The Blue Ridge Mountains extend from just north of Atlanta to just west of Gettysburg, and through the green valleys on the ridge’s western flank marched Union and Confederate armies to some of the Civil War’s most pivotal battles: Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Cedar Creek, Antietam and Gettysburg. Filmmaker Ken Burns brought those battles to life in his 1990 documentary series The Civil War. It’s still his most popular film, even more than 1994’s Baseball, 2001’s Jazz or 2017’s The Vietnam War.
Burns returns to those same oak-carpeted slopes in his new series Country Music, something of a sequel to The Civil War. In Bristol, Tennessee, near the mountain range’s midpoint, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers made their first recordings in 1927 and launched modern country music. From the nearby hills came such seminal figures as the Stanley Brothers, Earl Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn.
“I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley,” Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor tells me, “a place heavy with the history of the Civil War. Ken’s film really impacted me at about age 12; he made my own backyard come alive for me. Now he’s doing it again with this series. As a songwriter and a lover of great songs, I’d rather learn my history from an old letter from a soldier to his sweetheart than from a map of troop movements.”
The new film takes place on much of the same geography in the American South as The Civil War, and deals with the same conflicts between a feudal aristocracy and a populous underclass treated like peasants when not owned as slaves. That minority of large landowners had two main tools to keep control: racial tension and religious fatalism; only rarely did they have to resort to violence.
Country Music tells the story of a musical resistance to that control, a rebellion fought not with muskets and gunboats but with fiddles and banjos. Where did blacks and whites mix most easily in the 20th century South? In informal musical jam sessions. How did religious fatalism morph into worldly ambition? When those old church hymns were refashioned for recording studios, concerts and taverns.
“The church offered the possibility of joy and redemption after this life,” Rodney Crowell says over the phone, “but what about joy and redemption here and now? ‘I’m all for heaven,’ these musicians were saying, ‘but I want to have some fun in the meantime. I want to drink a few beers, dance with my friend’s wife and get a little out of line.’ For someone who worked 40 hours a week at a shit job or worked all day as a sharecropper, that offered something. That’s country music: Saturday night sinning and Sunday morning redemption.”
Crowell joins Secor, Rosanne Cash, Marty Stuart, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Ray Benson, Kathy Mattea, Dwight Yoakam, Vince Gill and Rhiannon Giddens as some of the more prominent talking heads in Country Music. This marks a sharp departure from Burns’ standard procedure of relying on historians for commentary. Burns says his original intention was to rely on the usual academics, but when he discovered how articulate and knowledgeable the above musicians were, he shifted his strategy. In the end, Bill Malone is the only historian on the screen.
“For our first episode,” Burns says, “the two most prominent talking heads are the two youngest — Ketch and Rhiannon — who are ardent students of the beginnings of country music. Episode One could have been just table setting if it hadn’t been for their passion. And no one cares more about this music than Rosanne and Marty. When Rosanne describes Sara’s voice coming out of the bedrock of Virginia or her father’s horror when he realizes his daughter doesn’t know all these songs, there’s a feeling you’d never get from a historian.”
The series begins, as it must, by focusing on two unknown acts who showed up at the open auditions held in Bristol by Victor record producer Ralph Peer in 1927. The Carter Family recorded on August 1 and 2, and Jimmie Rodgers on August 4.
“Rodgers represented the rambling side of country music,” Malone says in the episode, “the desire to hit the road, leave responsibilities behind, to go out and experience the world. The Carter Family, on the other hand, embodied the sanctity of the home and of the family, particularly ‘Mother,’ who kept the home together. And those have been two important impulses in country music ever since, sort of the reverse sides of the same coin.”
As it turned out, Rodgers remained married to his spouse until he died (much too young, at age 35), while Sara Carter did not. As she sang in “Single Girl, Married Girl,” a single girl can go “just where she please,” while a married girl is stuck at home with a “baby on her knees.” But if those stuck at home yearned for the freedom to roam, those who roamed yearned for the familiar comforts left behind. In a century when rural families were sundered by the pressures of the Depression, the Dust Bowl and war, country music could satisfy the yearnings of both those forced to leave and those forced to stay.
The front-porch, string-band tradition of the Carter Family and the roustabout, barroom tradition of Rodgers were revolutionized in the mid-’40s by Bill Monroe and Hank Williams respectively. Monroe and his brilliant collaborator, banjoist Earl Scruggs, made their paeans to the mountain cabins and dirt farms as streamlined and fast as a diesel train speeding away from those homesteads. Meanwhile, Williams and his sidekick, steel guitarist Don Helms, gave their loosey-goosey songs of the urban honky-tonk life an undercurrent of pain and displacement.
“People tend to dismiss country music as a backwater music,” Burns says, “without the sophistication of classical and jazz, but I can’t think of a better song in the whole world than Hank Williams’ ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.’ Country music is caricatured as six packs of beer and hound dogs, but if you listen closely, most of the great songs are about family and death, the essential issues. Country artists have this amazing curiosity and omnivorous appetite for new sounds and new forms of storytelling, but at the same time they’re constantly finding the reset button and getting back to the roots.”
One of the pleasures of Country Music is the inclusive approach it brings to the genre (in contrast to the narrower view pushed by Wynton Marsalis in the Jazz documentary). Burns and producer/screenwriter Dayton Duncan don’t limit themselves to the artists who had hit singles on the Music Row-sanctioned charts but embrace anyone who made crucial and influential recordings in the genre. As a result, Woody Guthrie, Deford Bailey, Carl Perkins, Ray Charles, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Kathy Mattea each get more screen time than Jim Reeves, Shania Twain, Conway Twitty, Eddie Rabbit, Sonny James, Alabama or Kenny Rogers.
“Outsiders have a notion that making a film is an additive process,” Burns explains, “but we see it as a subtractive process. A script that would have produced a 30-hour film is boiled down to a 16-hour film, 100,000 images are cut down to 3,500 images. A lot of it is the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. We start out writing a story, not worrying about what the images are. Meanwhile, another group of us is collecting the 100,000 images and 1,000 hours of footage. That reconciliation between the words and the images is the reason our films take so long. It’s like songwriting, where you have to reconcile words and music.”
“I wanted to make sure this movie honored not just the singers but also the writers,” adds Duncan. “I wanted to tell the story behind the songs, how the song came about. I didn’t want this to be a K-Tel commercial that gives you five second snatches of one song and then another. I wanted to give Larry Gatlin and Rodney Crowell time to analyze ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down,’ which I’d put in my pantheon of greatest country songs. It’s true that every extra minute you’re spending on ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ is a minute you can’t spend on another song. Each of those decisions is a hard one, but each is crucial to how we tell the story.”
As a result, songwriters such as Kris Kristofferson, Guthrie, Van Zandt, Fred Rose and Boudleaux & Felice Bryant are highlighted more than their own record sales would warrant. And certain songs thread through the series to demonstrate the continuity of country music through the years. “Muleskinner Blues,” for example, was based on an African-American work song about the push-and-pull negotiations between a worker and his boss and that worker and his woman. Jimmie Rodgers made it famous, but we also hear versions by Monroe, the Maddox Brothers & Rose and Dolly Parton — even an impromptu verse from Merle Haggard.
The Carter Family’s gospel number “When The Wood’s On Fire” became their love song “Little Darlin’, Pal of Mine,” which supplied the melody for Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” The Carter Family’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” is heard at several funerals during the series and becomes the title of the 1972 Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album that reconciled country-rock with such country legends as Acuff, Scruggs and Mother Maybelle. “I Can’t Stop Loving You” provides an entrée into country music not only for the African-American Ray Charles but also for the Mexican-American Johnny Rodriguez.
“Ken embraced the subject of the black influence in country music,” Stuart says, “which has never been dealt with properly — also women’s role in country music and how they had to fight for their ground. It was good that someone finally took those issues on.”
“I’d be hard pressed to find more than four or five of my films that don’t deal with the central issue of America: race,” Burns claims. “It starts with ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident,’ and the realization that the guy who wrote those words owned 100 human beings. There were slaves everywhere, but so much of the friction occurred in the South, which is also where this story takes place. A.P. Carter, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash all had African-American tutors. Ray Charles was listening to country music, but country music was also listening to Ray Charles. You can do a superficial dive into history and ignore these connections, but we’re not interested in that.”
Again and again, the Country Music series emphasizes that the genre’s creative leaps forward stem from musicians who defy the racial, class and gender taboos of the South. When Elvis Presley listens to Junior Parker, when Townes Van Zandt listens to Lightnin’ Hopkins, when Ray Charles listens to Buck Owens, new sounds are sparked. When Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton refuse to play the submissive spouse, a new kind of song is heard. When Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard refuse to let poverty and bad reputations diminish their pride, a new attitude is heard.
Unlike a war, a musical genre doesn’t have an end date; it keeps going on and on. So Burns and Duncan had to pick a finish line for their story; they chose 1996, the year Bill Monroe died. That allows them to cover the Garth Brooks phenomenon and his prefiguring of “hot country.” Even so, the filmmakers crossed their own boundaries to include the deaths of June Carter and Johnny Cash in 2003. That makes sense, because the Carter-Cash clan is the one constant in all eight episodes. The series becomes a story of family, not only in the songs’ subject matter but also in the making of the songs.
“If you’re a roots musician,” Rosanne Cash tells me, “and you don’t know the traditions you are working in and borrowing from, your work is meaningless in my book. If I didn’t know that the field I play on was first plowed by black musicians in the Delta and song catchers in Appalachia, then I’m self-indulgent and shallow. A real musician has to know who trod the path before her and what she’s expanding on.”
“What’s compelling to me,” adds Stuart, “is that now country music is up there alongside jazz, baseball, the Roosevelts and the national parks. Perhaps now Ken Burns’ audience will embrace country music. Perhaps those who never took it seriously will now give it some attention. Perhaps some longtime fans who feared they’d never hear the traditional country music again will be inspired. Perhaps the people who are now playing country music will educate themselves about the roots of the music. Hopefully, soul by soul, handshake by handshake, song by song, the culture of country music will move forward.”
The eight episodes of Ken Burns’ Country Music will begin airing on PBS stations on September 15. That same week Knopf will publish the coffee-table companion book by Burns and Dayton Duncan. On September 8, PBS will air Country Music: Live At The Ryman, a tape of a May 27 concert to honor the series. Among those performing will be Rosanne Cash, Rhiannon Giddens, Marty Stuart, Rodney Crowell, Ketch Secor and Dwight Yoakam.