The Family Business: Country Music Style

Miley Cyrus apparently subscribes to the adage “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” The former star of Disney TV’s Hannah Montana set the media abuzz with her surprisingly raw dance routine on the recent Video Music Miley CyrusAwards telecast. Of course, had Katy Perry or Lady Gaga performed that same routine, there would probably be far less scrutiny, but this was a bit of a shocker from the previously untarnished twenty-year-old. Riding high with the current number one single “Wrecking Ball” on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, Cyrus seems determined to shed her squeaky clean teen image in favor of a rather salacious adult persona. 

I suppose that you can’t blame Miley Cyrus from wanting to make the break. Billy Ray CyrusAfter all, she’s actually trying to distance herself from two things: her teen image and her country singer/actor father, Billy Ray Cyrus. I assume that it’s difficult to sell yourself as a pop diva when many still think of a line dance craze at the mention of the name Cyrus. Billy Ray, of course, is probably still best remembered for creating that craze with his monster hit “Achy Breaky Heart,” way back in 1992. Although he has twelve studio albums to his credit, none has repeated the incredible success of his debut disc, Some Gave All. For over a decade now, he has focused much of his attention on acting. Among other roles, he starred as a Montana physician who took a job in New York City in the PAX  TV (now ION Television) show Doc, which ran from 2001-04, and as the on-screen father of his real-life daughter’s Miley Stewart/Hannah Montana dual character from 2006-11. 

Miley is far from the first progeny of a country singer to make a name in her/his own right in the music field. Surprisingly, however, she is the only one that I could discover who had not followed a country music icon into that same genre. Whereas Billy Ray is undeniably a country singer (who also cut some religious discs, but in a country style), Miley is clearly a pop singer. Apparently, this is a rare occurrence, as my check of similar parent/child music performers across all genres showed that the apple rarely falls far from the tree. One such example of disparate genres is John Raitt, the late star of several major Broadway musicals, and his daughter Bonnie Raitt, who became a blues-rock musician. Another is Ravi Shankar, the recently-deceased sitar virtuoso, and his daughter Norah Jones, who opted for a career as a jazz vocalist/keyboardist. A third might be singer-pianist Nat King Cole and his daughter singer Natalie Cole, but Nat, who started in jazz and ventured into pop, shared much musical territory with Natalie, who started in R&B and soul, before moving into pop and jazz. 

Despite Miley’s spurning country for pop, several country music icons have had offspring who have followed in their footsteps and become stars in their own right. Depending on your age, you probably rate either Hank Williams or Johnny Cash as the most iconic figure in the history of country music. Either way, those superstars would be a difficult act to follow, and yet, both had a child who managed to get out of the shadow of their famous father and into a spotlight of their own. 

Hiram King “Hank” Williams was the first superstar of the genre, as he took what had previously been referred to as “hillbilly” music onto the national stage in the 1950s, writing several dozen classic honky tonk tunes before Hank Williamsdrinking himself to death at age twenty-nine! His son, Hank Williams, Jr. (born Randall Hank Williams), started out as a sort of Hank Williams tribute performer, but after some mild success doing that – and having first to overcome his own fondness for drink and drugs – went on to become one of the most popular country artists of his generation. He found his own voice in the outlaw country style, with his long career peaking in the 1980s. Junior’s son, Hank Williams, III (born Shelton Hank Williams), has followed in the rebel footsteps of his forbearers, acquiring a considerable reputation for enjoying a certain naturally growing “weed.” Hank the Third started his music career in punk and hardcore bands, but more recently has drifted in and out of the traditional honky tonk style, often creating a hybrid of honky tonk and rock that generally gets him labeled as an alt-country artist. 

Johnny Cash (born J.R. Cash, as his parents couldn’t decide on a name!) enjoyed a half-century career yet his reputation seems to continue growing even a decade after his death. Like the Williams clan, Cash also went down the Johnny Cashdark path of alcohol and drugs, with alternating periods of living under the influence and being sober. Nevertheless, he remained productive through it all, releasing dozens of albums and writing over 1,000 songs. Perhaps country’s first “outlaw,” Cash was a genre-bending artist who embraced the poor and downtrodden. With his first wife, The Man in Black fathered Rosanne Cash, but had little contact with her until she graduated high school. Rosanne then spent the next three years serving in various non-musical and increasingly important musical capacities on her father’s cross-country tours, learning her lessons well. Starting in the late 1970s she began releasing critically lauded, but infrequent albums in the neo-traditionalist vein, spawning several number one hits and earning recognition for her own remarkable songwriting skill. 

Johnny Cash’s second wife was June Carter, a member of The Carter Family, The Carter Familyoften acknowledged as “The First Family of Country Music.” June’s mother, Maybelle, was one of the founding members of The Carter Family, originally a folk/gospel trio that was one of the most important artists in the creation of country music during the 1920s and 1930s. Starting in the 1940s, June spent over half a century working in the family business. With first husband, Carl “Mister Country” Smith, one of the most popular stars of the 1950s, June had daughter Carlene Carter. Like her mother, Carlene began her career as a member of The Carter Family, but had her greatest success as a solo artist during the 1990s as a neo-traditionalist.

Lorrie-Morgan-2009-300-01Country crooner George Morgan was the singer of the 1949 number one hit “Candy Kisses,” the first of his twenty-three singles that would reach the country top forty. A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and a long-time member of the Grand Old Opry, Morgan was the final artist to sing on stage at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and the first to sing on stage at the Grand Ole Opry House, when the venerable program moved to its new digs in 1974. George’s daughter, Lorrie Morgan, was a major star of the late-eighties and throughout the nineties, achieving three number ones among her fourteen top ten singles.

Mel Tillis is primarily known for two things, possessing one of the most Pam Tillisbeautiful voices in country music, and having one of the most severe stutters of any public figure. As a songwriter, he is one of the most covered artists in country music history, penning dozens of hits from the late-fifties forward. In the 1970s, Tillis became one of Nashville’s biggest stars. By the time his career was winding down in the 1990s, he’d had six number ones and another thirty top ten country hits.  By then, his daughter, Pam Tillis, had become a star and was making her own mark on the country charts.  By the start of the new millennium, Pam had had a number one hit of her own, as well as another dozen top ten country hits. 

Like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings was one of the main figures in the outlaw country Waylon Jenningsmovement of the 1970s. In fact, there was a previous connection between the two, as they once shared a Nashville apartment and, by their own admissions, large quantities of amphetamines. Although he was already a successful musician, Jennings didn’t become a superstar until he gained complete creative control over his recordings in the mid-seventies.  In 1969, Jennings met and married Jessi Colter, who went on to her own successful music career as one of the few women to be part of the outlaw movement. Their only child, Shooter Jennings (born Waylon Albright Jennings) is currently an alt-country star. 

Whether you’re looking for classic or current country music stars, we have them in the collection of the Des Moines Public Library. Browse our shelves, or browse our catalog, for hundreds of country titles. With our new, higher-limit CD policy, you can check out up to fifty discs at a time. So come to the library and get your country on!


The Financial Crisis of 2008 on Film

It’s been five years since the height, or should I say the depth, of the Financial Crisis of 2008, the worst in America since The Great Depression almost eighty years earlier. The collapse, or near collapse, of several national banks and major brokerage houses precipitated the resulting Wall Street crash, which has affected every one of us. For some, it’s been severe and direct, for others it’s been moderate and indirect, but no one has escaped its consequences. At Wall Streetworst, people have become unemployed, been evicted from their homes, lost their health insurance coverage, and/or significant portions of their life savings. Others may have not seen a pronounced change in their current lifestyle, but have been forced to put retirement plans on hold in order to maintain it. Even those who didn’t lose money themselves are still affected by the loss of governmental services, as a result of suddenly lowered tax bases.

The crisis actually began with the bursting of the housing bubble, which peaked in 2006, causing a domino effect on related financial industries.  According to the Senate Financial Crisis Report, 2011 (aka  the Levin–Coburn Report), the meltdown was the result of “high risk, complex financial products; undisclosed conflicts of interest; the failure of regulators, the credit rating agencies, and the market itself to rein in the excesses of Wall Street.” By the time all was said and done, trillions of dollars of personal wealth had been lost by American citizens, and a global financial crisis had been triggered. Despite the far-reaching effects of the downturn, only marginal efforts have been made in terms of (re)regulating American finance, or bringing any of the culprits to justice. Many of us still have a lot of unanswered questions regarding this calamity.

My quick summary above is meant only to be an entry point into this topic. I’m not an expert on high finance, and I don’t pretend to be. If you too are still searching for a better understanding of what happened and why, but don’t have time to trudge through some dry, thousand-page, highly pedantic account of this subject, then I’ve got an alternate route for you. Filmic attempts to explain the crisis began appearing from the earliest days of the debacle. Several first-rate documentaries have been produced that do a stellar job of elucidating the major causes of the crisis. The following titles are owned by the Des Moines Public Library. You can find them among the non-fiction DVDs. They carry a Dewey Decimal number denoting their subject matter (the economy), which in this case is the 330s. If you look for a left or right bias in any of these titles, you’ll likely find one; that’s unavoidable, but each one presents its case in a reasonable, rational manner. As a group, I believe that they cover the main arguments from either side of the American political spectrum.

Maxed OutMaxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders (2006) – Produced and released in the midst of the bursting housing bubble, this doc details how American wealth has been built as a “house of cards” that can’t help but collapse. It makes clear how predatory lenders offer credit cards to those who can least afford to pay them off, making card holders lifelong customers often able to pay only the minimum balance. Too easily acquired home and auto loans are also addressed.

IOUSAI.O.U.S.A. (2008) – Released in late-August 2008, the month prior to the ultimate unraveling of the national banks and investment banking institutions, I.O.U.S.A. predicted the collapse based on various factors at play in the market at the time. Original interviews, with such heavyweight figures as Warren Buffett, Paul O’Neill, Alan Greenspan, and Robert Rubin, lend credence to the filmmakers’ conclusions.

Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) – Populist filmmaker Michael Moore ventures Capitalism - A Love Storyout to show the human impact of the financial meltdown. Moore visits several locales and interviews numerous average Americans whose lives have been upended by corporate greed run amok. Afterwards, he seeks answers to why this can occur in a Democratic society by going to Washington and Wall Street, where governmental leaders and corporate heads are less than forthcoming. In the final section of the film he outlines some strategies for change that have been employed successfully in other Western nations.

Inside JobInside Job (2010) – If you have time to see only one film about the financial crisis, this one is it! Narrated by Matt Damon, Charles Ferguson’s fine overview of the financial crisis won the “Best Documentary, Features” Oscar in 2011. Pointed interviews, well-chosen graphics, extensive research and worldwide locations are used to explain the global economic meltdown in an easily understood fashion. On top of all of that, it’s a surprisingly sleek film for a documentary, with crisp, gleaming photography that suggests the budget of a high-production-value Hollywood movie.

The FlawThe Flaw (2011) – The title derives from a famous quote by Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, in which he admitted before the U.S. Congress that he put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets, convincing him not to impose regulation on the then-current risky mortgage lending practices. That flaw, the film contends, is people’s greedy nature and their willingness to swindle people if it means they will profit from it personally. Although the film takes its subject seriously, it also uses selected film clips (especially old cartoon segments) to add humor to the otherwise heavy mix.

Few narrative movies have been made that dramatize the financial crisis. Perhaps the subject is too massive to easily, and successfully, cram into a two-hour window. Or, maybe Hollywood types think it’s too much of a downer to appeal to audiences. In any case, at this time there are only a pair of movies that deal directly with events of that period that I can recommend (several other films, including Up in the Air, The Company Men, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, deal with it only peripherally or incidentally). Find the following titles in our regular DVD collection.

To Big to FailToo Big to Fail (2011) – HBO produced this reenactment of events during September 2008 when there appeared there would be further banking/brokerage house failures in the wake of the demise of Lehman Brothers. William Hurt stars as Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson and centers on his efforts to create a federal government bailout that will prevent additional failures and help restore consumer confidence in Wall Street.

Margin CallMargin Call (2011) – Margin Call is an ensemble thriller offering a 24-hour window into an investment bank (read: Lehman) at the height of the financial crisis. It’s more focused on dramatics than on getting details right, but it does provide Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany and Stanley Tucci ample opportunity to display their considerable talents.