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FIDDLIN' AROUND DOCUMENTARY EXAMINES ROOTS, HISTORY OF COUNTRY MUSIC.

Byline: David Kronke TV Critic

``A Century of Country,'' a 13-hour documentary series debuting Saturday on the Country Music Television cable network, offers an easygoing, mainly intelligent overview of the musical genre. The folks who have put this together have clearly spent some time watching ``Jazz,'' Ken Burns' blockbuster tribute to and history of that music, in assembling their ambitious project.

Following Burns' lead, there are entertaining and instructive passages in which the influence of early country, bluegrass and swing musicians - either their musicianship, vocal harmonies or even yodeling techniques - are shown trickling down to the recording artists of today. There are diverting asides - fiddling was once such a valued talent that Southern gubernatorial candidates would try to outfiddle, rather than out-debate, one another. And there's some great archival footage of musicians at work and play, that are both inspirational and amusing.

But since the project was produced by CBS News (which shares with CMT a corporate parent in Viacom), ``A Century of Country'' features that sort of bland, ostensibly ``balanced'' (by TV-news standards) sensibility and lacks a true editorial point of view. As opposed to Burns' films, in which affection for the subject burnishes every frame, you can't really tell whether those responsible for ``A Century of Country'' approached it as a labor of love or just another paying job. And that's what separates a perfectly good documentary from a great one.

Certainly, the first episode begins inauspiciously, with interviewees - including many of today's most popular country stars - mouthing the usual platitudes: Country music is ``simple and it's beautiful.'' It's ``constantly changing its sound.'' ``Relationships and real life and emotions, that's what country music's about.'' ``The fans are the most loyal in the world.'' ``It's the first music to tell you the troubles of real life.'' Um, and opera, spirituals and the blues didn't?

Fortunately, the series quickly gains its footing, and tonight's episode offers a spiffy overview of the music's history. It focuses on yodeler Jimmie Rodgers - who, despite virtually defining a sound for the genre, suffered the ignominy of having his name misspelled in his New York Times obituary - and the Carter Family, whose radio shows were sponsored by a quack doctor who peddled goats' glands to cure impotence.

Next week, the subject is the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville's original star- making machinery, down-home style. (A lot of time is expended on comedian Minnie Pearl, who didn't sing and, as far as I can tell, didn't tell any jokes, either.) Episode three is a wonderful, colorful, nostalgic wallow, concerning the singing cowboys concocted by Hollywood who helped country music's popularity expand. (There was even an African-American singing cowboy, a jazz vocalist from Earl Hines' band named Herbert Jeffrey, who though he made six films couldn't prevent his movie posters from misspelling his name.)

In the future, episodes will examine bluegrass and western swing, as embodied by Bill Monroe (who picked up the mandolin only because it was the only instrument not claimed in his family's ensemble) and Bob Wills, who was most influenced by blues singer Bessie Smith; the honky-tonk heroes such as Hank Williams, arguably the greatest and inarguably the greatest sufferer of the art form; and rockabilly, which threatened to do in traditional country and spawned the biggest celebrity of the 20th century, Elvis Presley.

When the series reaches the '70s and country's explosion of popularity via its homogenization is when ``A Century of Country'' seems to misstep, perhaps out of fear of offending a certain fan base. It's at these moments when the series more resembles a hype-addled ``Entertainment Tonight'' story than a cogent history of the music.

Certainly, a few interviewees do gripe that the music lost its soul and its twang as it glitzed itself up, but in TV's point-counterpoint style of reporting without really providing a context, that point is balanced by some insipid observations from the artists who benefited from diluting the music's spirit. Taking sides in the debate would've suggested an editorial authority, that those responsible really knew what they were talking about rather than were reporting just the facts, ma'am.

The documentary also suggests that there's an either-or to the genre's trends - either popular country is very traditional or polished and pop-y - without recognizing that these days, the No Depression or alt.country trend peacefully co-exists alongside its more flamboyant cousins. (To its credit, ``A Century of Country'' does seem vaguely more enamored of the Outlaws of the '70s than with the more mainstream artists.)

James Garner introduces each episode (his total contribution to the series must've amounted to a good hour in a studio), and he gaffes badly in the final episode by dubbing Lee Ann Rimes, who has faded from and subsequently abandoned the country scene for pop music, ``my personal favorite.''

Another oversight seems to be the series' ignoring the overall contribution of Texas music to country's storied history. Given the number of times the Lone Star State pops up in ``A Century of Country's'' narrative - from Bob Wills to Lyle Lovett and many, many artists in between - it might've occurred to someone to assemble a package examining the state's impact on the music - heck, even Bakersfield, Calif., gets its own appreciatory sequence.

Still, ``A Century of Country'' serves as a good starting ground for the neophyte fan; longtime aficionados will doubtlessly discover a few nuggets of lore they weren't familiar with, as well.

``A CENTURY OF COUNTRY''

What: Documentary series on the musical genre.

The stars: Introduced by James Garner.

Where: CMT.

When: 9 p.m. Saturdays through March 30.

Our rating: Three stars.

CAPTION(S):

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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Jan 4, 2002
Words:945
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