The Country Roots of American Music

A double blessing: Rick Bragg’s writing with Jerry Lee Lewis as the subject.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.  I did not write to him, but he wrote to me last week.  He doesn’t necessarily know when I am sleeping or know when I am awake.  He does not necessarily base giving on whether we have been bad or good.  He gives graciously and kindly and unexpectedly.

My Christmas list was short and changing. Every time it rained, I asked for a new left windshield wiper.  Doubting Santa’s existence or maybe just his perception, I went ahead and bought the windshield wiper.  (It didn’t help at all, until I had my son Nate actually install it.)  The other item on my list was Rick Bragg’s new book.  Enough said.  Since I read All Over But the Shoutin’  a few years back, I have been hooked.

Rick Bragg, born just a few years after me, grew up rich.  Only it looked poor, really poor.  His mostly single mom, the subject of All Over But the Shoutin”, labored in the cotton fields and scrimped and struggled to raise her boys.  If being from a broken home or a rough environment qualifies a person for government aid and explains a life of crime, Rick Bragg would be bucking for parole about now.

But as Merle Haggard sings, “Mamma Tried.”  But in this case, a good and godly mom, along with good grandparents, and a heritage of surviving against odds resulted in the best writer in the South today.   The result is Rick Bragg and his all too short list of book titles and his delightful monthly article at the back of Southern Living magazine.  For manly readers shy of flipping through Southern Living, seeing Bragg in that magazine is kind of like attending a Sunday school class taught by William Faulkner.

In this case, Bragg steps out beyond, but not away from, family and writes about the legendary singer Jerry Lee Lewis.  The point being that poor, rural, struggling country folk of the South have their bards telling their stories, singing their hopes, fears, and failures, and reaching levels of success only dreamed of and depths of failure ever all too near.

By the way, Santa doesn’t live at the North Pole.  He lives in Franklin, Tennessee.  He loves God, family, church, and books, probably in that order.  So, I received an autographed copy of Rick Bragg’s Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story more than a month before Christmas and in time to make Thanksgiving even better.  Thanks Jason Parolini, a.k.a., Santa Claus.  (Strange to think of St. Nick having Italian heritage.)

Rick Bragg signs a copy of his new book, just like he did my copy!


Before I begin reading this book, which I am saving for the Christmas break, I want to survey the topic of country music and its growth from east to west across Tennessee.  This is not a complete analysis of country music’s growth and development, but it might unlock a key or two to understanding.  There will be three points, like Dickens’ three ghosts, to unveil the story.

East Tennessee:  “Carry Me Back to The Mountains”

Historians always keep finding deeper and deeper roots to events.  There is no complete explanation of country music without crossing back over the pond and trailing up through the glens and dales of Scotland.  Take my word for it and fast forward to Bristol, Tennessee in 1927.

Look to the upper right hand side of the state to find Bristol, the birthplace of country music.

Music was prevalent throughout rural America.  From Gospel hymns to barn dance tunes, people played fiddles, banjos, and guitars, tapped their feet to the rhythms, sang along, or danced to music.  Then came the development of recording devices.     A. P. Carter took his wife Sarah and sister-in-law Maybelle to Bristol to give this record making idea a try.  This trio created, developed, enriched, compiled, and defined country music.  They were super-stars in their day, with an impact that has yet to be diminished.  A. P. Carter traveled the countryside collecting songs.  Sarah was a defining singer with a mournful voice that echoed the pain of her listeners.  The most successful of the three, Maybelle Carter, developed a style of guitar picking known as “the Carter scratch.”  She re-organized the Carter family after Sarah, to use a term from the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, “runn-oft” and A. P. retired, depressed over his estranged wife.

Maybelle (seated left), A.P. (center), and Sarah Carter (seated right).


Mother Maybelle sang alongside her daughters.  In time, daughter June rescued and married Johnny Cash.  Hence the story goes on.

Another giant puzzle piece in the Bristol, Tennessee story is the recordings of the other super-star Jimmie Rogers.  The Mississippi Blue Yodeler, fighting off a death sentence by tuberculosis, sang songs of home, trains, love, lust, and life that inspired every country singer for at least 2 to 3 generations.  From Ernest Tubb in Texas to Hank Snow from Canada, young boys bought guitars, practiced yodeling, and plotted how to follow the pathways of the legend and hero, Jimmie Rogers.  His short, troubled life of sorrow was a metaphor of the hardships of life, largely self-imposed, endured by many a country singer, and not all that different from many of those who listened to the records.

Jimmie Rogers, the Singing Brakeman.


Middle Tennessee:  “There’s a Grand Ole Opry Show Playing Somewhere”

From the records going back to the days of the Carters, Jimmie Rogers, the Delmore Brothers, Vernon Dalhart, and others, to the next phase of country music, the radio became the Internet, iTunes, and Spotify of the age.  Barn dances went from being occasions to being set venues for entertainment.  Across the country, and not just in the south, weekend performances of country, or as it was often termed “hillbilly,” music was heard by many a battery-powered radio at nights in the hills, hollers, and valleys across rural America.  Even those who had gone to the city in search of better jobs found that yearning for home at least partially pacified by radio barn dance programs.

so much depends upon a red brick building echoing voices with ancient tones beside the star spangled WSM banners


In time, one show became the most famous of all.  It was a barn dance program on WSM in Nashville, Tennessee, that was performed at an old church building that was called the Ryman Auditorium.  The announcer, Judge George D. Hay, said one night at the beginning, “You have been listening to the Grand Opera, now stay tuned to listen to the Grand Ole Opry.”  The name stuck.  A legend began on November 28, 1925.  The Opry is the longest running radio program in America.  It is still the “Mother Church of Country Music”; it is still the longed-for starting point for the careers of singers;  it still defines a singer as truly country.  Many a singer pays homage to the Opry, even if only on occasion.

Memphis:  “Take That Night Train to Memphis”

Interstate Highway 40 between Memphis and Nashville is aptly term “Music Highway.”  You can’t travel that road without sensing the music legacy permeating that area.  (Honestly, can you pass the Carrol County sign without thinking of Porter Wagoner’s song?)  Memphis has its own rich and varied story about music.  Or its many stories.  The history of Memphis is more tied to the cotton culture of the old South; hence, it is more tied to slavery and the contours of the mixing of races and cultures in the South.  Just southeast of Memphis, in nearly Oxford, Mississippi, William Faulkner explored that interaction of races again and again.  Musically it manifested itself on Beale Street.

Memphis gave birth to the blues and to varieties of country music.  B.B. King and Elvis Presley are patron saints in the shrines in that town.  And then there was Sun Records.  It was here that musical careers, styles, and legends were begun.  Sun Records was where recording sessions were held featuring some young guys named Elvis, John R. Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley (seated at the piano), and Johnny Cash.


Thus my pre-review of Rick Bragg’s new book.



Another Day When the Music Died

It was about 5 years after the tragedy. That puts it around 1968.    I knew nothing about the tragedy; I only knew that something had come alive in side me that could not be suppressed.  I had discovered music; I was in about the seventh grade; and I had no idea how out of step with my generation and so much of the world I already was.  Henry David Thoreau called it “Marching to a different drummer.”  I came to think of it as simply being weird and not fitting in.

It was my awakening, not to the music of the 60s, but music when I was living in the 60s.   I was consumed by music coming out of Nashville reaching back to the 1940s and 1950s.  I was at Montgomery Wards in Texarkana, thumbing through some large bins of record albums.  I was still unfamiliar with many of the singers, but was, in the pre-Wikipedia days, catching up quickly on country music.  Before this time, I was somewhat aware of some of the songs and some of the singers, but a chord was struck.  I fell in love.  My parents didn’t sing or play music.  The small collection of records in our house consisted of Christmas records, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Johnny Mathis, and a few odds and ends.  My older sisters had listened to Elvis and the Beatles, according to their birth order and the high points of those musicians’ fame. But it was Nashville; it was Broad Street in Nashville where the Ryman Auditorium was hosting the Grand Ole Opry and where, down the street, Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop was the setting for the Midnight Jamboree.  The music from “clear channel 650,”  WSM, which didn’t always come in that clear, was my lifeline to a world of songs.

Some time prior to the Montgomery Wards trip, my music world had opened.  There was a 3 album set of country music that appeared in the Sunday newspaper supplement.  It contained some 50 singers, 50 songs.  I thought it was the most amazing offer of all time. My dad, who was always generous in providing for my whims, ordered it for me.  It must have been a relatively cheap production.  Many of the songs, I later realized, were shortened.  The better known singers, such as Johnny Cash, had songs from their very early days.  One was a woman named Patsy Cline.  (It was on that album that I also first heard the Stanley Brothers.)

Back to the bargain bin.  I pulled out an album called Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits.  I knew she was a country singer and that my mother liked the song on that 50 singers set.  I probably paid about $3 for the album.  I wasn’t prone to crushes, but I knew the woman on the cover was beautiful.  (I think I bought a couple of other albums that contained collections from different singers.)

Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits was and is one of the greatest collections of music of all time.   It was released in 1967, four years after Patsy Cline’s death.  It contained some of her best songs from 1957 to 1963.  When it was re-released in 1973, it went gold.  Radio stations still play “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “Sweet Dreams,” “She’s Got You,” and more.  It was Patsy’s greatest recording session.  In the midst of the session, her husband Charlie Dick came in.  One of the men in the station said, “What happened to you two? Did you have a fight?”

That was because of the emotion of the songs.  Patsy’s voice would crack at just the right moment.  It was as though the loss of love, the heartbreak, the sadness had just hit her. When she lamented about the man “who takes me to the places you and I used to go,” you would ache with pain.  “Faded Love,” a great old Bob Wills tune, sank deeply in the heart.  That song has one of the most effective fiddle and vocal combinations in all of music.

I was too young, too inexperienced, too naive, to have known love and loss, but the songs opened a world of emotional richness that is unsurpassed.  It was akin to the first real reading of poetry (as opposed to the assigned stuff from school), the first entrance into the language of a novelist unfolding a world, the first “fierce pull of blood” when Faulkner became a companion.  It was unfathomable that anyone could hurt and sing about the hurt in that way.

What kind of a world is it where someone would do a woman wrong?  Patsy sang of the pain of those wrongs.  “If you’ve got leaving on your mind, tell me now.  Get it over.  Hurt me now. Get it over. If you’ve got leaving on your mind.”

Sometimes the troubles of life drive us crazy.  Often it is love itself, irrational, controlling, compelling, that drives us past the point of sanity.  Willie Nelson, a fairly clean cut struggling young song writer, penned a couple of songs that the big name artists picked up.  Willie’s friend Faron Young agreed to record “Four Walls” and a legendary song was born.  “Crazy” was pitched to Patsy Cline, who really didn’t like it.  But it was magic.  That woman could have sung “Happy Birthday” and torn out the hearts of those hearing.  “Crazy” may be the most often replayed Patsy Cline hit.

Then there was the pain of seeing your own wrong.  “I’ve been so wrong, for so long.”  It was her holding out the notes for “so” that plunged the knife deep into the soul.  How many times, places, circumstances, would I, would all of us, be in where Patsy’s song would echo our own repentance.  Then there is the defining “Walking After Midnight.”  In seventh grade, I rarely got to stay up until midnight.  But when you can’t sleep; when you can’t stay inside; when you go walking after midnight, with little certainty of finding the answer; that’s when the song come back again to the mind.

With the pain and sorrow of so many songs, there is the relief, the promise of “I’m back in baby’s arms.”   There is a joy in knowing that it is at least possible to be “back where I belong, back in baby’s arms.”  As she sings in that song, “Don’t know why we quarreled.  We never did before.  Now that we know how much it hurts, I bet we never quarrel anymore.”  How often so many of us have experienced that and vowed that. Patsy Cline was singing the Song of Solomon, the poetry of John Donne, Shakespeare’s sonnets, and all the lovers’ laments of all times.

Consider “Sweet Dreams.”  Every song hearkens to a well known sequence in this world.  Love and loss.  Love and hate.  Loneliness and despair paired with comfort and hope.  Every song bespeaks Eden’s Fall.  That short time of marital bliss Adam and Eve experience led then to alienatin, blame shifting, and sorrow.  The world fell into sin, and tragedy and sad songs were born.  “Sweet dreams of you: every night, I go through.  I should hate you….the whole night through, instead of having sweet dreams of you.”  Reading the words is so matter of fact.  Again, you have to hear, and I mean HEAR, Patsy singing.  Listen to the way she hits the phrase “I should hate you.” You will agree that she should.   And then that way of carrying out the phrase “whole night through” so that it seems like a long stretch of time as she sings.  But the singer can’t hate whoever it is; instead, she dreamily thinks of the love for the one who is away.

I played the album for years.  At different periods and times, I would drift away from Patsy Cline’s music.  The older albums I owned got replaced by casette tapes for a few years, but I still had a turntable.  When some moment of nostalgia would cause me to play that record again, it was like discovering Patsy Cline again for the first time.  Then I started noticing.  I had been that weird kid listening to old country music when I was in junior high.  But now the world was listening.  New and popular country singers were performing all across the country.  U. S. Presidents were hosting country singers in the White House.  And a few legends kept getting played again and again.  Everyone was singing Hank Williams’ songs, but few sang Patsy’s songs.  You can’t match her voice.  It was rich, deep, full, and packed with feeling.  So the radio stations still play her.  She was, is, and always will be the true Queen of Country Music.

Patsy Cline died tragically on this day in 1963.  She was on a return trip after a benefit concert in Missouri.  Two other great singers were with her, Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins.  Their plane crashed after attempting to fly through a storm.  In spite of warnings about the storm and offers of a night’s lodging and a car, the three singers and Randy Hughes, Copas’ son-in-law and manager and the pilot fo the plane, flew off toward Nashville and their tragic destiny.  I cannot read about or think about that trip without great sorrow.  I would have been about seven years old on March 5, 1963.  I didn’t know about the plane crash or the three singers at that time.  I didn’t know what had been lost and what was saved.  Of course, it would be that same year–1963–that Robert Frost and C. S. Lewis would die.

Country music was a much closer knit family back in 1963.  The close friends of Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and Randy Hughes were stunned by the loss.  The tragedy was compounded a few days later when Jack Anglin, half of the singing team of Johnny and Jack, was killed enroute to one of the funerals.  America was a bit more innocent.  Music on the radio was still the primary source of favorite songs.   Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, the 60s Protests, and the Assassinations were all in the future, albeit a near future.  Country singers were still largely hitting audiences of working class people with Southern roots, rural backgrounds, and down-home values and experiences.  One song about heartbreak would be followed by another about drinking, which was followed by another about temptation and cheating, and then there would be a song about faith, repentance, and love.  The songs, therefore, reflected the lives of the listeners.

Patsy Cline was born in 1934.  She could have very possibly still been living. I think her career and successes were just beginning.  She was only 30 years old when she died.  She demonstrated early successes on the stage and on television.  About a year before her death, she was almost killed in an auto accident. It was a near miracle that she lived.  It was a gift of God so that she could see her own mortality.  There are pictures of her on crutches, singing at her return to the Grand Ole Opry.  She loved her children and regretted the absences her career imposed on her family.  She could sing a Gospel song as good as the best of them.  I think she would have been a remarkable grand older lady of country music.  It would have been nice to have known her.

I still listen to her music and that of Copas and Hawkins.  I miss them all.  The music died on March 5, 1963, and yet it still lives.

The photograph above was taken at the concert in Kansas City, Missouri.  This was Patsy Cline’s last performance.  I love the near angelic look of the white dress.  She was a beautiful woman with an incredible voice.