Just when the documentary series Country Music by Ken Burns appears to be defining itself as “The Johnny Cash Show”, or indeed “The Johnny, and Rosanne, Cash Show”, it nicely meanders off the Cash highway and takes the viewer into a new, though not unfamiliar, direction of story-telling.
Now there is nothing wrong with Country Music’s infatuation with Cash. The Man in Black was an imposing figure on the musical genre. But when he wasn’t fighting his demons or reinventing his career with producer Rick Rubin, there were other events of note happening across the vast plain of country music.
Indeed, during the eight-part, 16-hour series, Burns and his documentary team do make a concerted effort to record these.
The best example occurs in episode 7 - titled Are You Sure Hank Done it this Way - which spans the ten years 1973-83. This is clearly the best episode of the series, simply because it illustrates, at times quite cleverly, why there are artists who want to push the boundaries of country music to such an extent that it begs the question: “Is this really country?”
Yes the episode does begin with Cash and his marvellous version of the classic “The Wreck of the old 97” - They give him his orders at Monroe, Virginia/ Sayin' Steve, you're way behind time/This is not 38, but it's Old 97/ You must put her in Spencer on time. Then it quickly progresses to a profile of Cash’s one-time son-in-law, the child-prodigy musician Marty Stuart, respondent in bouffant hairstyle and apparel!
But it soon meanders. And when images of Alt Country legends like Townes Van Zandt appear, you know we are being directed into a fascinating sidebar.
For it was in the 1970’s that the origins of what became known as Americana Music first surfaced. A somewhat spoilt, yet highly-talented, singer-songwriter named Gram Parsons teamed up with a bunch of musicians from a band called The Byrds to pioneer what the critics termed Country Rock. Around this time, Parsons was to discover “a hippie folk singer” performing in an obscure DC club. Her name was Emmylou Harris. The rest, as they say, is country music history!
Also in the early 70’s, a bunch of Texas troubadours, headed to Nashville hoping to prove that craft was more important than hits. Van Zandt was among them, alongside Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark and Steve Earle. In fact, the pioneering country music documentary, Heartworn Highways, was to record this bunch of music purists and Burns rightly includes clips of James Szalapski’s vintage film early in episode 7.
Having established Van Zandt, Crowell and Clark in Nashville, episode 7 records their creative impact on country music during the late seventies. Rodney Crowell puts it like Crowell only can: “People ask what is it about these Texas songwriters you know. And I say we are the best liars in the world!”
Burns was to record an interview with Guy Clark before his death in 2016 and in true Clark fashion, he pulls no punches about the Nashville establishment. But there is no malice: “They’re in business. They’re here to make money, not to support your artistic bent!”
It was Clark after all who penned one of the most memorable lines in country music: If I can just get off this LA freeway/Without getting killed or caught. Burns wisely includes this clip.
But of all these Texas newbies, it was the hard-livin’ Van Zandt who would help the Nashville establishment redefine country music with a succession of songs of such outstanding artistic merit nobody could ignore.
Clark told Burns: “He (Townes) didn’t want to be a star as such, he wanted to be a poet. I was always inspired by him. But being inspired by Townes was different to being like him. If you wanted to be like Townes you had to be dead.”
Surely a candidate for quote of the series?
Townes made an impact with the wonderful love lament “If I Needed You.” But it was a song called “Pancho and Lefty” that would cement his legendary status in the ever-evolving country music genre. It is now regarded among the greatest country ballads ever written, certainly sitting alongside “El Paso” and “Copperhead Road.”
It tells the tale of a Mexican bandit named Pancho and his treacherous friend Lefty. The lyrics put poetry into country music: Pancho was a bandit boys/ His horse was fast as polished steel/ Wore his gun outside his pants/ For all the honest world to feel.
Clark: “His songs were always dark. Someone once asked ‘why don’t you do a funny song?’ He said, ‘those were the funny songs’.”
“Pancho and Lefty” first appeared on Townes 1972 album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. In December 1976, Emmylou Harris included it on her second Warner Bros album, the wonderful Luxury Liner. Her version was so majestic that many in the business regard it as among the best covers in country music. It helped having a backing band which included the likes of Crowell, Ricky Skaggs and Albert Lee.
But the significance of “Pancho and Lefty,” according to Burns, is what happened to the song in 1983.
For it was then that Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard were putting the final touches to a joint album. They were short of a song to hang the whole project on. One night, Willie’s daughter Lana played him a song he had not heard - Emmylou’s version of “Pancho and Lefty.” Willie was so impressed he woke up Merle at 4am and insisted on recording it then and there at Willie’s studio in Texas. Haggard did so, thinking he could “redo” it the next morning.
In another posthumous interview, Haggard told Burns: “So I got up the next morning and went into the studio and I said ‘can I do that vocal track over’ and they said ‘hell it’s on its way to New York’.’”
The song would become the album’s title track. It went straight to number one on the country charts, crossed over to pop and sold more than a million copies.
How Burns documents this fascinating tale, is expertly handled by the series writer Dayton Duncan. Throughout Country Music, Duncan is at his best as he matter-of-factly details the history of the music chronologically. But his skill as a script-writer is no better illustrated than how he sums how “Pancho and Lefty” got to top the Billboard charts.
The sequence takes about 50 seconds and is illustrated by monochrome still images (left):
(Pancho and Lefty song-sheet) To get there, the song had travelled a
long meandering road.
(Two-shot Merle & Willie) Two of country music's legendary songwriters -
a musical outlaw from Texas, and the poet of the
common man from the hard-scrabbled streets of
Bakersfield - had listened
(Emmylou Harris) to an album by a former hippie folk singer who had
(Gram Parsons) been converted to country music by a cosmic
cowboy. And in doing so, stumbled upon a song
(Townes playing guitar) written by an eccentric vagabond who spent his days
trying to write the perfect song and some of his
(Townes with friends on porch) crashing with friends at a home where the focus was
on art not commercial success.
In less than a minute, Duncan has expertly summarised the artistic integration of five country legends in producing one of country music’s greatest ballads. Sadly, only two (Nelson & Harris) are now alive.
But, as they say in the business, the music never dies. Lefty will always be "living in a cheap hotel."
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation