In an Epic Concert, Dierks Bentley, Vince Gill and More Prove That Country's Past Isn't Just Ancient History
An all-star cast displays the timelessness of the genre for a concert special that will be televised in advance of Ken Burns' monumental documentary, Country Music
Go ahead and have your fill of Luke, Carrie, Keith and all the other stars making today’s country sounds, but if you think country music history is as dead as a broken banjo string, then get ready for a little attitude adjustment from an upcoming TV concert special.
On Wednesday night in Nashville, more than two dozen artists and musicians, representing country’s richly diverse past and present, ignited the stage for Country Music: Live at the Ryman, a PBS concert special that will air in late August or early September to support Ken Burns’ new epic documentary on the genre.
You can expect both programs to send a message to millions of viewers that so many country fans already know: There’s something here for everyone.
“It doesn’t matter if you start with [1920s artists] Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers or Florida Georgia Line,” master musician Marty Stuart said at a media event before the sold-out show at Ryman Auditorium. “Just get in and start looking around, and you will find somebody and some song and something that applies to your life.”
For close to three hours, Stuart joined Dierks Bentley, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Rosanne Cash, Rhiannon Giddens and many more to prove his words with 18 of country’s most timeless classics. The concert will be trimmed for broadcast for what will amount to a two-hour preview and promotion of “Country Music,” the 16½-hour documentary set to begin airing on Sept. 15.
In the documentary’s telling of country’s decades-long history, the music itself will have to share substantial time with interviews and narration. But on Wednesday night, the music was the star attraction — and it proved it can tell country’s story well on its own.
Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor, in straw boater hat, and Rhiannon Giddens kicked the night off with a scorching performance of “Ruby (Are You Mad at Your Man),” among country’s earliest and most covered crowd favorites. Secor then followed with “He’s in the Jailhouse Now,” a hit for Jimmie Rodgers, the “Singing Brakeman” who is considered a founding father of the genre.
Song after song took the audience on a grand tour around country’s mammoth tent of trends, eras and subgenres, through cowboy music, western swing, bluegrass, honkytonk, the Nashville Sound, the Bakersfield Sound, Outlaw country and beyond.
And there was no better place for these performances than the “Mother Church of Country Music,” the very stage where Bill Monroe birthed bluegrass music in 1945. His direct musical descendant, Country Music Hall of Famer Ricky Skaggs — with help from Stuart and fellow Hall of Famer Vince Gill — honored Monroe with a lightning performance of his “Uncle Pen.”
The evening’s roster highlighted the strong family ties that bind country together. Holly Williams, granddaughter of Hank Williams and daughter of Hank Jr., was tapped to cover her “Hillbilly Shakespeare” grandfather’s exquisite “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
Earlier in the day, she confessed it took her a while to grasp the monumental significance of her grandfather’s short-lived career, which ended, when he was just 29, in 1953. “I grew up with a dad who was so famous that I thought Hank Williams was like an old guy who sang the ‘Hey, Good Lookin’” song,” she said at an afternoon media event. Participating in the documentary, she said, “is the way I get to learn about my family, their impact and the history.”
Rosanne Cash represented another significant branch of country’s family tree, singing her father Johnny Cash’s wistful “I Still Miss Someone,” a song, she explains in the documentary, that was pivotal in healing her turbulent relationship with her dad.
Her backstory simply underscores country music’s power, as well as the reason that Burns (who was a host for the concert) tackled the subject in the first place.
“I think the most surprising thing, once we got into this warm bath, is why haven’t we done it before?” he said at the media event. “It seemed to be the kind of storytelling that’s firing on all cylinders, the kind of thing that reflects a complicated and nuanced, sometimes controversial, sometimes dark, as well as light and joyous [history].”
Other highlights of the evening included Dwight Yoakam and Bentley teaming for “Streets of Bakersfield,” with Bentley taking Buck Owens’ part; Vince Gill soaring through Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”; Kathy Mattea, a coal miner’s granddaughter, offering Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter”; and Rhiannon Giddens conquering “Crazy,” a song made so famous by Patsy Cline that some may forget it was written by the equally legendary Willie Nelson.
The concert concluded with the entire cast retaking the stage for a rousing rendition of country’s unofficial “national anthem,” the Carter Family’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and the audience lustily joined in on the familiar chorus. When a bobble with the videotaping required everyone to sing the whole thing again, no one seemed to care. After all, who wanted this night to end?
The broadcast date for Country Music: Live at the Ryman has yet to be announced, but it will precede the documentary, which will air Sunday, Sept. 15, through Wednesday, Sept. 18, and Sunday, Sept. 22, through Wednesday, Sept. 25, at 8 p.m. ET on PBS stations.