Bud Kennedy

Bob Wills, Willie and how Dallas nearly became Music City. It’s all in ‘Country.’

A 16-hour documentary on country music would have to include plenty of Texans, and Ken Burns’ “Country” does not disappoint.

Familiar Fort Worth friends such as Willie Nelson and Bob Wills are headliners in “Country” (7 p.m. nightly, KERA/Channel 13 or pbs.org), and less well-known local stars such as Roger Miller and singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt have feature roles.

Wills’ combination fiddle-big-band sound on 1940s songs like “New San Antonio Rose” is known as “Western swing,” featured in the Monday night episode.

But it might have had another name.

“If they’d named it for the city where it started, it’d be the ‘Fort Worth sound,’“ said Dayton Duncan, the New Hampshire-based writer and producer who worked with Burns on the eight-day documentary series.

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Texas bandleader Bob Wills is compared to an early-day Mick Jagger in Ken Burns’ ”Country.” PBS

Like Nashville and Bakersfield, Fort Worth has a role in “Country,” although not so much by name.

Nelson alone stars in three episodes, first as a young songwriter working his way to Nashville to sell songs like “Crazy,” and then as the leader of Texas’ music outlaws.

The “Country” Wednesday night episode tells Nelson’s story of growing up an hour’s drive south of Fort Worth in the tiny farm town of Abbott, and how he went from Fort Worth and selling vacuum cleaners and encyclopedias to Nashville writing songs like “Crazy.”

“Willie is huge in our series,” Duncan said. “We cover his career, but we also have him talking about Bob Wills and Ernest Tubb,” another former Fort Worth resident who once sang from a pickup truck bed on Exchange Avenue.

Too big for one episode, Nelson also comes back in episodes Friday and particularly Saturday, when the focus shifts to singers like Nelson and Waylon Jennings, and Texans like Guy Clark and Fort Worth native Van Zandt, whose grave in a cemetery near Eagle Mountain Lake still draws musicians today.

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The tombstone of Townes Van Zandt in Dido Cemetery in Fort Worth. Bud Kennedy bud@star-telegram.com

Yes, “Country” stars plenty of women, too: Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Reba McEntire.

“One of the big stories of country music is how it was led by incredibly strong women from the get-go,” Duncan said, going back to the 1930s and the Carter Sisters.

Duncan also touched on Dallas’ pivotal role in country music history.

You might say Dallas played second fiddle.

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Ernest Tubb c.1950. Courtesy of Grand Ole Opry Archives Grand Ole Opry Archives

In the early 1950s, the “Big D Jamboree” radio show on KRLD/1080 AM and Texas stars like Tubb and Lefty Frizzell were drawing so much attention to Dallas record studios, Decca Records executives thought about leaving Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry in favor of Texas.

When Decca executives decided to stay and build in Nashville, it was the beginning of what became “Music Row.”

“Nashvllle has become the center of the industry, but it was not the only center,” Duncan said.

“’Music City’ could have been Atlanta, or it could have been Dallas.”

In 2015, Dallas Morning News columnist Robert Wilonsky quoted Dallas garage-band rocker and music historian David Dennard: “The city fathers wanted to support the opera and ballet, all the stuff that was snooty and upper-crusty. ... They thought it was trashy and didn’t see the opportunity to make Dallas a destination for country music. It’s as simple as that.”

Meanwhile, Dallas still became home to one of the “Country” series’ best stories: the success of Charley Pride, born the son of a Mississippi sharecropper and eventually becoming country music’s best-selling African American star.

Pride is featured in the Thursday episode.

Texans rule again Saturday, when Nelson, Jennings and Emmylou Harris are featured, along with the story of how Tennessee singer Dolly Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You” in 1973, 20 years before Whitney Houston made it the best-selling record ever for a female vocalist.

That’s also the night when “Country” tells the tragic story of Texas-born George Jones, forced to sing by a drunken and physically abusive father, and later becoming an alcoholic prone to skipping shows.

There’s more. But it would take a lot more than 16 hours.

Columnist Bud Kennedy is a Fort Worth guy who covered high school football at 16 and has moved on to two Super Bowls, seven political conventions and 16 Texas Legislature sessions. First on the scene of a 1988 DFW Airport crash, he interviewed passengers running from the burning plane. He made his first appearance in the paper before he was born: He was sold for $600 in the adoption classifieds.
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