If you are a fan of original country music, I hope you have been watching the eight-part “Country Music” series by Ken Burns that has been running on KET and other PBS stations nationwide over the last couple of weeks.
While the two-hour segments have done little to enhance my understanding as to how and why so-called “modern” country music has evolved mostly into Nashville noise pollution, it sure has brought back a flood of precious memories from my younger days.
Actually, at this writing, we have only watched the first five episodes, but by the time you are reading this missive we should be through the series and already watching again the ones we have recorded. Two hours of anything is about all Mr. Parkinson can tolerate on any given night, but I expect that reruns of this series will keep me well entertained throughout this fall and the coming winter.
We will, most likely, watch “The Voice” on Mondays and Tuesdays over the next several weeks because the contestants frequently perform old songs that predate 1980. The rest of my late evening entertainment will largely consist of replaying the first half-dozen episodes of the “Country Music” series.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s not much different than playing your favorite music recording several times a week or even several times a day. It never really gets old even though it may become a nuisance to your friends and family members.
The first five episodes have mostly focused on the very early days of radio leading into the heydays of the Grand Ole Opry through 1968. I figure the next two episodes will get us up to 1990s, at which point I will stop hitting the rewind button. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of new songs that I’ve actually wanted to hear repeated since 1999.
In the meantime, I like to wax nostalgic about the music on which I literally cut my teeth, or at least my baby teeth.
By the time I was six years old, I had learned to stand on a kitchen chair to reach up and turn the dial and volume knobs on our old, mid-1940s model, AM Stromberg Carlson, vacuum-tube radio that was perched on top of the refrigerator. Mom kept it there because that was the only place in the house where it would play.
The fridge served as an antenna and the radio would play just fine when it was tuned into “local” stations in Whitesburg, Neon, Hazard and Hindman. Those stations came “on the air” at 6 a.m. and “signed off ” at 5 or 6 p.m. each evening.
If we wanted to listen to most of the big city stations at night, it was my job to stand by the radio with my hand touching it because, for whatever reason, doing so would greatly amplify the signal. If Mom or Dad really wanted to hear country music programs on WCKY (Cincinnati) WLS or WJJD (Chicago) or one of the numerous other clear channel, faraway stations, one of them might stand by the radio and spell me from antenna duty. One of my cousins, who owned a radio repair shop, managed to install a much better internal antenna but the radio still played more clearly if someone was touching it.
We finally got a new Zenith “solid state” tubeless radio in the late 1950’s, but even it played better if someone was standing very close by or touching it.
Of course everyone’s favorite radio program was the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville’s WSM on both Friday and Saturday nights. The dial on the old radio was so sensitive that the station could go out of tune if the refrigerator door was opened and closed. You really have not been yelled at if you have never had a Chicago station cut into WSM and interrupt my dad while Roy Acuff was right in the middle of singing “Great Speckled Bird” only because you wanted a cold drink of Kool-Aid.
And when we finally did manage to get the signal in clear as a bell, Dad was apt to holler “Don’t touch that dial,” if anyone went anywhere close to the radio.