from bristol… : a reflection on the ken burns “country music” documentary pt. I

please note: I had really great intentions about writing this post the day after Country Music ended. But then I got engaged and was surrounded for people by four days and went back to work and couldn’t get my head on straight before hosting a weekend retreat that has left me entirely exhausted and ready to sleep, but still overly aware of the fact that this post had not been posted and needed to be but also still needed a lot of intensive and focused work before it could see the light of day.

Hence – here it is, about two weeks late, in two parts:

After ingesting 16 hours of country music over the last two weeks, I am consumed with all the feels. I was pretty much a stream of tears for the last 30 minutes of the final episode. Because when I first came to Nashville, I didn’t care about the history, but I still knew there was something that spoke to me. I couldn’t put a finger on it then, but there ws something that drew me in, something that changed my entire life, and something that this documentary drew back up into me. The images that flashed before my eyes, from current-day all the way back to Mother Maybelle Carter made my heart ache for those old-time feelings.

There is still so much goodness in Nashville – and in other parts of the country that are working to preserve what Music Row doesn’t seem much interested in anymore. But there is also so much good in the past – names and songs that most of us don’t remember anymore, but should. I have faith that the genre will circle back again – someday. But it’s high time we start paying attention to where it is that circle needs to go.

I want to believe that something is rustling through the wind on Music Row this week. I want to believe the trees are peeking in through the windows of those old houses and gargantuan executive offices, overhearing conversations of change, whispering to one another that a revolution is about to begin. Hold tight to your roots, because it’s gonna be a bumpy ride, they say to one another. But thank GOD something is finally being done.

This morning, on my short commute to work through the countryside, I was listening to The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s collaborative recording of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. As I thought about the words, as I listened to the varied voices, as I felt the music build from fiddles to pianos and drums and more and more voices layering on top of one another, tears began to cloud my eyes. It was only made worse by the dry weather residue that was obscuring my view through the windshield.

Country music, y’all. There is so much history behind it. History that extends past the oldies of the 60s, past those first hazy recordings of 1920s Bristol, TN, past the borders of this country and the people who founded it. And in that single recording, you can feel every bit of that history.

I can only hope everyone else feels it, too.

You see, that song takes me back to the rebuilding of Nashville, after the 2010 flood. The Grand Ole Opry had been flooded with waters from the Cumberland making their way through the pews right up to the crest of the stage. But the circle – the treasured piece of floorboard transported from the Ryman stage to the new venue back in 1974 – had been preserved. And when the Opry returned on September 28, 2019, its stage was filled with dozens of country stars, new and old, singing that song together, celebrating the endurance, the strength, and the rebirth of the genre.

But there was another kind of growth that took place after the flood, one that put this legacy at risk. (Because if we were going to have to rebuild the city, why not make it bigger and better? Why not take this opportunity to make everything fresh and new again – never mind the consequences that could result from attempting to knock down treasures like RCA Studio A, since rescued and preserved by a movement led by musician Ben Folds – who’s not even a country artist, mind you.) Since then, Music Row is officially listed as one of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

And if that doesn’t clue us in to something going majorly wrong here in Nashville, then I don’t know what will. Talk about scary.

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