Before the new season starts, there’s already encouraging news.
Yes, TV – the regular kind that you don’t pay extra for – is occasionally capable of greatness. Fresh proof arrives Sunday (Sept. 8), wih a country concert on PBS.
I’ve already babbled that “Country Music,” the eight-night documentary that starts Sept. 15, is one of the best shows ever. But that shouldn’t surprise us: It’s directed by Ken Burns, written by Dayton Duncan, with compelling stories to tell; that’s a quick route to greatness.
But the concert is a bonus, packing some of country’s best moments into two hours.
We see first the astonishing speed and skill of old-timey musicians. Ketch Secor and Rhiannon Giddens (shown here from a different performance) burst through “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?”; Asleep at the Wheel does “New San Antonio Rose”; Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart and Vince Gill do Bill Monroe’s vibrant “Uncle Pen.” Later, Stuart roars through “Orange Blossom Special” … Skaggs reminds us, “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’” … and Gill steps back into an amazing house band, alongside fiddler Stuart Duncan and more.
But that’s just the flashy part. Country can also stop on a dime and do a heartbreaking ballad. Here is Rosanne Cash, doing a song from her dad Johnny — “I Still Miss Someone.” And Holly Williams doing a song from her grandfather Hank — “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
Both are gorgeous songs, but the highlight of the night – or of the year – comes with “Crazy.” It all comes together – Willie Nelson’s songwriting, Giddens’ gorgeous voice, hints of Patsy Cline’s original performance and Harold Bradley’s production.
Other songs are there as historical landmarks – blues (“In the Jailhouse Now”), cowboys (“Tumbling Tumbleweeds”), the Bakersfield sound (“Hungry Eyes” and “Streets of Bakersfield”), Appalachia (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”), the new-era songwriters (“Pancho and Lefty,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down”) and a protest against studio slickness (“Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”).
Sure, I might grumble that the show goes six minutes before its first song. Or that “I Will Always Love You” — the Dolly Parton song that great female voices have soared with – is sung by Gill.
But Gill does it beautifully … after a night of great guitar-picking. And at the end, everyone joins in the ideal finale, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”
Written as a church hymn in 1908, it was rewritten as a Carter Family song in 1935 and re-rewritten by many people, including Mother Maybelle Carter’s son-in-law, Johnny Cash:
“We sang songs of childhood
Hymns of faith that made us strong
Ones that Mother Maybelle taught us
Hear the angels sing along.”
And we’re reminded that so much music, especially country music, can be eternal.
— “Country Music: Live at the Ryman,” 8-10 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 8, PBS
— Most stations (check local listings) rerun it at 10:30, after a 10 p.m. preview of “Country Music”