tue 21/11/2017

The Joy of Country, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

The Joy of Country, BBC Four

The Joy of Country, BBC Four

Whirlwind tour of the music's history is woefully brief

Hank Williams, doomed genius of heartbreak and honky tonk

The makers of this short history of country music had done a good job of rounding up interviewees, who included such veterans as Ray Price, Merle Haggard and Charley Pride alongside the offspring of several country legends. We met Shooter Jennings (son of Waylon), Hank Williams III and Georgette Jones (daughter of Tammy Wynette and George Jones). Trouble is, by the time their interviews had been diced into small fragments and lobbed in with an additional list of pundits and critics, their impact had dissipated.

The solution? This should either have been a longer film or the first of two (or three) parts, because it isn't as if the history of country lacks incident or character. OK, I know - it's the budget, stupid. Anyway, even this potted survey was enough to illustrate - somewhat schematically - the way social change inspired the music's drastic stylistic developments and to tick off some timeless country icons (pictured above, the legendary Johnny Cash).

In the beginning, at least in this version of the story, was Jimmie Rodgers, the so-called "Singing Brakeman" (he used to work on the railroad) and the inventor of the "blue yodel". Then we galloped ahead to singing cowboy Gene Autry and the rise of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville - the cowboy, we learned, became a symbol of frontierless freedom in the era of the Wall Street crash and widespread penury - and onward to bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, Bob Wills and Western Swing, heartbreak and honky-tonk from Hank Williams and the suburbanisation of country via Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn.

But the better it got, the more you wished it would slow down and show us a bit more of these assorted great artists. Elvis came and went in the twinkling of an eye and a few fleeting bars of music, even though he was a vital link between country and rock'n'roll. There was a great clip of Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash duetting on Merle's "Sing Me Back Home", but the cloth-eared editor faded it just as they came to the chorus. The shot of Patsy Cline singing "Crazy" was just enough to get you thinking "that was great, now how about a bit of 'Walking After Midnight'?", when she was gone. There was a bit of Waylon and a glimpse of Willie but only a still photo of Kris Kristofferson, though Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton (pictured above) were more generously served. In fact the film went out of its way to stress the contribution of country's female performers, so maybe there had once been a plan to do a show each on the men and the women.

The Joy of Country screeched to an abrupt halt by suggesting that the ineffable D. Parton may well be the last of the all-time country legends, then illustrated the way the great tradition has morphed into stadium-sized pointlessness with shots of Garth "the anti-Hank" Brooks and Taylor Swift. It was a bit unfair to put poor Taylor up against Johnny Cash's video for "Hurt", a terrifying valediction in which his life and death flashed before our eyes, because there has never been another artist on the planet who could stare down the Man in Black. But it was a forceful reminder of the richness, power and character in the work of the finest country artists, and of the fact that there are no younger ones coming up capable of pulling on their boots.

Elvis came and went in the twinkling of an eye and a few fleeting bars of music, even though he was a vital link between country and rock'n'roll

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Those who wish for a more definitive account would do well to seek out the American PBS four disc DVD set American Roots Music, narrated by Kris Kristofferson, which also takes in blues, gospel and much else.

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