Abbey Road

Looking Forward Through the Rearview Mirror: Ken Burns and ‘Abbey Road’

Photo by Mike from Pexels

The buzz on the streets right now is about the Ken Burns documentary “Country Music.” Also, any interest or excitement around the release of the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ Abbey Road is certainly music to the ears of manufacturers, retailers, and music educators. They absolutely benefit when events in their industry generate that eager anticipation and fervent enthusiasm.

In its attempts to find a fresh sound, the music industry has overused a lot of tricks in recent years. Unfortunately, most of those tricks have failed, backfiring miserably. On every ballad, we now have finger-snaps on the back beats, no matter what the genre. It might have been a clever idea when used once, but like a cheap carpet, now it has worn thin.

When production tricks become the music, we have lost the point of the craft and the value of good songwriting. It happens with lyrics too. Humorously, my least favorite lyric in any country music recording is the term “rear-view.” I make no bones about it.

It’s a “Bro Country” cheat-phrase to help poor writers sound legitimate. And today’s songwriters have completely worn it out, and that’s putting it mildly. Then of course, we have the 32-note drum machine, hi-hat rolls. This artificial machine texture serves little purpose other than providing subdivided, pulsed, white noise. But, if that’s what you’re into, then it’s awesome. Don’t get me wrong “affected sounds” can redefine musical boundaries. A world-class example would be “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins, or Don Henley’s “Sunset Grill.” Those songs all used odd synthetic sounds to enhance the feel and attitude of the songs, as did The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” But the key word here is “enhance.”

So, it’s not that gadgets don’t work, but when gadgets become the music, we have removed all human capital – and that is why the industry is grappling to find its current identity. Ken Burns reminds us, we need stars with big personalities to celebrate. We need big talent.

Because of Ken Burns and The Beatles, we can now experience a reprieve, and a contrasting opportunity from today’s music. Through the Burns’ documentary, we can revisit history, have the chance to experience the excitement that was live country music, and we can watch it mushroom into a frenzy. With the release of The Beatles’ 50th anniversary edition of Abbey Road, we have the chance to revisit a unique record – one that stole the hearts of its listeners and captured the magic of great songwriting and creative imaginations.

50 years after its initial release, The Beatles’ Abbey Road debuted at number one for a second time in the UK. At the same time, Ken Burns with his documentary “Country Music” takes us back to a time when audiences enjoyed learning about their music heroes – a time when the musicians put a high standard on musicianship and showmanship. The personalities of the new stars then were huge, captivating, and enthralling. These mega stars influenced each other. Add to that the power of new 50,000-watt radio stations, toss in a unique theater like the Ryman, and boom! There you have it. Magic. The Beatles understood that same magic and have allowed us the chance to revisit that magic with the 50th anniversary release of their great work: Abbey Road.

By showing respect and paying homage to the many musical talents and trendsetters that have come before us, we are reminded that sometimes the most forward thinking is honoring the great ideas of the past. We are well served to stop and examine why the great moments are great. To quote Mike Curb: “Let us start at the beginning because we are more than just a moment in time; we all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us – both personally and professionally – and we owe a great debt to them for paving the highway on which we now travel.”

Ideas that revitalize interest in music also offer the possibility of revitalizing the entire music industry. So, yes, I am a fan of the Ken Burns’ documentary, “Country Music” and love the fact that Abbey Road on its 50th anniversary release went to Number 1 on the charts. The real favor Ken Burns and The Beatles have done for us is to remind us of how we got to where we are and that we are all connected. Burns walks though the beginning of traditional music into bluegrass, and then into the birth of country. We are reminded that connectivity can be as simple as a song.

Look no further than the song, “I am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger.” This one song connects artists as diverse as Burl Ives, Bill Monroe, Emmylou Harris, Eva Cassidy, Johnny Cash, Ed Sheeran, Sam Bush, Glen Campbell, Jerry Reed, Alison Krause, and Dolly Parton, to name a very few. This one song has been covered in every musical style from traditional to jazz. Even Ed Sheeran has modernized a version of the song by looping the harmony vocals.

The gift from Burns and the Beatles is that they have hit the reset button. Passion is the new discussion, and old is new again. Celebrity is also cool again – but this time the examples are real: Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, Dolly Parton, The Carter Family, Loretta Lynn, Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Rodgers, Willie Nelson, and on and on. I am now hearing these names in our store lobbies again. Thank you, Ken Burns. Thank you, The Beatles.

Now on your quest to share the importance of music with your customers, you have a great topic and good stories to tell as you both look forward thru the rearview mirror!

Originally posted on MMR on October 29, 2019

Menzie Pittman is the owner and director of education at Contemporary Music Center in Virginia (CMC). Following a performance and teaching career spanning more than 32 years, he founded CMC in 1989 and continues to perform, teach, and oversee daily operations. He has 50 years of musical experience as a drummer and drum instructor. Menzie is a frequent speaker at NAMM’s Idea Center, and a freelance writer for MMR’s “Small Business Matters” column.