Ken Burns' 'Country Music' gets to the heart of a genre which defines folklore Americana

The opening installment of the series makes it clear that country music became widely popular after touching the chords of working-class Americans who were looked down upon, dismissed, or left out.

                            Ken Burns' 'Country Music' gets to the heart of a genre which defines folklore Americana

Ken Burns understands that a music documentary's success does not depend on its ability to attract more followers to a genre, nor does it make sense to simply appease the aficionados.In fact, real achievement is when you win the respect and understanding of critics and maybe even vanquish their deep-seated abhorrence to an entire genre — and that's exactly what Burns has achieved with 'Country Music,' the first episode of which airs at 8 pm Sunday night, September 15, on WVIZ Channel 25 and WEAO Channel 49.

It is this approach that makes the opening two-hour episode not just factually illuminating, but a rather comforting attempt to melt away societal barriers. In each of the carefully crafted episodes, of which there are eight, the filmmaker's pure affection for the genre cannot be missed. Burns, along with writer Dayton Duncan and co-producer Julie Dunfey, chose to cast the spotlight on the pioneers of this genre — those who brought the music all the way down from the Appalachian mountains, the plains of the midwest, as well as the Jazz Age of the 1920s, to eventually define folklore Americana.

Merle Haggard signs Martin D-28 guitar. Haggard is among the 76 of the 101 country music artists interviewed for the series who signed two Martin D-28 guitars. (Courtesy of Jared Ames/PBS)

The artists' individual stories somehow coalesce into a love letter written to a musical form with incredulously deep roots in American culture. The story touches all aspects of the genre, highlighting its roots in English, Irish, Welsh and Scottish ballads, spiritual hymns, African-American blues, and Tin Pin Alley tunes.

Duncan's cinematic rendition of melodies, script, and visuals is designed to play one's heartstrings just like the fiddles that feature in the film. The documentary is a product of much hard work — Burns, Duncan, and Dunfey spent eight years in research and production, and interviewed more than a hundred people to create the eight-part, 16-hour folksy masterpiece.

The opening installment of the series makes it clear that country music became widely popular after touching the chords of working-class Americans who were looked down upon, dismissed, or left out. This was the music of the common folk — those without money or power — and it gave them a sense that they mattered in the grand scheme of things.

In short, country music came from the parlors of coal miners and farmers, from barn dances on Saturday night to mass on Sunday morning, and from sweaty pubs and saloons to wide-open ranches.

Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart on the Grand Ole Opry, 1991. (Courtesy of Grand Ole Opry Archives, photo by Bill Thorup)

Over the years, generation after generation of singers gave these stories a powerful voice, often infusing each line with heart-rending emotions. Their appeal eventually broke out of a bucolic setting and resounded in urban areas, touching a common chord once again and bringing people together.

“I believe that you can go look and find a country song to fit any mood you’re in — any song that will help you feel better,” a nostalgic Charley Pride tells producers. “Sometimes it might make you cry, but you’ll feel better. You can find that song. That’s what I believe.”

In chronicling the American experience, something Burns has done all his life, he has had no choice but to confront divisions of race and class. But he explores these otherwise dreaded territories rather fearlessly, as he did in 1994’s 'Baseball,' 2005’s 'Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,' or even 2017’s 'The Vietnam War.'

This time, Burns juxtaposes the black roots of country music next to Kris Kristofferson's characterization of it as the white man's soul music. Furthermore, artists and experts in the documentary refer to the genre as the music of poor folks, not white folks, that played an instrumental role in blending cultures into unifying harmonies.

Bill Monroe on the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville, c.1958. (Courtesy of Les Leverett Collection, Grand Ole Opry Archives)

The film beautifully illustrates exactly how talented some African-American musicians were, including DeFord Bailey, Ray Charles, and Charley Pride, such that audiences accepted them in country music circles with open arms, even when the country itself was mired in racism. "There’s a truth in the music, and it’s too bad that we as a culture have not been able to address that truth,” Jazz legend Wynton Marsalis notes. “That’s the shame of it. The art tells more of the tale of us coming together.”

Furthermore, Burns makes sure to cite moments when certain individuals with ulterior motives conspired to use the music as a tool of social stratification and thereby draw lines between poor whites and poor blacks.

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash New York City 1975. (Courtesy of Sony Music Archives)

Some may complain why Burns decided to stop his narrative in the mid-90s, albeit he has featured younger artists such as Secor, the Dixie Chicks, and Rhiannon Giddens. But the filmmaker has a rather brilliant justification for the same. "We want to let the last 25, 30 years breathe a little," Burns explained. "We did this in 'Baseball' ... or in 'Jazz,' people criticized us for stopping in the mid-'70s. But I feel that you don't really know how important something will be in the scheme of things for a couple of, three decades, maybe."

"So we put on the brakes and stop at a certain point and let the critics and journalists and near-historians argue and discuss what's going on today," the filmmaker added. "That's fine, but in what I do we actually need the perspective that the passage of time gives us."

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