What’s Making Me Happy: Country Music

This is an occasional series following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment. I use some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

I grew up listening to a lot of country music, both the recent vintage from the 1990s and classic artists like Johnny Horton. To this day, I regularly put on country albums or songs when I want to scratch a nostalgic itch, so I was thrilled to learn that the latest Ken Burns project is the history of country music, now airing on PBS.

The first episode of the series explores the origin of country music and the associated instruments, including the fiddle, the banjo, and the acoustic guitar before turning to examine the first stars of the genre, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. The second episode continues the story westward to Texas during the Depression.

Burns makes a couple of specific choices in the first episode that make it one of my favorite installment in any KB documentary.

Burns chooses to identify all of the talking heads––an all-star mix of writers, singers, and musicians from Merle Haggard to Roseanne Cash to Ketch Secor to Rhiannon Giddens to John McEuen––by their state rather than by their job, profession, or title. Although he goes away from it for the second episode, this decision makes country music a national genre rather than uniquely Appalachia and underscore the power of place. At the same time, it underscores other themes of the episode such as how groups like the Carter Family came from rural Appalachia, others, like the Atlanta factory worker Fiddling’ John Carson, consciously adopted a rural aesthetic––a presentation that the record companies later encouraged their stars to do.

Another thematic point that I appreciated in the first episode is how Burns explores intersection through its connection to the Blues and early Jazz. Some of this was negative like Henry Ford anti-semitic diatribe against jazz that accompanied his decision to sponsor country dances of his youth, but much more was neutral or even positive. Burns examines how A.P. Carter (the problematic character behind Sarah and Maybelle Carter) acquired music for the group, including from black churches and how Louis Armstrong performed on Blue Yodel #9 with Jimmie Rodgers.

In addition to the substantive intersection between these genres, Burns also explores the power of the record labels and radio stations (complete with John R. Brinkley and the station he created to promote his xenotranplantation procedure that restored male performance by putting goat testicles in humans). In Burns’ telling, the earliest record labels that put out country music were the labels that put out music for ethnic minorities. The original Grand Old Opry radio show on NBC, by contrast, followed immediately after performances classical music and opera.

Suffice to say, I am not disappointed. This is a recognizably Ken Burns production, complete with Peter Coyote and slow panning shots of old pictures, and, for all of its detail, there are points where he has to leave out the complexities of early pioneers in order to tell the story of the people whose contributions most shaped the genre. The second episode largely picks up where the first one leaves off, but gave back a couple of the subtle points like the identification of people by place. Nevertheless, the first two episodes are a richly-textured story of a genre interwoven with the currents of American history.

American Icons: Fiddler on the Roof

This past weekend, Studio 360, a radio program from WNYC, ran the latest in its “American Icons” series. In the series, they run a story that digs into the creation of the piece of culture and then try to explain how it qualifies as an “American Icon” and how it is changed over time. For instance, in the installment about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the host looked into how the portrayal of Uncle Tom changed from one of sympathy to one of spineless compliance and betrayer–and why the term remains virulent while the actual readership of the novel has fallen off.

The latest installment is about “Fiddler on the Roof.” The piece explains how a series of stories about Tevye the Milkman, written in yiddish by Sholem Aleichem about a particular place and time and set of circumstances in the Russian Empire became one of the most successful Broadway plays of all time (once holding the record for longest running play). The piece makes the argument that the play was conceived around the idea of tradition, change, and generational struggle that became and remain particularly resonant with immigrants to the United States (note: the play concludes with the emigration to the United States). Thus, while the individual details and songs are those of Jewish life, the story is a universal one for the American experience.

Find the story (written and audio) here. If you like this story, I also recommend the documentary about Sholem Aleichem, Laughing in the Darkness, which goes further into the author and his stories than does the Studio 360 piece.

Local Advertising and Concussions

Despite the national sports media members who loudly protest that they played through concussions and were just fine, concussions are serious. Of course players are going to try to go back into the game if given a choice, competitors are driven to compete and do not like being forced to watch, particularly once they reach a level where past performance validates their ability. That is why the coaches, the officials, and the support staff need to step in and protect the players from themselves. And, as Stephania Bell used to remind the hosts of ESPN’s fantasy focus podcast, it is a misnomer that there are “mild” concussions. Concussions are brain injuries that range in symptoms, but that are all serious and get worse with repeat occurrence.

Michigan football has a number of problems right now and while the fans are angry for any number of reasons, it was the procedure (or lack thereof) for a concussed quarterback, Shane Morris, who was allowed to go back into the football game when visibly in need of his teammates to stand upright after a vicious hit, that landed Michigan football on national TV morning shows. It was an NFL concussion lawsuit that saw a judge reject a 870 million dollar settlement because she believed the the settlement would not be able to cover all the damages (she approved it when they removed the cap on payouts). A new book, Boy on Ice, details the life of Derek Boogaard, an enforcer in the NHL, who suffered multiple concussions and then died of a drug overdose at 28; Boogaard’s family donated his brainstem to science because he underwent a personality shift in the last years of his life. Major league baseball has had issues with players hit in the head, colliding with walls and players, or getting kneed in the head while sliding into a base, which has derailed the career of a number of excellent players.

The list goes on, the point is just to illustrate that concussions are not an isolated issue and are hardly limited to contact sports. This is the context in which I am actually outraged at the radio ad run by one of the local car dealerships.

Fletcher Honda in Columbia, Mo, currently has on air a commercial imitating a football game. A player gets taken out in a vicious hit and the coach comes out to ask if he knows where he is. In a dim and woozy voice the player asks for a combo meal. The coach asks a second question and the player says he wants a super-sized combo meal. Then the coach asks if he knows where to get the best deal for his trade-in vehicle, to which the player more confidently replies that the answer is Fletcher Honda. Because the player gets the third question right, the coach proclaims he is good to go.

My problems here are that the ad is completely tone-deaf and that if I heard someone legitimately answer the first two questions I would diagnose him with a concussion over the radio, without needing any training or further confirmation. But then they imply that he is going to go right back into the game. Because he knows a bit of trivia that may or may not be true about a car dealership here. At least if anyone questions them about their message, they can say that their spokesman had a brain injury when he asserted it.

I am not in advertising and I am aware that local dealership ads are not easy and that this is their attempt at provide a humorous, catchy spot. And I have given some thought to how they might revamp this same concept in a way that relieves my concern, but I don’t see one. Making light of concussions is beyond tacky and I cringe whenever I hear it come on.