“Country Music” – Ken Burns’ recent series that is billed as “a story of America, told one song at a time” – might seem like an odd subject for a rave review from the daughter of a jazz musician father and of a jazz critic mom. But stay.
Yes, the eight segments were enlightening, haunting and ultimately uplifting, of course, much like Burns’ previous documentaries on “Jazz” in 2001, “National Parks” in 2009 and other subjects.
But my enthusiastic reaction to the varied tapestry of “Country Music” is also personal, as this series reflects the rise of an industry I’ve worked in for about a decade.
I saw people I knew, people I worked with, people who were friends. Learning things about them that I had never known and remembering things that I had long forgotten.
The shows made me smile, made me cry, and above all made me very nostalgic for who we were then.
Despite my upbringing in jazz, being immersed in the country music industry at 18 was exhilarating. Especially for an indecisive girl, alone for the first time, who had a show on a country music radio station when there weren’t many yet.
Part of my job was to woo artists and mingle with fans.
So I knew superstars, up-and-coming talent and hopefuls.
Oh, if only I had kept better contact with them! Of course, all of this was before faxes and cell phones, not to mention email, Facebook and WhatsApp. But if I had maintained ties with Wynn, Minnie, Moonie, Bonnie, and Peaches, for example… if I had, well, who knows?
At least I might have heard earlier that my friend Don Rich, longtime guitarist for Buck Owens, was killed at the age of 32 in 1974…in a motorcycle accident in San Luis Obispo.
But time and life move on and change, and many young people believe that personal connections will last forever without ever having to make the slightest effort to make it happen.
It doesn’t work that way.
Sometimes, however, we are lucky enough to reconnect.
About a decade after quitting country music, my new husband Richard and I went to a performance by singer and former Miss America contestant Judy Lynn.
We went behind the scenes to see her – me as a friend and former employee of the talent booking agency she and her husband John Kelly owned, and Richard as a photographer who had recently done a photoshoot with her.
When a shimmering Judy approached us – shiny blonde hair and dazzling Nudie shimmering outfit – her eyes widened as she gestured at us, one at a time.
“I know you… and I know him, she told me, but not together!”
As she engulfed us in a shared bear hug, we all dissolved into peals of laughter. Handsome!
And then there was Buck, Bonnie and Merle, a complex and unusual trio.
I met Merle Haggard a long time ago when he played bass in Wynn Stewart’s band – Wynn was a nightclub owner, talented singer, musician and songwriter (including “It’s Such a Pretty World Today”), DJ at the radio station where I worked, inspiration to many musicians (including Merle), and my volunteer big brother.
I met Bonnie when she was on tour with her ex-husband Buck Owens. (She ultimately married and divorced Merle, but continued to tour with him too!)
Years later, my husband Richard and I saw a Merle and Bonnie show at the Mid-State Fair. It had been ages since I’d seen either of them. But on a whim, I texted her that we were in the audience and hoped to see them after the show.
We waited in the wings, knowing they would be overwhelmed. They definitely had other people to see and things to do, I reminded myself, not wanting to think that Bonnie might have forgotten about the 20-year-old she had befriended and she dubbed after call letters from my radio station.
Then a still familiar country voice came from behind the tour bus. “Hey, you, K-TOO! Bonnie screamed as she rushed over to me like she always used to.
It was as if we had never been apart. Sadly but predictably we only had a few minutes to chat, laugh, hug and catch up, and I waved my fingers at Merle as he waved at me while rushing to see someone else, somewhere else.
It was the last time I saw them. Up to the “Country Music” saga.
So yeah, for me, those shows were personal. Thank you, Ken Burns.
PS: And by the way, nobody ever tries to talk me down about country music. I’ve known a lot of great musicians in my life, and some of the best wore cowboy clothes and Stetsons, and played acoustic guitar, fiddle, or steel guitar. I remember doing “a quick stop” at an after-hours jam session and staying until I had to go to work at 9 a.m. because I was hypnotized by the amazing jazz played by the musicians of the western swing band led by guitarist/steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe.