By the second half of the 20th century, country music was big business. Radio, records, television and movies all played a part in its popularity, but its artists and its songs were still at the forefront, even as profits soared or slumped. The second half of Ken Burns’ Country Music begins in 1964 and runs through the mid-Nineties, exploring everything from the rise of the Bakersfield Sound to the pop-country explosion of the Seventies, right up to Garth Brooks’ unprecedented approach to superstardom. Rolling Stone Country looks at 10 key moments from this week’s final four installments of Country Music, which will air Sunday night through Wednesday on PBS.
Maybelle Carter got a special invitation to the Newport Folk Festival.
By 1963, original Carter Family member Maybelle Carter was still playing music but working part-time as a certified practical nurse in a Nashville hospital when folk band the New Lost City Ramblers issued an invitation for her to join them at the Newport Folk Festival. On the heels of the folk revival, bluegrass festivals and college campus concerts became extremely popular. In the summer of 1971, Mother Maybelle was among the legendary artists to gather at Nashville’s Woodland Studios for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s recording of the landmark three-record set of old-time and bluegrass tunes, Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Although reluctant to participate initially, Roy Acuff showed up on the final day joining Doc Watson, Merle Travis, Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements, and many more.
Johnny Cash also got invited to play at Newport, by a young folk singer who was had captured his attention.
Cash was knowledgeable and interested in music encompassing all genres and was immediately taken with Bob Dylan’s songs. After writing to the Minnesota native, Cash received a letter back in which Dylan invited him to appear with him at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. The film includes rare footage of Cash and Dylan together at a piano singing Cash’s hit, “I Still Miss Someone.” Rosanne Cash notes that Dylan actually knew the lyrics to the song at the time better than her father, who co-wrote it with his nephew, Roy Cash Jr.
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Buck Owens placed a magazine ad in which he declared his “Pledge to Country Music.”
While the increasingly popular “Nashville Sound” put a silky-smooth polish on the records coming out of Music City, out west the twangy Bakersfield Sound, achieved with the aid of electric guitar, was sharper and edgier. Owens, who was based in Bakersfield, lamented that Nashville’s producers would take “sweet, easy recordings and then they pour a gallon of maple syrup over it. I always wanted to sound like a locomotive coming right through the front door.” In March 1965, Owens’ controversial ad in Music City News read in part. “I shall sing no song that is not a country song. I shall make no record that is not a country record.”
The Vietnam War cost singer Jan Howard two of her three young sons.
Of the military personnel serving in Vietnam, the majority were from working class families, representing country music’s core audience. In fact, 65 percent of records sold at military bases were country records. With two sons in Vietnam, and a younger one still at home, Grand Ole Opry star Jan Howard, married to songwriter Harlan Howard at the time, had written her older son, Jimmy, a letter in which she enclosed a poem for him. She would go on to record the poem as a recitation titled, “My Son,” in late 1968. Not long after that, PFC James Van Howard was killed in a landmine explosion. Her middle son, Carter, also serving in the Army in Vietnam, survived. Howard’s youngest, David, would take his own life in 1973, following a mental breakdown. After her son was killed, war protestors wanting her to join them in Memphis showed up at Howard’s door. Acknowledging they had the right to protest, she added, “If you ever ring my doorbell again I’ll blow your damn head off with a .357 magnum.”
Between marriages, George Jones began selling women’s underwear in downtown Nashville.
By 1968, when he had divorced his second wife, George Jones was making $1,000 a night but was also spending a lot of his money on alcohol. One investment he made was in a nightclub on Nashville’s lower Broadway called Possum Holler, christened after the nickname he was given due to his resemblance to the beady-eyed marsupial. Among the souvenirs for sale at the club was an item for female fans called “Possum Panties.” Jones told friends after his divorce he would not marry again until he was 69. Less than a year later, he wed Tammy Wynette, who was also twice-divorced.
George and Tammy’s duet recordings lasted longer than their marriage.
Married to Jones in 1969, Wynette first filed for divorce in 1973, but the couple reconciled. They went on to record several more songs together including “We’re Gonna Hold On.” They divorced for good in 1975, with Wynette telling a reporter, “George is one of those people who can’t tolerate happiness.” Jones would buy — and sell — 27 cars that year, often driving by the home the couple once shared. The pair reunited in the studio to record the huge hit, “Golden Ring” in 1976. It was playing on the car radio when she married her fourth husband. It was still on the charts when they divorced… 44 days later.
As a teenager, Vince Gill played in a band that opened for Seventies rock icons Kiss.
While a high school student in Oklahoma, Vince Gill was in a bluegrass band called Mountain Smoke. The locally popular group earned an opening slot at an Oklahoma City concert headlined by Kiss. “They hated us so bad,” Gill recalls. “But it was kind of a neat feeing having that many people pissed off at you.” After Mountain Smoke managed to perform three songs, beer bottles began flying and the band left the stage, but not before Gill told the unruly crowd they could “kiss” his ass.
The Judds owe their early success to the family of a hospital patient.
Mother-daughter duo Naomi and Wynonna Judd, and Wy’s younger sister, Ashley, were living in California when Naomi decided to take them back to their roots in Kentucky, where Naomi (then Diana) was born. The three of them lived on a mountaintop in a home Naomi rented for $100 a month. She studied nursing and she and Wynonna (born Christina), learned to harmonize together. When they moved to Nashville, Naomi worked as a nurse in a hospital south of Nashville. Through the family of a patient Naomi had nursed back to health, she and her young daughter, still in braces, scored an audition with RCA Nashville’s Joe Galante. On the day of the audition, Wynonna and her mother had a huge fight and weren’t even speaking to each other. They would go on to become the most successful country duo of the Eighties.
One of Dwight Yoakam’s first fans was a neighbor who could hear him singing from about two acres away.
Yoakam was 10 years old living in a holler in Floyd County, Kentucky, when his mother heard him singing Hank Williams’ drinking song, “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It.” Just as soon as she told him, “I don’t believe you ought to be singing a song like that,” they both heard the voice of their neighbor, Mrs. Hunley, across the holler yelling. “That was good! Sing it again!” Yoakam would act in high school and fronted a band called the Greasers. Once he relocated to Los Angeles, he says he would not have become the artist he did without Emmylou Harris’ first two albums. “She was the beacon I navigated toward,” he says.
Garth Brooks played the Bluebird Café the same night a future Grammy-winning song was introduced by another songwriter.
On June 6th, 1987, Brooks auditioned at the now-legendary venue for a spot on their Songwriter’s Night, singing a song noted on the audition sheet as “Calm Before the Storm.” He passed the audition and the spring of 1988, after singing his future hit “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” a Capitol Nashville executive in the crowd, who had passed on signing him a few days earlier, instantly changed his mind. Brooks also played the Bluebird the night Kathy Mattea’s husband, songwriter Jon Vezner, debuted a new song he and Don Henry had written about an elderly couple. “Where’ve You Been” would go win a Grammy for Country Song of the Year in early 1991, facing competition from Brooks’ Tony Arata-penned hit, “The Dance.”