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.

The Great British Baking Show

Through the magic of the PBS website I just finished watching four episodes of the latest season of the Great British Baking Show (aka the Great British Bake Off), a show that I had never paid much mind to, despite it utterly consuming my twitter feed for the past two seasons. Now I’m hooked and the fact that there are another forty five episodes out there is going to eat at me as though I’m going through withdrawal. But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself.

The show is an amateur baking competition where professional judges winnow down a field of candidates through a series of difficult challenges and demands. Each week has a theme and the format remained the same throughout: first, the bakers create their signature bakes where, within the bounds of the assignment, they are free to create whatever they want to do to show off; second, they have a technical challenge, where they all receive the exact same recipe and competed to do that successfully; finally, they have a showcase where they are given a specific thing to make and had to go over the top in terms of performance and presentation. In each case, the judges weigh the offerings based on the presentation, uniformity of size, texture, taste, and flavors. At the end of each episode, one baker is dismissed and one baker is named as the best baker.

As in any cooking show, the challenges are compounded because the contestants are barely given enough time to complete the tasks, which is doubly tough when many of the recipes require time for leavening and proofing, and others also require the dough to remain cold right up until the time the proofing starts and then must be proofed at room temperature. Also like other cooking shows, the contestants are encouraged to get creative with ingredients and flavors, but, unlike the American shows I’ve seen, here the contestants seemed encouraged to bring ingredients from their own gardens or jams that they made. Clearly, I don’t know all the rules that they are bound by, but there appeared to be far more liberality with ingredients here than in other shows.

Everything listed above, as well as the skill and inventiveness of the contestants, is what makes the show engaging and watchable, but is the whimsy and congeniality that make the show addictive. There is the whimsical veneer–the bakers bake in a white tent erected in a bucolic, verdant field and the music is straight out of a princess musical, but also a more substantive warmth to the show. The bakers are in competition with each other, yes, and there is always an element of worry and side-eyeing when confronted with an unknown recipe, but, frequently, this is borne of trepidation and a tendency to see what the others are doing in order to emulate them. Perhaps it is the nature of baking, but there is also time for them to observe their competition in a way that most cooking shows don’t offer. There is also no cutthroat element where the contestants snatch away ingredients. In fact, this is the only food show where I have witnessed contestants giving each other a hand, including one instance where the people who had finished banded together to help another contestant finish plating her baked goods.

This atmosphere also carries over to the judging. The judges are, if anything, more demanding than the judges in other shows I’ve seen and they are rating the entries on more qualifications. Yet they are nicer. The judges do not simply declare something a failure, but try to identify what went wrong in the process of creation and will give credit for whatever does work.

The Great British Bak(ing Show/e Off) is a charming show and has inspired me to bake more…as though I needed more inspiration on this or more distractions from my dissertation. In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain describes bakers, albeit bread bakers than the assorted bakings of this show, as wackos and weirdos who manage, through strange alchemy, to conjure amazing things to eat. I can’t really dispute this characterization, but, watching this show, one has to conclude that bakers are just nicer than cooks, too.