By Richard Harrington
Friday, March 17, 2006
OVER THE NEXT THREE WEEKS, the phrase "just a little bit country" will apply to the Kennedy Center as it hosts "Country: A Celebration of America's Music." Between March 20 and April 9, in association with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, it will serve up a handful of concerts, some in the hallowed concert halls, some on the more populist (and free) Millennium Stage. The purpose is to strengthen country music's storied relevance as an important voice of, by and for the people.
"I'm proud we're at a point where country music and the Kennedy Center can embrace each other, because country music has long since evolved to be a cultural icon," says singer-guitarist-historian Marty Stuart, who headlines a Grand Ole Opry tribute March 26.
"Whether you play the Ryman Auditorium [in Nashville] or Carnegie Hall or the Kennedy Center," Stuart says, "there's those places and then there's everywhere else. Those places are special, unique places inside the walls of America; when you're getting to play your music on any of those three stages, it's an honor within itself."
"Along with jazz, country music is America's music," says Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser, calling it "a uniquely American form of artistic expression."
But jazz had a much more substantial standing at the nation's performing arts center long before a late '90s televised jazz gala that also happened to be titled "A Celebration of America's Music." In the center's 35-year history, the number of jazz concerts has been in the hundreds, country concerts in the dozens.
The upcoming "Celebration" is the center playing catch-up.
"I started thinking about this three years ago," says Kaiser, who recently celebrated his fifth year heading the nation's busiest arts center, one best known for its classical, opera, dance, musical and theater offerings.
"First of all, I happen to like country music, but that's not why we do the work here," Kaiser says. "I felt it hadn't been taken seriously by arts centers in this country, though it is an indigenous American art form. And I thought it needed something more than a one-night country music [event] that comes and then is gone."
According to Kaiser, "Most performing arts centers are really focused on a particular few art forms. They do their theater season or their symphony season, their ballet or modern dance season, and country music doesn't fit neatly into one of those series.
"What we try and do at the center is to bring [different] arts to our audiences through a festival format but then to integrate some of those performers and types of performances into our series going forward. This is our first salvo with country music, if you will, but certainly not our last."
Country music will arrive Whitman's Sampler-style: the Grand Ole Opry tribute in conjunction with the Opry's 80th anniversary; Vince Gill, Lee Ann Womack and Wynonna teaming with legends Ray Price and Kris Kristofferson; a showcase for country's String Masters. The Millennium Stage, which hosts free concerts daily, will do its part, from an official opening concert by bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs to a closing concert-and-dance finale with Texas swing zealots Asleep at the Wheel; novices can bone up on country dancing beforehand in a series of Performance Plus arts education programs. Weather permitting, the Asleep at the Wheel finale will be held outside on the South Plaza.
Gill, the festival's honorary co-chair with former Washingtonian Emmylou Harris, thinks the lineup is a good, and representative, one.
"We said, 'Let's go there with the right people, the people that are authentic,' " Gill says. "Not to say that someone isn't, but oftentimes when you do something a little out of your comfort zone or norm, people think you have to bring what's the most popular, what's the most famous, what's the biggest thing going. I've never really thought that way. To me it was about getting artists to come and perform whatever kind of music they do in an authentic way. Let's go and represent the history of this music, not just the currency of this music."
Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Hall of Fame, says that although country music is firmly rooted in tradition, it's always moving in new directions and has connections to other kinds of music (see Allan Harris and Cross That River's jazz-oriented "The Saga of a Black Cowboy" March 25, or the old-timey comedy string band antics of the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band on March 26).
"By giving people a good sampling of what the music is about, what its origins are, what contemporary manifestations of it are, people begin to appreciate that this music is a more complicated thing than people might think it is, that it really is part of a long, long, long tradition that constantly evolves," Young says.
Giving country music a national stage, even temporarily, has been a challenge on several levels, particularly scheduling big-name artists and finding open dates in the appropriate concert halls. With classical music and opera, for instance, concerts are often booked years ahead. In pop and country, artists playing for larger audiences tend to book much later than performing arts centers are traditionally used to.
"In the time frame of this festival, we were not able to get everyone we wanted," Kaiser acknowledges, "but this is not the last time we're going to be doing this."
There's also a perception, mostly unacknowledged and, Kaiser insists, unfair, that people who love country music don't necessarily frequent performing arts centers. That advance ticket sales have been good doesn't surprise Kaiser, who says, "There's this huge audience out there for country music.
"There was this notion that certain people wouldn't feel comfortable coming to performing arts centers if they hadn't done it routinely, and I've never believed that. I believe that if you do work that people want to see or hear, they're going to come. In that, the Kennedy Center record mirrors other arts centers, and that's what we're trying to rectify now."
There's also the comparative abundance of year-round jazz programming, though in the commercial world, jazz sales pale next to country. Kaiser speculates that "historically there has been more jazz in arts centers. It was just a music that was more accepted and promoted, whereas country music was something that was done in very specific parts of the country but didn't necessarily 'belong' in an arts center. We disagree obviously."
Wisely, the Kennedy Center understood it was not capable of curating a country music festival by itself, and that's where the collaboration with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum emerged.
"We were flattered and overjoyed," Young says. "We knew of [the Kennedy Center] as the nation's performing arts center. They had a sense of the context they wanted to bring to the festival, and we were happy they thought about us. "
The Kennedy Center sent representatives to Nashville to tour the museum and to meet with key staff. According to Young, "It was pretty clear they really appreciated what we've done here and thought we would be important to helping create the content, and that's what we are -- content people. We have devoted 40 years to taking care of this part of the culture, so we value it highly."
Given the limited number of open dates at the Kennedy Center, and the limited availability of artists, it shouldn't be surprising that the lineup for this inaugural "Celebration" is somewhat limited. There's none of the Muzik Mafia (Gretchen Wilson, Big & Rich) that seems to be dominating country radio and sales, no glimmer of the alt-country movement.
Young suggests the event's producers are "trying to show that what you hear on the radio is not necessarily what country music is. People tend to think that is what the music is, and that is not really the case. We tried to be conscientious by giving a sampling, giving a feeling for the breadth and depth of the music."
Jay Orr, senior music editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, was heavily involved in programming, and he says this is "not just an opportunity to showcase country in Washington at the Kennedy Center. We felt, as their partner, this was an opportunity to show our museum's values, to expand on the story that we tell here of country music as a tradition that's rooted in the folk song of the British Isles, in blues, in gospel music, and then channeled through the commercial engines of business to be what it is today."
"We really felt it was important to talk about the roots traditions, so we have folks like Earl Scruggs, who's very connected to that early country music but also a very progressive musician in terms of the things he's embraced outside of the music he grew up with." (This will be the 82-year-old Scruggs's first concert appearance since the death of his wife and longtime manager, Louise, in early February.)
Orr also points to the String Masters concert (Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, et al.). "Those guys are all very rooted in tradition. They all learned their music either in family or community settings or from people who were folk musicians, but they've taken that and expanded on it and done something that's very progressive, very forward-looking."
There's also Kristofferson, "who's a very progressive songwriter but comes from Texas and has that heritage," Orr notes. "And Price, who pioneered the 4/4 shuffle, then went into the Nashville sound, and today he's playing South by Southwest. Whether it's the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band or [songwriters] Guy Clark, Shawn Camp and Matraca Berg, you'll find that all of them have a deep sense of tradition, but they're also very much of the day."
Still, the festival's history lessons are incomplete, especially when it comes to local and regional elements, aside from a Millennium Stage concert March 29 featuring country rockers the Rosslyn Mountain Boys and Bill Kirchen and Too Much Fun. But there's nothing about what many call "The Big Bang of Country Music," the 1927 Bristol Sessions (named after the town near the Virginia/Tennessee border) where Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family -- the father of country music and the first family of country music -- made their first recordings and helped shape and define the genre in its infancy.
In the late '40s and '50s, the nation's capital was a hotbed of country music, a major market second only to Nashville; in the '50 and '60s, it was considered the bluegrass capital of the nation. But there's no recognition of folks like Patsy Cline, Roy Clark, the Country Gentlemen or Seldom Scene.
And until now, country stars have been more notable for their absence from the nation's performing arts center. Even the four legends who have received prestigious Kennedy Center Honors -- Johnny Cash, Roy Acuff, Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson -- made few concert appearances there. On the other hand, Nelson, Kristofferson and Asleep at the Wheel were all part of a 10-day Texas Festival that took over the center in 1991.
Maybe a country festival of that magnitude is waiting down the line.
"This can't be it for us," Kaiser says. "We can't do this and say, 'Well, now we've done it.' With most large projects, like the  Sondheim festival, we do it and then spend a year thinking about what did we learn and then plan something else. [As to another festival], probably not next season but the season after that."
Young says he thinks the "Celebration" "signals that country music will be part of the menu ongoing at the Kennedy Center, so of course we're very happy about that. Clearly, we think it deserves that."
As Stuart sees it, "Country music and the roots of country music are as cultural as anything else this world has to offer, and I'm really happy to see it recognized as such. And it will be influential, without a doubt. Everybody keeps their eyes on the leader, and the Kennedy Center is a leader. When they make a move, you'll feel it in Kansas and Kentucky and elsewhere. It opens the door for much broader relationships."
Richard Harrington is the music writer for Weekend.