Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns, Ken Burns, Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey, PBS
Long years ago, I happened to spend a weekend in a place called Big Cove, outside the town of Cherokee, North Carolina. Among the many memories I have of those few days is one of my host – a Cherokee ‑ taking me to see a friend of his a valley or two away (in those parts, a cove is the name for a long narrow valley). He brought his guitar with him, and after we were made welcome and the two buddies had chewed the fat a bit, they began to play, the man we were visiting – not a Cherokee – picking on a banjo. The tune they played was “The Boys of Blue Hill”. Not a faintly recognisable version of it, but the echt article, obviously one of their old familiars, and as neatly turned s you’d find at a session in Doolin.
Before that I was on a trip with my wife’s people when her brother conned our way into the Grand Ole Opry. Nashville, Tennessee! Ryman Auditorium! WSM – “The Legend” ‑ 650 AM on you dial! – the station that made and kept country music. But almost all I can recall of that performance was the kitsch packaging, the emcee’s somewhat bullying bonhomie, the on-stage dancers shuffling and circling in red-and-white gingham shirts and skirts and (needless to say) blue jeans. The one act I do remember was Minnie Pearl, a local Nashville matron with a lifetime crush on folksiness, whose tales of the imaginary community of Grinder’s Switch made her the spiritual godmother of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone. The story is told that, deputising as caretaker of a very down-in-the mouth Hank Williams, she sang him, thinking to cheer him up, “I Saw the Light”. Hank’s response? “Minnie, there ain’t no light.”
The hills and the hollows of North Carolina, East Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia are eternal, and the music native to the white people who settled in them might as well be. Not only because that’s what country music would have its adherents believe, fans and performers alike but because it’s also there in the music itself, in echoes of reels and keens and feet shuffling on untreated surfaces, and in the clamant calls of so many songs testifying to the aches and voids, to displacement and loss. And such testimony is just part of the vast chorus of unfitness constituted by such themes as infidelity, desertion, dissolution, temptation, restlessness and a need for rescue. Together, these recurring preoccupations make up a master narrative of how the insecurities of not belonging are always with us. As Ralph Stanley memorably intoned, “I am a man of constant sorrow.” If, as the songwriter Harlan Howard put it, country music is “three chords and the truth”, in great measure that truth is couched in a comprehensive, many-shaded rhetoric of subjection, articulated through acknowledgments of misguided departures, wrong turnings, the flesh’s weakness and, especially, how unbearable it is to feel alone. The music’s appeal relies on an apparent compulsion to keep drawing on personal iterations of a collective memory of trying to stand one’s ground. A borderland to begin with, Appalachia later became central, in sympathies and experience, to a more insidious type of marginalisation represented by the post-Civil War doctrine of the Lost Cause, an internalised Confederate ideology the no-surrender impetus of which still remains current and indeed actively informs the isolationism, exceptionalism and obtuse, vengeful self-righteousness that are so prevalent among those now in the ascendant in American public life.
Indeed, the music’s sense of its own cultural status has something of Lost Cause-ism in it. A general belief comes across in a rather unnecessarily whiny, defensive tone that the music isn’t listened to, isn’t taken seriously, and has not received the validation of being admitted into the mainstream of American popular art. This perceived disrespect, or injustice, rankles all the more given the equally commonly held view, insisted on with something like fundamentalist doggedness, that country is the American music. Take, for instance, Dwight Yoakam, speaking of one of the songs that made his name, the outstanding “Streets of Bakersfield”, pointing to its “larger theme, which addresses the displaced from anywhere, which belies time and place, but has to do with the universal that we all feel, going back to those who came on the Mayflower to now, of being ‘less than’.” (Commonly held views, I should add, judging by how frequently they recur in Ken Burns’s six-part documentary Country Music, which premiered last year.) It shouldn’t really need to be pointed out that ships other than the Mayflower also made significant landfall on America’s shores – but there you are.
One reason for arguments and anxieties about authenticity and legitimacy may lie in the fact that what is understood by the term “country music” is music whose structures and sentiments derive from landscapes and populations which are both specific and also essentially unified. Regional variations within the music’s Appalachian seedbed are, predictably, a dime a dozen, but the living conditions throughout the region as a whole, and the tenacity which went into their development and retention, came from the human equivalent to the stuff of the various peaks looking down on them. The same fabric, the same colourations, the same punishing weather and ecological upheavals, work practices, belief systems and notions of both ancestral origin and right of settlement recur throughout. E pluribus unum is America’s national motto. But the manner in which the motto proposes a vision of ultimate unity implies the subsidiary status of regional exceptionalism. Yet for a variety of foundational reasons, buttressed by orthodoxies of a religion typically inclined towards the eschatological, the Manichaean and the redemptive, there is a sense that the motto is reversed in those Eastern fastnesses. Theirs is a unum, capable or at least prepared to withstand the hordes of the late-coming city-bound populations making up the pluribus. “Will the Circle be Unbroken?”, the Carter Family’s undying anthem, addresses the circle of life and death, the here and the hereafter. But the figurative title is emblematic of kindred continuities – family, community, generation and oneness, each an iteration of ongoing presence and belonging. Echoing these values, not only in its plaintive secular hymnody and handed-down dance steps but also in the collective ways these used to be traditionally expressed (by groups of musicians in various types of social gatherings), the music consolidates and, as it were, harmonises a distinctive, effectively tribal, conception of presence and value.
This is not the same as saying that the music springs from a well of nativeness undefiled. The Ken Burns film is at pains to make clear the undeniable presence of what’s called (by Rhiannon Giddens – now there’s an interesting worker in the field!), “the rub” between the Blacks and Whites which inevitably took place given the history and geography of the land in question. Exhibit A here is the banjo, an instrument of African origin. And it doesn’t take a whole lot to hear themes, verse-forms and expressive inflections native to the blues re-echo throughout the country repertoire, ancient and modern. It could even be that in the massive appeal of the “Blue Yodels” that were smash hits for Jimmie Rodgers, the so-called “Father of Country Music”, listeners heard echoes of field hollers and work-songs (the most durable of the “Yodels” has turned out to be “Mules Skinner Blues”). With “the rub” in mind, the eminent jazz musician Wynton Marsalis makes a number of statements in the film regarding the common humanity from which Black and country music both spring and regretting the conditions which have resulted in that single source being obscured and ignored – Ray Charles’s brilliant foray into the white idiom notwithstanding. And it’s hardly a stretch to think of cultural interchange of various kinds between the races and of the hybrid cultural products created thereby. At the same time, one man’s hybridity can easily overlap with another man’s appropriation. What may well have been coincidental, informal borrowing – from, say, gospel singing, itinerant musicians, guitarists from the Black sections of town (of which some notable instances are acknowledged) – can add up to the loanee’s materials being subsumed into the borrower’s product. At the very least, we don’t know enough about the two-way nature of such traffic, except to say that in the almost hundred years of what has become the country music industry there haven’t been all that many Black stars.
These observations are prompted in part by the very welcome amount of cultural groundwork in Country Music. For all that, though, the work’s major theme is success – which song hit Number One, what were the music’s gross takings in a given year ($2 billion in 1994), what were stars’ contracts worth, how much demo-tape singers made, who and what inspired dancing in corporate suites. Money is the matter. This emphasis amounts to one colossal nudge to remind us that what we know as country music is a commercial venture, all along the line. The reason it’s possible to claim that this music is still in its first century is because, pace Dwight Yoakum, and with all due respect to precursors such as Fiddlin’ John Carson, its history properly begins not with sailors’ hornpipes at Plymouth Rock but with the almost equally legendary sessions recorded in Bristol, Virginia in August 1927 at which, most notably, the Carter Family of nearby Poor Valley, “sang into a tin can”, as the George Clooney character in Oh Brother Where Art Thou? has it. This encounter between a hand-crafted hillbilly vibe and the humming valves of modern technology in time revealed that each was the other’s siren. A kind of conversion experience transpired – Mohammed and the mountain, if you will, featuring southwest Virginia as the mountain and a record producer by the name of Ralph Peer, already a successful recorder of “race music” (blues particularly) for the powerful Victor label as the other. It was a conversion the word of which soon went forth in the form of impressive record sales, and when the hungry Thirties began to bite, through radio saturation. If indeed country music is, in Ken Burns’s words, “the art that tries to tell the stories of those who feel like their stories aren’t being told”, the stories proved mighty viable once attention and cash money were lavished on them by millions of listeners. The perception that the music is nobody’s child in the wide world beyond its native ground sounds like three flat chords, not the truth.
Radio consolidated the conversion experience. By the late Twenties not only had sets become extremely desirable appliances; broadcast technology had also become widespread by then, with just about every little town with its own transmitter. There was plenty of airtime to be filled if the lifeblood of advertising revenue was to keep flowing, and what better to fill it than local musicians whose down-home acoustic of fiddles and banjos provided fitting accompaniment for peddling domestic necessities – most famously, flour. In addition, big city stations’ powerful transmitters ranging far and wide enabled shows to skip over state lines and attain quasi-national audiences and performers who could acquire national reputations. The great example of the triumph of this all-American blend of technology, market opportunity and showmanship is the Nashville radio station WSM. As was the practice in radio’s early days, a station’s call-sign was an acrostic, the letter in this case standing for We Shield Millions, the proud boast of the station’s owner, the National Life and Accident Insurance Company.
The idea was to harness the music to smooth the path for the company’s door-to-door salesmen, and this it did principally by its weekly Grand Ole Opry broadcasts, the barn-dance format of which followed that already established by many other stations. (The show actually pre-dates its populist name, the result of a spontaneous on-air christening in 1927 by its emcee.) Nashville’s location and 50,000 watts of power ensured that the Opry reached countless remote communities in states with, at the time, little call on national attention – Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, abutting on and in certain respects bearing a close cultural resemblance to the old Confederacy heartland. (Texas, birthplace of honky-tonk and Western swing, belongs in this annexe as well. And dust-bowl migrants from these states eventually gave rise to a “Nashville West” based in Bakersfield, California.) For a sense of the broadcast’s impact, one need look no further than the ultra-remote native places of many of the music’s mid-century stars. They, also, got their start in show business on local radio stations before realising the ne plus ultra of not just appearing on the Opry but of become a regular performer, or “member”, of the show – one of the elect, in other words, embodying thereby a secular analogy to the consummation devoutly prayed for by a very great number of their paisanos. In this subliminal manner the people were given what they wanted, a sense of being affiliated with modernity while the music’s themes and tones reassured them that things hadn’t changed in any fundamental way.
The Opry’s runaway appeal also meant that musicians arrived in Nashville in sufficient numbers to form a community, in a sense creating, to the alarm and distaste of the local gentry, who wished to maintain unsullied the city’s name as “The Athens of the South”, a kind of unwashed congregation of evangels and voteens. (Of the Ryman Auditorium’s various locations, the most beloved and celebrated was a former “tabernacle” and it’s noticeable how frequently throughout Ken Burns’s film interviewees pledge allegiance to the music’s “spirit” and “soul”, never mind its songs’ traditional reliance on experiences of sin, sacrifice and salvation.)
Things did change, though – musically, at least. It was not all that long after Nashville found its feet as a primary place of musical pilgrimage that the traditional sound, as well as, to an extent, its social profile and cultural self-consciousness, began to head in various novel directions. Perhaps the honky-tonk, Western swing and bluegrass modes, even the Hollywood-created cult of the singing cowboy (Gene Autry, Roy Rogers) that began to emerge during the Thirties, can be conventionally regarded as sub-genres of the original product. But a case can also be made for their revisionist, and even critical, aspects. Honky-tonk introduced electrified instrumentation, new dance patterns, and a pervasive “Saturday Night” edge; the very name of western swing speaks to its hallmark change of tempo, with Bob Wills, its main exponent, advancing a smoother, art decoish kind of instrumental finesse while also drawing on popular music’s unavoidable hybridity; and then bluegrass comes across as a rebuttal of western swing, unelectric, with faithful if accelerated treatment of traditional dance rhythms and a “high lonesome” vocal style pitched in almost out-of-this-world registers.
These departures were among the first of many, including the addition of drums, the treacly so-called “Nashville Sound” – said by one of its chief architects, the producer Chet Atkins, actually to be cash ‑ or rather not said: he just jingled his pocket – “country rock”, “outlaws”, “newgrass” and “new traditionalists”, “alt country”, not all of which get equal time in Country Music, and especially not the power pop ambitions it assumed in the Nineties, marked by that most uncountry feature, a thumping drum kit. Most of these developments are expressions of the creative restlessness to which all artistic endeavours are liable, and this also breaks with whatever orthodoxy major record labels are pushing at a particular moment. And not a few of them have turned out to be godsends. Willie Nelson leaving Nashville was arguably the best day’s work he ever did. But there is also a sense of contested space that comes with a lot of new dispensations as each one claims its right of primogeniture, thereby hinting at unresolved tensions about what really constitutes authentic country. One way of thinking about that, according to Marty Stuart – mandolinist, Nashville insider and very much first among equals among the musicians providing on-camera commentary in the film – is that it can be combined in one performer, as Stuart found it to be one night listening to Emmylou Harris. (This view of Emmylou is seconded by Rosanne Cash, who in the course of extolling Harris’s authenticity, says: “She opened our minds”, though again this is not as straightforward a statement as it appears.)
And a tendency to be ultra-inclusive (or possessive) is also noticeable, for instance, claiming Sam Phillips’s Memphis-based Sun Records for country, when he’s most commonly known as “the man who invented rock and roll” (to quote Peter Guralnik’s well-received biography of him), meaning, apart from anything else, that he took an actual integrationist musical line with a roster of black and white artists whose blended idioms launched a thousand hits. Sun’s most famous alumnus, of course, is Elvis, and it seems a real stretch to rope him into the country music corral, or chorale. Elvis had a feel for and knowledge of the music’s idiom, but its accents and stylings evidently did not engage him. This broad-church approach also lays claim to Dylan (and not just because of Nashville Skyline), the Byrds (strictly on the basis of one album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo) and various other exponents of both folk and straight-ahead pop, including crossover acts such as the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison. In the past decade, an ostensibly nationalist label, Americana, has been introduced to cover various genres and sub-genres of roots music, with country one among many. The term does not seem to have passed into the ordinary fan’s vernacular, radio exposure (traditional and online) still seems fairly limited, and it only gets a nod in passing in Country Music.
The different and typically clashing colours of country’s musical palette shown in the various forms it has taken and the questions raised thereby concerning authenticity and legitimacy are reproduced to a marked extent within the careers of many of its most outstanding performers. One challenge that performers had a lot of difficulty negotiating, particularly before the advent of television and frequent flying, was being on the road. Show business decreed the live concert format of the Grand Ole Opry to be a winning ticket, with replication in your home town a natural consequence. The result was not only punishing itineraries but also experiences of dislocation and estrangement. In addition to being conducive to physical and psychological breakdowns – copiously documented in the cases of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and George Jones – the road also set the stage for conflicted enactments of intimacy and distance. The performer both embraces the life of a star and realises, by doing so, that he or she threatens the putative resemblance to his audience that the songs, in their simplicity, directness and “truth to life”, propose. The restlessness and repetition of the road, which ultimately demand stronger analgesics than applause to offset, may confirm status but they also suggest a kind of loss of authentic self for the sake of alienated, product-boosting, cash-cow-milking labour that is success’s badge and symbol. One need look no further than the uneven repertoires and shifting production values of some of these great artists’ recordings for confirmation of how the industry could get in their way – Johnny Cash’s “Forty Shades of Green” anyone? It’s not as if the road leads back anywhere. On the contrary, it seems to be a place not to feel at home in, as though an extension of the city, with all that foreign place’s exilic, sinful, community-denying dangers, inimical alike to personal integrity and (what’s almost the same thing) a heaven-sent hope for innocence and for the safe deliverance which is, presumptively, innocence’s just reward.
These considerations help to limn one of country music’s central cultural problems, namely, that it constantly seems to be hankering to stay at home, where known realities chasten and sustain, while at the same time being apparently unable to resist the come-hither allure of the very agencies whose primary aim is to commodify those very same realities. It’s cornbread and three-ring circus, Johnny Appleseed in the body of PT Barnum, the full-throated warble of people who could hardly have been more appreciative when Richard Nixon told them they were the silent majority. The possibility of the music becoming enthralled by the exorbitance of corporate and other fabrications of its populism is never far away. Dwight Yoakum’s record label okayed his calling himself a hillbilly when his sales gave him the power to insist on doing so – a very small instance of the threads that country music challenges us to tease out. As with a good deal of American life, authenticity typically resides somewhere within a cartoon of itself. And yet, what is it to be a member of American society if membership of one kind of people’s elite or another – athletic, celebrity, or any other type of performer – is not the ever-present dream, incessantly pursued and constantly exemplified (not just by country music, of course, even thought that is the culture industry which, in Ken Burns’s film, possesses the most comprehensive historical credentials for such longing). The anonymous player who is the focus of Johnny Cash’s up-beat “Tennessee Flat-Top Box” receives his ultimate validation not from the locals who initially come to hear him but from eventually appearing in “the hit parade”. That’s the way it is. Nobody wants it any other way. And anyway, there doesn’t seem to be any other way, or if there is, very few seem willing really and truly to commit to it.
As to the emblematic vicissitudes of the road, it’s true, admittedly, that Willie Nelson “can’t wait to be on the road again”, and indeed has spent an inordinate amount of time there. But the life he has there “is making music with my friends”, which gives the whole show concept a feel far different from the rote performances of the typical tour. A contrast might be drawn with Johnny Cash, a non-stop road warrior in his day. His most noted concerts took place in prisons, Folsom and San Quentin, termini housing audiences of outsiders, misfits and unlikely survivors that drew an extra un-show business charge from him. But then, if ever country music had a rule-proving exception it’s Nelson, who established what might be termed a post-Nashville beachhead in Austin, Texas and led the music in all sorts of revisionist directions – the concept album, alternative Western sagas, and most daringly of all, perhaps, bringing to the essentially urban phenomenon of the Great American songbook as well as to popular song more generally the distinctively wondering, wistful, solitary tonalities of his unadorned, almost unaccented, tenor. The artistic freedom Nelson secured is not, as it is with so many other male country artists, “another word for nothing left to lose” (in Kris Kristofferson’s memorable phrase from “Me and Bobby Magee”), and it has also, uniquely, found community-oriented cultural forms related to his music in his celebrated annual picnics and his Farm Aid venture.) Despite proclaiming its exceptionalism, communal origins and traditional family values, country music’s stars remain not all that well-known for giving back to the demographic that keeps them in business.
Kitsch, trite, reactionary, ersatz, opportunistic, exploitative, purveyor of anthemic blood-and-soil posturing – these and many more are the names country music has been called, a lot of them with reason and all of them ultimately adding to the gold-plated chip on its shoulder. It would be a mistake, though, to throw the baby out with its wildwood-flower scented bath-water. So, for instance, though its treatment of women artists in its ranks has, to say the least, been no more enlightened than in other branches of show business, the historical contributions of not only women singers but the songs a large number of them have written, should definitely not be overlooked, going back to the Carter family. But these days it’s as if a woman singer lacks credibility if she’s not prepared to belt out her own rebuttal of ‑ no disrespect to Tammy Wynette – “Stand By Your Man” kind of sentiments, so much so that the message seems just another part of the act.
One sure thing, though – Country Music stands by its men and women. By now, Ken Burns has earned the status of America’s documentarian, and to be one of his subjects is to have reached a level of maturity, and of cultural and social presence that has come to seem like validation – the giant, family-sized variety at that. This sense is a tribute to the rich abundance of graphics and footage with which Burns always favours both his specific interests and his audiences, almost to the point of archival saturation (though in terms of coverage, Country Music has somehow not considered Cajun music to be within its remit). Sealing the validating deal, the film, like all its predecessors in the Burns canon, is shown in America on PBS, public service television, not country’s fans’ go-to network, even if it’s more than paid its dues by showing weekly for years and years Austin City Limits, a show that contains multitudes, country very much included. Exhibiting the film helps PBS to meet its educational mission, but equally to the point is a tacit elicitation of endorsement by the network’s largely suburban, middle class, liberalish audience, a body more honky than honky-tonk as it were. The cultural politics of content, transmission and reception are fascinating, leaving agenda-guessing as one of the programme’s unsung pleasures. Has the music, and the unreconstructed – “blood kin”, in Dolly Parton’s words ‑ ethos for which it deems itself to stand become Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? for bourgeois prime time? Have bien pensants determined it’s time to stage a cultural intervention on the music’s behalf, for its own sake and the sake of “our divided country”? Is Nashville thrilled, really, to have been given the legitimacy it has long craved by having its cultural significance filmed for television? Documentary often kisses but doesn’t tell. Besides, visual treatment inevitably privileges performance, whatever it’s directed at. The singer, not the song, must come first.
The film also repeats the oft-repeated story about Charlie Parker spending a break between sets playing country music on the jukebox of whatever joint he happened to be in. Astonished companions wondered why? “It’s the stories,” said Charlie. Minnie Pearl entertained with news from her imaginary Grinder’s Switch. But not too long ago I came across the songs of Margot Price. She has stories. One is about how come the bank took the Price family farm. The title track of her 2017 album All American Made dwells on a goodly number of items of which that can be said, including the missiles Reagan sent to Iran. She sounds real. And she’s not alone. Country still has no shortage of stories. That’s never been the problem.
George O’Brien is emeritus professor of English at Georgetown University, Washington DC.