Western Swing” music and it was beneficial to hear Ray Benson discuss the broad range of music that influenced Wills, including the German/Eastern European polkas brought from immigrants to south Texas, as well as traditional blues and Spanish music. Still, a few minutes should have been dedicated to Milton Brown, who created the genre of Western swing in partnership with Wills. The Delmore Brothers were mentioned primarily as traveling companions with DeFord Bailey, but there was no mention (at least in this episode) of their close harmony singing and its impact on future acts such as The Louvin Brothers and The Everly Brothers. It was during 1939 that Cliff Bruner released “Truck Drivers’ Blues,” a national hit that originated the trucking theme that would be popular in country music for decades. There is no mention of Bruner at all. There is an exceptionally long segment on Minnie Pearl instead. She yelled “Howdy!” a lot.

Viewers of this episode would have no idea that Ernest Tubb existed in 1941 and released his “Walking the Floor over You,” beginning the genre’s transition from Western swing and cowboy themed entertainers to hard core honky tonk. The mind fucking boggles.

Grade: B-

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