Ken Burns Reminds Us Why Country Music Is So Much More Than Hats
If you imagine that Ken Burns’s new PBS epic on country music would revolve around a bunch of grinning white guys wearing cowboy hats, you haven’t been paying attention.
To the history of country music.
Or to the history of Ken Burns.
Country Music, a 16-hour production that launches Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on PBS and will air over eight nights, isn’t the first musical rodeo for Burns. He previously did a series on jazz, and music has played a central role in every one of his productions, from The Civil War to The Vietnam War.
As Burns tells it, music both reflects and helps shape the culture and sociology of American events and times. So when he gets to country music, he doesn’t just bring out the fiddle and the steel guitar. He wants to explain how they got here, and why they got here, and what it all means.
Right up front, it means that country music isn’t just poor white folks’ music. It’s American music, a rich gumbo bubbling not just with Irish and Scottish ballads, but with African rhythms, black and white gospel anthems, Cajun dance tunes, Mexican and Tejano melodies and a splash of every popular musical notion that has coursed through the land, from Stephen Foster to Tin Pan Alley and zany novelty numbers.
“I’m My Own Grandpa,” anybody?
From the first minutes of the first episode, director Burns and writer Dayton Duncan make it clear they see “country” as an inclusive adjective.
They portray the Carter Family, Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Garth Brooks as artists playing the music of America. “Lovesick Blues” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” aren’t speaking only to rednecks waving shotguns out the windows of their pickup trucks while they pop the top on another Lone Star.
Now it’s true, and Country Music acknowledges, that country artists and audiences have been and remain overwhelmingly Caucasian.
But the music itself flows from multiple tributaries, a fact acknowledged by artists here as a simple matter of fact.
The two hours of the opening episode track in detail how the original country music drew on blackface minstrel show music, the black string bands that flourished a century ago and the hymns of the black churches, right alongside the fiddle and dance tunes from the mountains of Appalachia and tragic folk ballads like “Barbara Allen.”
That fact is then set against this one: Because it first took root in the rigidly segregated South, country music was primarily played and marketed on one side of the tracks, just as blues and jazz music were primarily played and marketed on the other.
But Country Music stresses how easily and often the music itself floated across those tracks, making it one of the few cultural areas in which segregation not only would have been impossible to enforce, but would have been unpopular.
White folks who considered themselves superior to black folks, and let’s not forget that described much of white America a century ago, still often enjoyed the music made by those musicians of color.
Down the road this musical affinity would constitute a crucial wedge in the long campaign to break down segregation’s doors. But that’s a topic for and from other Burns productions. Country Music focuses on reminding everyone how much black music has infused the sound of country artists, from Jimmie Rodgers to Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and beyond.
That established, the series moves forward in a way that skillfully blends music with more sociology, like the voice the music gave to victims of the Great Depression and the impact of so many country musicians joining the military during World War II. It covers the music revolution of the post-war years, the long suppression and eventual rise of female artists, the gradual drift away from steel guitars and fiddles, and the personal bond so many fans feel with artists.
Along the way it provides gratifying amounts of the music itself, though alas, almost nothing was filmed in the pre-Depression era.
Much of the later film, perhaps most strikingly in the low-budget TV shows of the 1950s and 1960s, offers a fascinating contrast between wonderful, touching songs and hopelessly lowbrow packaging.
From the earliest days, when “hillbilly” tunes were a heck-why-not afterthought for the fledging record industry, it was considered smart business to package the performers as hillbillies themselves, or maybe as cowboys, with stage outfits to match.
Many of the performers, particularly the professional musicians, didn’t care for this vaudevillian getup, and by the 1930s a number of performers had shifted to more dignified outfits.
But the durability of overalls and floppy hats was underscored as late as the 1960s-‘70s TV show Hee Haw, and this down-home look for decades remained a major factor in the lowbrow image that country music and most of its fans would have loved to shed.
Had that happened, country might have gotten more of the respect its musical quality had earned.
As with past Burns productions, the amount of time he devotes to sociology and cultural context forces him to make some choices in other areas, including which elements of the music he can feature.
On opening night, for example, we get an extensive segment on Deford Bailey, a black harmonica player who was a fixture in the early days of the all-important Grand Ol’ Opry radio show.
We also get extended segments on four of the seminal figures from the 1920s: Fiddling John Carson, Ernest Stoneman, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.
All fine, all fully justified. It just leaves little time to note a few other factors — like how, in the two or three years before the Carters and Rodgers came along in 1927, string bands like Charlie Poole’s North Carolina Ramblers, Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers, Darby & Tarlton, the Georgia Yellow Hammers and the Red Fox Chasers had already become anchors of the growing “hillbilly” record industry.
Burns has noted in the past that even with the exceptional amount of airtime he’s given for his series, he’s tackling stories so big that it’s impossible to include everything. He focuses, wisely, on the most salient throughlines.
Duncan’s narrative, well voiced by Peter Coyote, tells the story cleanly — if, like the music itself, it occasionally gets a tiny bit melodramatic.
Saying country music tells the truth and reflects the lives of its listeners is a sweet compliment, except you could argue that describes virtually all popular music. At the same time, when it says country music gives a voice to listeners who in their daily lives often feel unheard, it’s impossible not to note the profound parallel to, say, the blues, R&B and hip-hop.
Whatever the debates about what’s in or out — and Burns and his team had those debates, too — Country Music delivers a literate, informed, detailed history of a major part of American popular culture.
Which, like other parts of American popular culture, we too often forget, or don’t consider important. Burns reminds us it is important, in an entertaining way that also reminds us why.