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The Lost Highway - Part One

Down From The Mountain

The story of the current bluegrass revival and how the music of a remote, rural region of America came to represent the "authentic" experience of the whole nation.

When George Clooney made his way into a makeshift recording studio in the movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou he was re-living a turning point in musical history. Before the first recordings were made country music was trapped in the isolated Appalachian Mountains.

The Big Bang: The Big Bang of Country Music took place in Bristol, Tennessee in August 1927. It was in a disused hat factory on State Street that East Coast talent scout Ralph Peer set up the world's first portable recording equipment and recorded sessions with Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family. Lost Highway reconstructs these historic sessions using musicians instead of actors.

Rodgers went on to become the first national star of country music, creating a blueprint for almost every solo performer to follow. The influence of the Carter Family, with their soulful gospel harmonies and intricate guitar playing, can be heard in every harmony group since. Together they laid the foundations for modern country music.

The Mountain Tradition: Country music has roots that run deep into America's soil and it came to life in the rural south-east mountains of Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia, brought there by settlers from the British Isles. Songs would be passed down through generations and, because of the isolation of the Appalachians, in many cases these songs survived unknown to the outside world until the beginning of the 20th century.

Like its close cousin, the blues, country music moved out of the fields and into the cities in search of an audience - and in the process was transformed into commercial entertainment.

The Role of Radio: The 1930s Depression hit the record industry hard and among the first to be dropped from the artist roster were country artists. Radio filled the gap. By 1938, 10 million rural families owned radio sets, often run off car batteries - about 70 per cent of all rural families had access to one. To cater for this audience radio stations began running barn dance shows, the most popular of which was the Grand Ole Opry broadcast from Nashville, already on the way to becoming the capital of country music.

Bluegrass: Bluegrass - named after the bluegrass state of Kentucky - was a 1940s development that took traditional string based mountain songs and built precise vocal arrangements around them.

Bill Monroe, a dark and brooding mandolin-playing singer with the highest-pitched voice in all of popular music, was the godfather of bluegrass. His unique and keening vocal style was called the "high lonesome", such was the uncanny depth of emotion it carried.

Brother Acts: Bill Monroe had begun his career as the other half of a brother act - the Monroes. Brother acts were among the most popular performers of the the 40s and 50s. Tight, lyrical harmonies underpinned by simple acoustic instrumentation were the basis of the careers of the Louvin Brothers and the Stanley Brothers, both of whom feature in this episode.

Oh Brother… using testimony from Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, Ralph Stanley and The Whites - all of whom appear on the Oh Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack - we bring the story of this music bang up to date.

Other contributors include musicians Ricky Skaggs, Charlie Louvin, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill and Earl Scruggs.


The Lost Highway - Part Two

The Road to Nashville

This is the story of Hank Williams, country music's greatest songwriter whose hard-drinking honky tonk lifestyle led to a rock 'n' roll style death aged just 29 in 1953. It's also the story of how Nashville would end up squandering the legacy of its greatest star - they thought he was just a drunk hillbilly performer - just as surely as he had squandered his own life.

The Birth of Honky Tonk: Honky tonk music came out of the inter-war Texas oil-fields where a rough and ready style of entertainment had developed in beer-joints and roadside bars - known locally as honky tonks - to cater for the migrant oil-riggers. They were rowdy places - hot beds of beer, lust and fistfights, where performers needed to play loud to compete with the noise. The result was a harsher, amplified and more driven sound which took as its subject the very essence of bar life - loving, cheating and drinking.

The coming of honky tonk has been described as country music's loss of virginity. Pioneered by Ernest Tubb, who sang over an electrified guitar for the first time, it also attracted the young Hank Williams who would go on to write such classic Honky Tonk songs as Your Cheatin' Heart and I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry.

Hank Williams was a prolific writer and an alcoholic, whose haunting gospel influenced songs are wracked with guilt and remorse and reflect his own troubled life, echoing the ups and downs of a turbulent marriage. Yet such is their power that never had pain and sadness sounded so good. His songs are classics of the genre and 50 years after his untimely, drink-related death on New Year's Day 1953, he is still regarded as the most important figure in the history of country music, although at the time he died the Nashville country music establishment had abandoned him as too unreliable to be allowed to appear on the Grand Ole Opry.

The Nashville Sound: Honky Tonk barely survived the advent of Elvis Presley and rock 'n' roll. Nashville reacted by closing ranks and creating a smoother more pop friendly brand of country that came to be known as the Nashville Sound.

Producers Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins would use session artists to lay down an instrumental bed with the singer performing vocals which would then be sweetened with strings and lush vocal choirs giving the sound a smoothness and sophistication far removed from the twanginess of traditional country. Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold, both of whom had once flirted with honky tonk, built huge careers on the back of the Nashville Sound.

Contributors include: artists and musicians k.d. lang, Hank Williams III, Steve Earle, Hank Thompson, Kris Kristofferson, The Jordanaires, Ray Price, Brenda Lee, Bill Anderson, Eddy Arnold, Dwight Yoakam and Willie Nelson.


The Lost Highway - Part Three

Beyond Nashville

Country worships cowboy pride - those who have gone their own way and taken chances. There's a maverick streak, an independent spirit in the music that re-surfaces whenever country becomes too mainstream or too commercial for its own good.

This is the story of the outsiders from all over America who again and again have rejuvenated country by going beyond Nashville - from the Bakersfield Sound of the 1950s through to the outlaw movement of the 1970s to alt. country today.

The Bakersfield Sound: Migrants from the Texas and Oklahoma dustbowls in the 1930s kept their music alive in the honky-tonks and juke joints of California's San Joachim Valley. By the 1950s their music had developed a hard edged amplified sound and a distinct freewheeling identity of its own that challenged the country music establishment. In the hands of Buck Owens, the Bakersfield sound evolved into a unique high-treble guitar sound that burst out of car radio speakers all round the world and was an early influence on the Beatles.

It was everything the syrupy arrangements of Nashville weren't. Another great Bakersfield artist was the singer-songwriter Merle Haggard - a sometime inmate of San Quentin prison who had been inspired by seeing the ultimate outsider Johnny Cash play to fellow prisoners. Haggard spoke directly to America's blue collar hinterland - the very people Nashville were desperate to leave behind.

He chronicled America's painful journey from the conformist 50s to the libertarian 60s with songs like An Okie from Muskogee and Working Man Blues - and to his own amusement this dope-smoking ex-convict became an unlikely figurehead for the conservative America in the late 1960s.

Haggard is still one of the most revered and controversial figures in country and was an inspirational presence for another California-based artist Gram Parsons, who was the first performer to bring together country and rock. Country rock might never have happened without him, but he died of drugs overdose in 1973.

The Outlaw Movement: Throughout the 50s and 60s, there had been various attempts to recapture the grit and honesty of country but it was the outlaw movement, in the mid 1970s, spearheaded by the Texas duo of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, which really managed to restore something of the original maverick and rebel spirit to the music.

Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson wanted creative and artistic control. They wanted to write their own songs, choose their own producers - things that were taken for granted by most rock musicians. Willie only achieved it by decamping to the hippy paradise of Austin, Texas; Jennings stayed in town and took on corporate Nashville head on. A compilation featuring their work, Wanted! The Outlaws became the first platinum record to come out of Nashville, rewriting the rules of Country music in the process.

New Country: In the 1980s new blood came in the form of the so-called New Traditionalist movement. A series of offbeat country artists issued new albums which had a freshness of approach and an honesty unknown since the heyday of honky tonk.

Among these newcomers were Ricky Skaggs, Dwight Yoakam, Randy Travis and Steve Earle. What bound each of these artists together was their unabashed admiration of older country music styles. As a disparate movement, they put the twang back in country music -and showed that country's traditional strengths - great songwriting and performance - could still appeal to a young audience.

In their wake, record companies scrabbled to sign dozens of handsome, young, new country artists - a phenomenon sometimes tagged "white hat country". The biggest hat belonged to Garth Brooks, whose stadium rock version of country music swept all before it in the 1990s. In September 1991, he made American music history when his album Ropin' The Wind was the first to top both country and pop charts in its first week of release. He ended up second only to The Beatles in records sold. His success was so phenomenal that it changed country music permanently. Brooks raised the stakes to such an extent that record companies became reliant on "cookie-cutter" acts - safe, video friendly fodder targeted at a mass crossover audience.

Alt. Country: The most exciting movement of recent years, alternative country is a broad church committed to a back-to-basics, anti-corporate approach. In particular, alt. country artists see their spiritual forefathers as hardcore country artists - like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash - who have rebelled against sanitised but popular music in the past. Wilco, Ryan Adams and Hank Williams III all fit into this category, maverick performers who are once again re-making country from outside the limits and limitations of Nashville.

With contributions from artists: Willie Nelson, Buck Owens, Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Dwight Yoakam, Randy Travis, Steve Earle, Hank Williams III and Trisha Yearwood.


The Lost Highway - Part Four

Sweethearts of the Rodeo

Women were once the bit players in Nashville, relegated to the role of merely accompanying male performers, but now they dominate the country music industry. This is the story of how the women of country successfully fought for control of their identity, their songs and ultimately the future of the music itself.

The popular image of women in country music - Dolly Parton's dumb blonde meets Kitty Wells' 1950s gingham-clad housewife - couldn't be more at odds with the central creative role women have played in its development. When, in 1952, Kitty Wells recorded It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels, it was as a retort to all the honky tonk songs whose lyrics blamed women for the infidelity of their men. Few could have predicted the far-reaching effects it would have. Wells sang with a pent-up intensity that was unique and her songs opened up new, often previously taboo, territory. Her demure, pink gingham style hid a feistiness that paved the way for every female country performer who followed her.

Cowgirls: The first million selling record by a country female artist was Patsy Montana's I Wanna Be A Cowboy's Sweetheart in 1935. She became a country institution, giving female country performers their first new solo style - one which would be adopted by many women singers in the 1940s and 1950s. But it would be artists like honky tonker Jean Shepard and Patsy Cline, one of the greatest country pop stylists of the Nashville Sound era, who really opened things up for women.

Man, I Feel Like A Woman: The biggest impact of women performers though came in the 1960s with the arrival of Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn.

Loretta Lynn was the hillbilly feminist, a honky tonk-rooted artist not afraid to write songs like Don't Come Home-a-Drinkin' With Lovin' On Your Mind and Your Squaw Is On The Warpath. Tammy Wynette is country music for many people. She sang about women wronged but also about staying with those men doing the wronging. Five times married, she didn't heed the advice she meted out in her most famous song - Stand By Your Man.

Dolly Parton has had a longer career than either, frequently re-inventing herself - now as a hyper-feminine country queen, now as an authentic bluegrass artist, now as the music business' answer to Mae West, a performer willing to send up her own sexiness.

Another performer who played with sexual identity as part of her act was k.d. lang. Her flamboyant 1980s re-working of country was wildly successful even in country's conservative heartlands.

In the 1990s women artists like Faith Hill and Shania Twain unashamedly used a blatantly sexual image to punch through into the MTV audience - but very much on their own terms. They are now some of the biggest names in the business.

And even in the less commercially driven world of bluegrass it is female artists like Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch - who owns her own record label - that dominate the music, while exercising full control over their artistic direction in a way the women who came before them could only dream of.

With contributions from artists: Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells, Jean Shepard, k.d. lang, Trisha Yearwood, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Gail Davies and Rosanne Cash.