That’s the title of the sixth episode of Country Music, produced by Ken Burns et al. The episode ends with a segment about the production of Will the Circle be Unbroken?, a three-LP album released in 1972, with Mother Maybelle Carter of the original Carter Family taking the lead. I have the album in my record collection. It sits proudly next to a two-LP album of recordings by Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmie Rodgers on Record: America’s Blue Yodeler.
The juxtaposition of the albums is fitting because, as Country Music‘s first episode makes clear, it was the 1927 recordings of Rodgers and the Carters that “made” country music. Country music had been recorded and broadcast live since 1922. But Rodgers and the Carters brought something new to the genre and it caught the fancy of a large segment of the populace.
In Rodgers’s case it was his original songs (mostly of heartbreak and rambling) and his unique delivery, which introduced yodeling to country music. In the Carters’ case it was the tight harmonies of Maybelle Addington Carter and her cousin and sister-in-law, Sara Dougherty Carter, applied to nostalgic ballads old and new (but old-sounding, even if new) compiled and composed mostly by Sara’s then-husband, A.P. Carter, who occasionally chimed in on the bass line. (“School House on the Hill” is a particular favorite of mine. The other songs at the link to “School House …” are great, too.)
Rodgers and the original Carters kept it simple. Rodgers accompanied himself on the guitar; Maybelle and Sara Carter accompanied themselves on guitar and autoharp. And that was it. No electrification or amplification, no backup players or singers, no aural tricks of any kind. What you hear is unadorned, and all the better for it. Only the Bluegrass sound introduced by Bill Monroe could equal it for a true “country” sound. Its fast pace and use of acoustic, stringed instruments harked back to the reels and jigs brought to this land (mainly from the British Isles) by the first “country” people — the settlers of Appalachia and the South.
As for the miniseries, I give it a B, or 7 out of 10. As at least one commentator has said, it’s a good crash course for those who are new to country music, but only a glib refresher course for those who know it well. At 16 hours in length, it is heavily padded with mostly (but not always) vapid commentary by interviewees who were and are, in some way, associated with country music; Burns’s typical and tedious social commentary about the treatment of blacks and women, as if no one knows about those things; and biographical information that really adds nothing to the music.
The biographical information suggests that to be a country singer you must be an orphan from a hardscrabble-poor, abusive home who survived the Great Depression or run-ins with the law. Well, you might think that until you reflect on the fact that little is said about the childhoods of the many country singers who weren’t of that ilk, especially the later ones whose lives were untouched by the Great Depression or World War II.
Based on what I’ve seen of the series thus far (six of eight episodes), what it takes to be a country singer — with the notable exception of the great Hank Snow (a native of Nova Scotia) — is (a) to have an accent that hails from the South, and (b) to sing in a way that emphasizes the accent. A nasal twang seems to be a sine qua non, even though many of the singers who are interviewees don’t speak like they sing. It’s mostly put on, in other words, and increasingly so as regional accents fade away.
The early greats, like Rodgers and the Carters, were authentic, but the genre is becoming increasingly phony. And the Nashville sound and its later variants are abominations.
So, the circle has been broken. And the only way to mend it is to listen to the sounds of yesteryear.