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Condensing a Century of Country Music Into 13 Hours

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine a record executive going on a talent search at the outset of the rock era and discovering Elvis Presley and the Beatles within two weeks of each other.

Ralph Peer came close. In 1927, when the New York talent agent traveled to Bristol, Tenn., he discovered Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, who were every bit as important to country music, artistically and commercially, as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Fab Four were to rock.

Peer’s lucky strike, sometimes referred to as “the Big Bang of country music,” also serves as the launch point for “Century of Country,” a 13-hour documentary that explores the birth, growth and maturation of this seminal form of American popular music.

The weekly one-hour series, premiering today on TNN (the Nashville Network cable channel), charts country music history from before it sprang off back porches in the rural American South in the ‘20s to national and eventually international popularity.

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From the raw emotion of the Carter Family and Rodgers, whose recordings 70 years ago for Peer still influence the music of today’s country superstars, the series moves on to the musical and cultural breakthroughs achieved by singing cowboys Gene Autry and Roy Rogers through the tragically short life of country giant Hank Williams. It culminates with a look at modern-day hit-makers such as Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, who helped lead country music to U.S. sales of $1.93 billion in 1998, according to the latest figures from the Recording Industry Assn. of America.

“It’s history--it’s a story of some incredible characters who made music history in an area of music that’s really a product of American history,” said series executive producer Rand Morrison. “These people are the very definition of ‘larger-than-life.’ ”

Morrison, who came to “Century of Country” having worked at CBS newsmagazine shows including “48 Hours” and “Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel,” found the project to be “the most delightful change of pace, because the subject matter is rich, human and emotional.”

The stories hardly get more rich, human or emotional than with Jimmie Rodgers. Nicknamed “The Singing Brakeman,” he was both country’s first major star and its first tragic hero, who died of tuberculosis at age 35.

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The first episode includes footage of Rodgers singing in ‘30s film shorts--early music videos--along with clips of the Carters. Future shows spotlight Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, Kitty Wells, George Jones and scores of other performers, including a fiery young country singer from Tupelo, Miss., named Elvis Presley.

To the project’s participants, the 1997 sale of TNN to Westinghouse Electric Corp., which owns CBS, was a marriage made in hillbilly heaven.

“The documentary arm of the corporate parent was a perfect fit with the archival material owned by TNN,” said Nashville-based writer and historian Robert K. Oermann, a consultant to the series.

“I was extremely resistant to the idea of a group of New York producers coming down here and doing a documentary,” Oermann said. “But sometimes an outsider’s perspective is refreshing.”

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Added Morrison: “We’ve gone through almost everything that exists in CBS’ archive, almost everything inside TNN’s archive, which is a very rich archive because it’s their area of specialization. We’ve also worked with Country Music Hall of Fame [in Nashville].”

The TNN-CBS crew has been at work on “Century of Country” since early 1998, but the idea had been on the boards at TNN for years before Westinghouse bought it, said Brian Hughes, TNN’s vice president of programming.

It was conceived as a millennium project that would showcase the various holdings of Gaylord Entertainment, the previous owner of TNN, the Grand Ole Opry and now-defunct Opryland Theme Park in Nashville.

“As we became part of CBS,” Hughes said, “the complexion of the project changed, but we were still very focused on creating the definitive look at country music.”

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Country music specials and awards shows have generally done well on TV because the music’s popularity crosses age, gender, economic and social strata. But this also comes at a period in country history in which youth and beauty have become increasingly important over the last decade. Today, only a small handful of performers over 40 still have recording contracts or get radio airplay.

“The industry needs this series right now,” historian Oermann said. “Musically I don’t think country music has been in great shape the last year or two. . . . With the conglomeratization of the industry, the sheer size and money in the industry are so far removed from [country’s humble beginnings]. It’s important that we get back in touch with the music.”

The series tries to do that by outlining the key musical contributions of various artists, from Rodgers’ signature vocal yodel and intensely personal songwriting to Lefty Frizzell’s stretching and twisting of syllables for the first time in country, influencing singers who came after him from George Jones and Merle Haggard to Clint Black and John Anderson.

“I grant you I’m a little biased,” Morrison said, “but I do think that if you [watch this] for the music, you’re going to have a great time, and if you’re in it for the history, you’ll have an equally satisfying experience.”

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Series host James Garner provides folksy intros and wrap-ups for each hour, while episodes are narrated by Bob Schieffer, the veteran CBS News correspondent and “Face the Nation” host.

“I started on this right after the impeachment trial was over. And after 13 months of that, anything would be a welcome change,” Schieffer said with a laugh.

Even though he grew up in Fort Worth--he recalled going to see Ernest Tubb at the Crystal Springs Ballroom there--he said narrating “Century of Country” has been an educational experience as well as “just a lot of fun.”

“Yes, it’s entertainment. It’s about a light and interesting subject,” Schieffer said. “But it also has the CBS trademark of good, thorough research.”

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What has struck Schieffer most is the human drama behind the music.

“These are real people,” Schieffer said. “They are these songs that they sing. That’s the thing that comes to you.”

* “Century of Country” premieres tonight on TNN at 8 and continues Wednesdays in the same time slot.

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“It’s history--it’s a story of some incredible characters who made music history in an area of music that’s really a product of American history. These people are the very definition of ‘larger-than-life.’ ”

RAND MORRISON

Series executive producer


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