Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Ken Burns’s ‘Country Music’ shines a spotlight on an unsung Washingtonian

In mid-September, "Country Music," the latest PBS documentary by Ken Burns, brought the sounds of steel guitars and Hank Williams and "Coal Miner's Daughter" into homes across America. Whether you rate Burns one of our premiere historians or a purveyor of formulaic melodrama, it's easy to be won over by his 16-hour chronicle of country music's arc from gritty backwoods origins to today's Music City glitter. It restores some dignity to an oft-disparaged genre — especially when it shines a light on neglected figures like Ernest "Pop" Stoneman. A native of southwest Virginia and longtime Washingtonian, Stoneman was one of country’s pioneers and survivors. His 1926 hit, “The Sinking of the Titanic,” recorded in New York, was one of the first big sellers in the emerging hillbilly music market. He made hundreds of cylinder and 78-rpm records, often accompanied by his wife, Hattie, on fiddle and vocals; she was one of the first female country musicians on record. But Burns’s film doesn’t mention Hattie, and Stoneman’s quick cameo is mostly a device to introduce country’s first bona fide superstars: Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family — A.P., Sara and Mother Maybelle. Stoneman’s now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t appearance, however brief, is long overdue: It was Stoneman, the top hillbilly artist for the Victor record company, who persuaded his bosses to come South to record the local talent on their native ground. Victor set up a makeshift studio in a Bristol, Tenn., hotel, where, in 1927, Rodgers and the Carters recorded huge sellers that launched the modern country music industry. Pop lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929, then faded from the scene — but only for a time. His seminal work in the ’20s turned out to be just a prelude to a remarkable second career in Washington, where he settled his family. He and his talented brood — he and Hattie had nearly two dozen children — were fixtures of Washington’s postwar country music boom. They won talent show contests and packed local honky-tonks. They performed on radio and TV, including “The Jimmy Dean Show,” introduced thusly: “There’s 23 of ’em, but we’ve got five!”...
The family toured college campuses and folk festivals, and eventually settled in Nashville. By 1967, they’d won the Country Music Association’s vocal group of the year award. Pop died in 1968 at age 75, just as country was going mainstream. For sisters Roni and Donna, the Ken Burns segment on Pop is welcome, if also thin gruel, especially with so much focus on the famous “First Family of Country Music,” the Carters. “It’s always Mother Maybelle! Mother Maybelle!” says Roni, scorching the phone line. “Well, what about our mother? Where in the cat-hair is Hattie? Mama had been recording with Daddy on Edison years before the Carters. Well, p--- on it!” Then, her voice still in fine fettle, she began to sing an old-time tear-jerker recorded by Pop in his heyday, “Somebody’s Waiting for Me”; the family had performed the song when they won a talent show at D.C.’s Constitution Hall in 1947. Now in their 80s, the sisters watched the PBS series in Nashville where they reside. Their favorite part is a close-up of a young Pop in a record-label publicity shot from his glory years in the ’20s. He wears a suit in a pensive pose, resting his head in his hand. Neither Donna nor Roni had seen it before. “It’s the greatest picture I’ve ever seen of Daddy,” says Donna. “He looks very serious and very handsome.”...MORE

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