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History of Country Music September 2019

On Life and Love after 50 eNewsletter September 27, 2019

by Columnist Tom Blake

History of Country Music


History of Country Music September 2019

When I first met Greta, one thing we did not have in common was a love of country music. I got hooked on it initially after seeing a Johnny Cash concert at Madison Square Garden in 1969. And, when Western Swing and Outlaw Country arrived in the early 1970s with the likes of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, I became a country music fan.

Greta, on the other hand, was busy raising four children as a single mom, teaching full time and attending graduate school at night. She didn’t have time or an interest in acquiring a taste for country music, although she admits to watching some of the country shows on TV, such as The Johnny Cash Show.

After 21 years together, my affection for country music has rubbed off on her. Slowly, Greta’s accepted most of it, just not the twangy, honky-tonk sound. Her meeting Rosanne Cash in person piqued her interest in the genre.

Greta Rosanne and Tom

Greta, Rosanne and Tom – 2018

For my birthday one year, she got us tickets for a Kris Kristofferson solo performance in Los Angeles. I’ve dragged her to about six Alan Jackson concerts, a man I refer to as “The Dude.”

And I was quite surprised when she agreed to spend the night of October 20, 2015, at the San Manuel Casino so we could catch Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson in concert together there.

Kristofferson had written “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” one of my favorite songs; I will explain why a bit later. That night, he and Haggard performed it together. I captured this photo from the video I took of them while playing that song:

Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson

Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson performing “Sunday Morning Coming Down” Oct. 20, 2015, at the San Manuel Casino

Greta is a supporter of PBS. So, when she read in her PBS mail that Ken Burns, was directing an eight-episode, 16-hour documentary titled “Country Music,” this September, she wanted us to watch it together. One episode at a time.

Burns has directed many highly regarded documentaries including, “The Vietnam War,” “Jackie Robinson,” “The Dust Bowl,” “The Civil War,” and “The National Parks.”  We knew “Country Music” was going to be entertaining and informative because Burns is so thorough and professional.

In “Country Music,” Greta and I have been blown away with what Ken Burns has created. The music, the old black and white footage, the interviews, have all been spectacular. We’ve both learned a great deal about the history of country music and of our country.

Of course, in the series, we are reminded why Nashville is called “Music City USA,” home of the original Grand Ole Opry in the Ryman Auditorium, with footage of numerous performances there. Three years ago, we spent a week in Nashville and Memphis with my brother and his wife, including a visit to the Ryman, and a Saturday night show at the new Grand Ole Opry, on the outskirts of Nashville.

Series one in Burns’ documentary is called “The Rub.” It features the history of the banjo and fiddle and talked about the importance of the introduction of the radio in the 1920s.

Each series advances time wise across history. Burns uses musicians—not scholars or record-company executives—as spokespeople explaining the history of country music.

Actor Peter Coyote is the show’s main narrator. However, musicians who also share their thoughts are Marty Stuart, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Bill Anderson, Rosanne Cash, Willie Nelson, Larry Gatlin, Dolly Pardon, Charley Pride, Tom T. Hall, and Wynton Marsalis, to name a few.

For me, this PBS series hits home. In 1975, as the marketing director for Victoria Station, the railroad-themed, restaurant chain, I hired a boutique advertising agency in San Francisco called Pritikin and Gibbons, the last names of the agency’s two founders, Bob Pritikin and Jerry Gibbons.  They had done creative ads for “Marine World Africa USA” and Chevrolet (“The Chevy Man Can.”)

I remember distinctly the day Victoria Station’s top executives were summoned to the P and G office, located in a converted mansion on Sacramento Street for a “Creative Unveiling” presentation and luncheon. They wheeled out a reel-to-reel tape player and said, “On this tape, you will recognize the voice of the person we recommend hiring as your company spokesperson to sing your radio commercials; it will be a challenge to sign him.”

They played Johnny Cash. I about fell over. It was six years after hearing him perform at Madison Square Garden. As we left the building, Victoria Station president Dick Bradley said to me, “Make it happen, as soon as possible.” (In other words, get Johnny Cash hired).

That began a two-year association with The Man in Black and June Carter Cash and the Carter family.

Johnny Cash Rosey Nix June Tom P. Blake John Jr.

Rosey Nix in car, June, John Jr., Johnny and Tom at the Miami Victoria Station parking lot the morning after first meeting them in 1975

As Greta and I have watched these “Country Music” episodes, so often featuring Johnny, his daughter Rosanne, June and the Carter family, I pinch myself and say, “Did this really happen to me?” “Did I become friends with Johnny and June?” “Did I co-produce a record album with Johnny?” “Did I actually go inside the walls of San Quentin Prison with Johnny and his band?” The answer to each: Yes, although it seems like a dream.

A few months after Johnny became the Victoria Station spokesperson, he and June invited several VS executives to be their guests at a dual-concert event at the Sahara Tahoe Resort and Casino in Lake Tahoe. Between concerts, 17 of us went back stage so I could introduce them to John and June.

Johnny said to me privately, “What’s your favorite song of mine?”

I said, “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” In the second show, he said, in front of a large audience, “Hello Tom Blake, this song is for you.” And he played it.

June Carter Cash Tom P Blake

June Carter Cash with Tom in 1975 At the Sahara Tahoe Resort Hotel at Lake Tahoe when the Cashes hosted Victoria Station executives at a brunch the morning after the concerts we all attended. 

One day, Johnny asked me if Victoria Station would sponsor an album of train songs. We agreed. So, on August 15, 1975, I returned to Hendersonville, Tennessee, to the House of Cash recording studio, where we had recorded the radio commercials with him, to work with him on what songs would go on the album. It was my job to select the songs. He wrote the title song, “Destination Victoria Station.”


The album, Destination Victoria Station


The album, Destination Victoria Station, still in its original clear cellophane wrapper, that Tom co-produced with Johnny (Trust me, Johnny did all of the work). 50,000 albums were pressed.

Johnny had just published his book, “Man In Black.” After the recording session, I asked him to sign copies of his book for a few of the Victoria Station people.

Johnny Cash signed Man In Black

Johnny signed his Man In Black 1975 book to me on August 15, 1975, at this recording studio

After the Johnny Cash/Victoria Station association ended, I kept in touch with him.

Tom Blake Johnny Cash and Pam

Tom, Johnny and Tom’s sister Pam, in San Diego at Humphrey’s by the Bay in the late 1980s

I feel the most noted biography in the entire series of eight is that of Johnny (OK, a bit biased here). The observations of Rosanne about her dad are precious. In the final episode , Rosanne sings a memorial at the Ryman Auditorium to her dad called, “I Still Miss Someone,” which I heard Johnny sing in person a dozen times. It could bring a tear to your eye.

Burns must have been preparing this documentary for years. He was able to include Merle Haggard as a spokesperson prior to Haggard’s April 6, 2016, passing. Haggard, was a huge contributor to the “The Bakersfield (California) Sound,” an offshoot from the music of Nashville. He and Buck Owens were the two most successful “Bakersfield Sound” musicians.

In episode six of “Country Music,” Kristofferson talked about writing “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” It sure brought back memories for me.

Seniors often ask for suggestions on what they can do for inexpensive entertainment. One idea is to have a “Country Music” party on eight different nights, and, invite friends to come watch this fascinating series on home TV. The sessions are archived on PBS. The shows can also be streamed online.

If you decide to watch “Country Music,” be forewarned if you aren’t a country music fan. You’re probably going to become one.

Link to PBS

Update to above posted October 3, 2019

Country Music Final Comments

 The Ken Burns “Country Music” 8-part series on PBS, and, the responses from Champs affected me in many ways I did not anticipate. Here are two examples:

1 The John Denver lookalike comments

Champ Mary Lou emailed, “Oh my gosh Tom you outdid yourself with last week’s “Country Music” eNewsletter. Also, you looked so much like John Denver in your younger days. It’s uncanny in the photo with you in those (ahem) plaid bell bottom pants.

“I loved John Denver from the minute I heard his voice on the radio, and was so very, very sad when he died. Not the true country performer, I suppose, but such a beautiful soul.”

Reply to Mary Lou: Yes, I did resemble John Denver in the 1970s. Many people would tell me that when I first met them.

Tom and Johnny Cash 1975 at Victoria Station Newport Beach California

Tom and Johnny Cash 1975 at Victoria Station Newport Beach California

I think it was mainly due to my eyeglass frames being similar to the ones he wore. And I did meet him, which I suppose, is worth a paragraph or two.

After Bob Freeman (Victoria Station co-founder with Dick Bradley and Peter Lee) and I attended the San Quentin Prison concert with Johnny Cash, outside in the prison’s parking lot, Johnny’s agent, Marty Klein, invited Freeman and me to go to Folsom Prison for an afternoon concert that same day. Both Bob and I had plans and couldn’t go, it was a two-hour drive. (Not going to Folsom, by the way, was one of the biggest regrets of my life).

And then Klein invited us to attend a television-special taping (not a live show) the next day at the NBC studios in Burbank (Los Angeles). Johnny was appearing with Glen Campbell, Roger Miller, Mary Kay Place and host John Denver. I told Klein I’d be there.

Susan, my girlfriend at the time, and I flew to Burbank, rented a car, and drove to the studios. We had to pass through a security gate in the car. The guard looked at me and said, “Pass right on through Mr. Denver.” Susan teased me big time about that.

In the waiting room, we mingled with about 200 other members of the audience. Two people, thinking I was John Denver,  asked for my autograph. Susan insisted I sign them, which I did: “Bill Denver, John’s brother.”

At the six-hour taping, Susan and I sat with Rosanne Cash in the front row. Afterwards, Rosanne took us to her dad’s dressing room. Johnny was highly respected by his piers; the other entertainers stopped in to visit him.

Denver brought his parents to meet Johnny. Klein introduced us to Denver, saying I was his lookalike.

Denver extended his hand saying, “Far out.” Then, he stepped back a couple of feet, stared at me, and repeated, “Far out.” Then, he stood six inches from my face and said it a third time.

I was composed enough to tell him I’d like to be his stand-in for the upcoming movie Oh, God! that he was in with George Burns. He said he thought the role had been filled but he’d call me if it wasn’t too late. He never called. There went my film career.

Denver died October 12, 1997, in a private plane he was piloting in Monterrey Bay, south of San Francisco. As Mary Ann stated above, it was very, very sad. I hadn’t met Greta yet. After we were together for a short time, I related the above story to her. She had seen Denver, waiting for his luggage at a baggage carousel, in Honolulu. She was equally saddened when he died.

2 The history of Country Music

Greta and I watched episode 8, the final episode of the Ken Burns “Country Music” series, Saturday night. When the credits appeared, the last song of the entire series began. Again, I was amazed at the coincidence for me.

Just six eNewsletters ago, August 23, I wrote about the Irish singer in a pub we visited in Waterford, Ireland, who sang a song and asked if anyone in the bar could identify the song and who sang it. I blurted out, “Wildwood Flower” by the Carter Family. I hadn’t heard that song in 25 years.

The singer asked later how I knew that. I explained to him that I heard Mother Maybelle Carter sing it several times in person.

So, you bet, the Ken Burns “Country Music” series struck a chord with me. It made me realize how blessed I’ve been in my life.

Part 2 – The Sound of My Voice

I don’t want to confuse the above Ken Burns documentary music message with another documentary music message. But, on Wednesday afternoon, Greta and I went to the movie about Linda Ronstadt’s life and career, titled “The Sound of My Voice.”

Oh my gosh, an incredible movie. I had no idea she was so talented and versatile. She can’t perform now, as she has Parkinson’s Disease. But this movie is highly recommended. The music is lights out. Do you remember the song, “Different Drum,” when she was a member of the Stone Ponies? I sure do.

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