When Country Music Television airs a four-part documentary on the history of the genre, narrator Lyle Lovett will be watching — from his mom’s couch.
“I don’t have cable,” Lovett said Tuesday while traveling near Beaumont, Texas, on his way home to Klein, the east Texas town his great-great grandfather founded. “I’ll go over to my mother’s because she has a satellite dish.”
Lovett, 46, lives in his grandparents’ old house on the family farm where he was raised. His mother’s home is about 200 yards away.
With his affinity for tradition, Lovett seems the perfect choice to narrate “Lost Highway: The History of American Country,” a BBC documentary that airs over two nights, Thursday and Friday, beginning 8 p.m. EDT.
The series traces the history of country music from its simple beginnings in the Appalachian Mountains to a multi-billion dollar industry.
The first part, “Down From the Mountain,” focuses on the early recordings of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers and the development of bluegrass. “The Road to Nashville” shows the influence of Hank Williams and the smooth “Nashville Sound” created by producers Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins to counter rock ’n’ roll.
The third segment, “Beyond Nashville,” examines the alternative strains of country that evolved in Bakersfield, Calif., and Austin, Texas, with Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and others. The final installment, “Sweethearts of the Rodeo,” tracks the rise of the female country stars from Patsy Cline to Shania Twain.
“It covers a lot of ground,” said Lovett, who has yet to see the series in full. “It was a British documentary — in fact I was replacing a British narrator — so the point of view is different because it has a British take on it.
“To engage in someone else’s point of view and see their take on something you’re in the middle of yourself is interesting,” he added.
Lovett, a country singer whose records reflect a broad range of American musical styles, said the film spends a lot of time on the rural, acoustic roots of country music and the “outlaw” figures like Nelson and Johnny Cash who “made a name for themselves doing things their way.”
“From going to the UK and performing there, it seems British audiences and the British press are interested in the roots form of whatever music from which pop music evolves,” Lovett said.
The documentary includes interviews with historians and journalists as well as Nelson, Owens, Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, Dwight Yoakam, Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, Gillian Welch and others. There’s rare footage of the Carter family, reenactments of early recording sessions and demonstrations of key developments such as Scruggs’ three-finger banjo style and the velvety Nashville Sound.
With its scholarly, sober approach, the series seems more suited to public television than to CMT, whose sister networks are MTV and VH1.
But CMT’s Paul Villadolid, vice president of programming and development, said the station was drawn to the quality of the series. He also said country music audiences and artists have a deep appreciation for the pioneers and icons of the genre.
“People talk about Hank Williams today with the same reverence they did when he stepped on that Opry stage,” Villadolid said.