Elvis Presley. Johnny Cash. Patsy Cline. Loretta Lynn.
The fourth episode of Ken Burns' "Country Music," titled "I Can't Stop Loving You," is largely fueled by the stories of those giants — to say nothing of Ray Price, Brenda Lee, Wanda Jackson, Carl Perkins, The Everly Brothers, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Boudleaux and Felice Bryant and other greats who make appearances.
But it's also a story of two Tennessee music towns — Nashville and Memphis — and how both played crucial roles in blurring the lines between country, rock and blues.
The rise of Johnny Cash
Burns said that Cash is a through line in "Country Music," and he takes center stage frequently in Episode 4. We start with his bare-bones upbringing in Dyess, Arkansas, and the tragic death of his older brother, Jack. A move to Memphis in 1954 led him to Sun Records, and by 1956, he had his first No. 1 hit, "I Walk The Line," which he wrote for his first wife, Vivian.
"The song came from my mother's fear," their daughter, Rosanne Cash, said. "You know, 'You're going out on the road, and all these girls are coming up to you.' And he wrote 'I Walk The Line' (to say), 'I'm gonna stay true to you.' Of course, that wasn't true."
By the end of the '50s, Cash was a huge star — and one with a new degree of creative freedom, thanks to a new deal with Columbia Records. He explored his love of gospel music, and told stories of "hardship and death" on the concept album, "Songs of Our Soil." Perhaps most crucially, he played a concert at San Quentin State Prison — with an inmate named Merle Haggard in the audience.
Episode 4 follows Cash up to 1963, and several years into an affair with his future wife, June Carter. He recorded "Ring of Fire," a song written by Carter and Merle Kilgore, to the fury of his first wife, Vivian.
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Memphis' immeasurable influence
"Memphis in the '50s was just this hot stew," said Rosanne Cash.
Among the city's most influential forces was WDIA, which had recently become the first radio station exclusively programmed for African Americans.
"They heard this 'race music' and were so profoundly influenced by it," Cash said of her father and his musical peers in Memphis. "You can say that that station and that music changed the course of modern country music."
Elvis meets the Opry
Among the talents soaking in the "hot stew" of Memphis was a teenage Elvis Presley, who combined his love of rhythm & blues and country music on his iconic first single: "That's All Right" backed with "Blue Moon of Kentucky." The former was a blues song originally written and recorded by Arthur Crudup in 1946. The latter was a revolutionary, rocking take on a song by bluegrass legend Bill Monroe.
The single became "a regional phenomenon." It earned him an invitation to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, where the audience responded "politely, at best," narrates Peter Coyote. He was never invited back.
Monroe was among those who didn't like what Presley had done to his song — "until the first royalty check came in," Marty Stuart said.
Presley fared much better on the "The Louisiana Hayride" program, where a wildly enthusiastic audience dubbed him "The Hillbilly Cat."
Nashville and the birth of Music Row
"Country music wasn't always recorded in Nashville," explained WSM Radio's Eddie Stubbs. "... but when the Bradleys, Owen and Harold Bradley, opened their studio, everything changed here."
When Decca Records planned to record all of its artists in Dallas, the Bradleys decided to build their own studio to keep the label's business. They found a house in "a decaying residential neighborhood" on 16th Avenue — a neighborhood now known as Music Row.
"My brother Owen is the big daddy," Harold Bradley said. "He saw the big picture. He's the architect."
The "Crazy" singer arrived in Nashville in 1959, seeming more "like a throwback to country music's past than a bridge to its future," narrates Coyote. "... She could yodel as well as Hank Williams, and she intended to be as big a star as he had been."
After a string of failed singles, her label pushed her to record a new song — one that she initially hated. But "Walkin' After Midnight," in fact, became a country masterpiece, thanks in part to the musical contributions of Owen and Harold Bradley.
Cline quickly rose to superstardom, not just for her voice, but her strong personality.
"She argued with everyone, swore like a sailor, walked out of concerts if promoters didn't pay her and her band on time," Coyote narrates.
She did, however, find a friend in Loretta Lynn, giving the budding singer advice, money and clothes.
Then — barely one year after "Crazy," penned by Willie Nelson, became her biggest hit — Cline died in a plane crash on March 5, 1963. She was 30 years old.
"Her loss would resonate in country music for decades," Coyote narrates. "But her signature song, 'Crazy,' would go on to become the No. 1 jukebox tune of all time."
'Country Music' episode 4 soundtrack
1. "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)" by Little Brenda Lee
2. "New Step It Up and Go" by Maddox Brothers and Rose
3. "I Walk the Line" by Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two
4. "Crazy Arms" by Ray Price
5. "Bye Bye Love" by The Everly Brothers
6. "The Long Black Veil" by Lefty Frizzell
7. "El Paso" by Marty Robbins
8. "Night Life" by Ray Price
9. "Hello Walls" by Faron Young
10. "I Fall to Pieces" by Patsy Cline
11. "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash
12. "Crazy" by Patsy Cline
13. "I Can’t Stop Loving You" by Ray Charles
'Country Music' recaps
Episode one: The cultural 'Rub' that sparked an American sound
Episode two: Surviving 'Hard Times' with a little help from radio
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Ken Burns' 'Country Music': Elvis, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline arrive