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Country Music: An Illustrated History

By By Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns

Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, 560 pages, $55.00

Reviewed by Robert Loy, September 2019

Find it on Amazon
Finally!

It certainly seems as though country music should have gotten the Ken Burns treatment long before now. It's been around way longer than jazz or baseball or any of the other subjects Burns has masterfully illuminated. It's roots are even older than the Civil War, arguably Burns's magnum opus - way older, actually.

Maybe Burns just wanted to take the time to do it right, and if that's the case, then all is forgiven because this companion to the 16-hour PBS documentary series, definitely does it right.

The pictures alone are worth the price of admission. These coffee table books are often advertised as being lavishly illustrated, but in this case it's an understatement. A lot of them are rare - and some, like the one of 12-year-old Marty Stuart meeting his musical idol and future wife Connie Smith are cute - and the book format, unlike video, gives one a chance to savor and study them.

You can dip into this book just about anywhere and pick up a fascinating fact you didn't know - such as how a distinctively Swiss sound - yodeling, which has been around since the 16th century and was described by Sir Walter Scott as "a variation upon the tones of a jackass" - came to be such an integral part of country music. And the difference between Jimmie Rodgers's "blue" yodeling and traditional alpine yodels.

Everybody knows how much country music borrowed and incorporated African-American instruments and influences, but did you know it worked both ways? Chuck Berry's first hit "Maybellene" was an rocking R&B reworking of the Bob Wills classic tune "Ida Red"?

Speaking of Jimmie Rodgers, were you aware that a lot of very famous country singers - Ernest Tubb, Gene Autry and Hank Snow, to name just a few - started out as Rodgers impersonators. (And you thought that kind of thing originated after Elvis.)

But if you want to do more than win trivia contests, if you want a deeper understanding of what this music we all love is, where it came from and what it means, quit dipping and dive in.

Learn how diverse the threads that make up "hillbilly music" (as it used to be known) how improbable it all was that they would come together to create this great genre of music. Learn about its rise and fall - and rise and fall, how close it came to dying out several times.

Its most serious brush with oblivion occurred in the late '50s and early '60s, when fewer than 100 stations in America played country and western music. Even Chicago's WLS, home of the original National Barn Dance program had switched to a rock format. Ernest Tubb was ready to quit music and join his brother's insurance agency. Hank Snow and Webb Pierce were recording songs like "Hula Rock" and "Teenage Boogie." The story of how country managed to survive and eventually thrive is as exciting as it is unlikely.

It will make the reader more appreciative of the music we love and grateful to Burns and Duncan for taking the time to tell the story the way it deserves to be told.