The New York Times: Country Music as Melting Pot

Country Music as Melting Pot

The new documentary series by Ken Burns aims to remind divided Americans of what they have in common.

 September 9, 2019

By Contributing Opinion Writer

NASHVILLE — Last spring at the Ryman Auditorium, sitting in the audience for a concert filmed to celebrate the new documentary series by Ken Burns, I couldn’t help but notice that the folks around me didn’t look much like the usual bro-country fans swarming Nashville these days. Just who exactly was this documentary aiming to reach?

All of us, it turns out. People of every age, every political persuasion, every socio-economic class, every race. The goal of “Country Music” is nothing less than to remind us of who we really are. Even its cover image is designed to evoke the American flag.

Country music, Mr. Burns explained at the concert, is “a uniquely American art form,” one whose signature instruments, the banjo and the fiddle, continue to transmit the disparate cultures, African and European, from which the music sprang. “Country music has never been one style of music,” Mr. Burns said. “It has always been a mixture of many styles, springing from many roots and sprouting many new branches to create a complicated chorus of American voices joining together to tell a complicated American story.”

For the sake of a television audience that might be unfamiliar with country music, all the famous stories are here. How Hank Williams, “the Hillbilly Shakespeare,” died in the back seat of a car during a snowstorm. How a young Willie Nelson drove to Patsy Cline’s house in the middle of the night to play her the demo for “Crazy,” a song he’d considered calling “Stupid.” How Dolly Parton finally convinced Porter Wagoner to let her leave his television show by singing “I Will Always Love You,” which she’d written for just that purpose. How Merle Haggard was an inmate in the audience during Johnny Cash’s first concert at San Quentin prison. How Loretta Lynn, instructed not to hug Charley Pride onstage at the Country Music Awards, defied orders — hugging him and kissing him, too.

But it’s the stories that aren’t yet famous that will have faithful fans of the genre tuning in for every episode of “Country Music.” Mr. Burns’s team listened to 15,000 songs, sifted through more than 100,000 photographs and 600 hours of archival footage, much of it never before published, and conducted 101 on-camera interviews with country legends. The concert at the Ryman — which aired last night on PBS — featured many of the stars who speak in the documentary.

Even so, it took a lot of courage to introduce this program at the mother church of country music. Half the people in this town are pickers, and the other half are music critics, professional or self-professed. But that hometown audience at the Ryman gasped out loud when a teenage Willie Nelson appeared in a photograph on the screen above the stage. “Country Music,” it turns out, can surprise even Music City.

One of the best decisions Mr. Burns made was to tell the story of country music primarily through its artists — those who knew the legends personally and now carry on their art — rather than through historians or critics. The result is a film that is both historically compelling and richly human. “Burns lifts these characters out of the history books and makes them rounded, imperfect humans,” said Craig Havighurst, a Nashville music journalist and the author of “Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City.” “The Carter Family’s complexities and the tenacity and creative spirit of Mother Maybelle are made more vivid here than in any book I’ve read or documentary I’ve seen.”

The singer-songwriter Vince Gill served as a consultant for the documentary, an experience that inspired him to call his own new album “Okie.” “After watching the ‘Country Music’ film and learning about the origins of this music, from people of all backgrounds and races, I appreciated that Okies aren’t that different from other groups who were scorned and stereotyped,” he said. “They were hard-working people who were willing to do whatever it took to survive during one of our country’s most challenging times. The people I grew up with were fair-minded and grounded by common sense. They have given me the values and traits I’ve carried with me on my life’s journey, and they have inspired and created some of the best music I have ever heard.”

Because country music is so strongly associated with white working-class people in the South, many of the same stereotypes that reduced impoverished farmers to “Okies” during the Dust Bowl years are still assigned to country music itself. But Mr. Burns takes pains to complicate these expectations, to highlight not just the story of an art form with roots in both slave quarters and mountain cabins but also the moral evolution of some of the genre’s most prominent musicians.

When word first got out that Charley Pride is black, many radio stations refused to play Mr. Pride’s record. “You son of a bitch, you go back there and tell that son of a bitch that manages your station if he takes Charley Pride off,” Faron Young told one of them, “take all my records off.” It was country star Tom T. Hall who urged Johnny Rodriguez, the young Mexican-American country singer whose manager called him Johnny Rogers, to come to Nashville and reclaim his name. The audience, he said, would come around.

More than anyone else, Johnny Cash pushed the country music establishment to embrace new artists and enfold new musical forms. Mr. Cash used the platform of his weekly network TV show to celebrate diversity and what his daughter Rosanne Cash calls the “ecumenical attitude he had toward all music.” Guests included Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, the Who, James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell. When network executives said Pete Seeger was too left-wing for the show, Mr. Cash ignored them. Mr. Seeger appeared anyway.

As Mr. Burns tells it, musical genres were always cross-pollinating. When Ringo Starr recorded a Buck Owens hit, “Act Naturally,” the Beatles released it as the flip side of “Yesterday.” Bob Dylan invited Johnny Cash to play the 1964 Newport Folk Festival and later moved his own recording work to Nashville; the success of “Blonde On Blonde” led a host of other folk and rock artists to Nashville studios, with Nashville session musicians sitting in. And as Willie Nelson observes about the diverse audiences who showed up for his annual Fourth of July concerts in Austin, college students and truck drivers aren’t so different from each other after all: “They’re out there drinking beer, smoking dope, and finding out that they really don’t hate each other,” he said.

Except for one ill-fated attempt to move away, I’ve lived in the South my whole life, and all my people are Southerners, but I didn’t grow up listening to country. My parents played only the Big Band music they’d danced to during their courtship, and the second I got my first transistor radio at age 12, I tuned it to ’70s rock. But as a homesick graduate student in Philadelphia, I found a country station on the radio and fell in love. It gave me what country music has been giving its listeners from the very beginning: a way to feel less alone. That year I gave my parents Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” for Christmas.

Every art form benefits from a gifted teacher, an expert, an evangelist — someone who can explain to the uninitiated or the skeptical or the heedless that, no, this actually isn’t something their toddler could have made in nursery school. Someone who can convey the context in which the art was created, the hopes of its creators, the way they learned from each other and nudged each other to grow. Someone, above all, who can convince you that you will be better, your life more enriched, if you understand it.

Ken Burns, a Brooklyn-born filmmaker, may be an unlikely teacher of country music, but this transcendent documentary, six years in the making, has arrived at a particularly auspicious time. Thinking of Southerners as stupid rednecks and toothless hillbillies has become the last acceptable prejudice in America. Mr. Burns’s comprehensive and nuanced documentary will make for a welcome reconsideration, especially for those who think they understand what country music is (“loving, cheating, hurting, fighting, drinking, pickup trucks and Mother,” as Harold Bradley described the stereotype) and those who think there’s nothing much to understand. As Mr. Havighurst said, “I can’t wait for America to see this and rethink what country music means and how it sounds.”

“Country Music” will begin airing, on PBS affiliate stations and online, Sunday, Sept. 15. “Country Music: Live at The Ryman, a Concert Celebrating the Film by Ken Burns” is streaming now.

Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”

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