Ken Burns became a household name when PBS first aired “The Civil War.”
It was the first of a series of documentaries about American history that would elevate Burns to the status of America’s premier documentary filmmaker. For my money, his documentaries are great because they tell the stories of how American culture has emerged. His most recent work, “Country Music,” has arrived at just the right time for our nation.
Tracing the origins of country music back to the beginning even before the evils of segregation resulted in a division between “race” and “hillbilly” records, Burns highlights the seeming divine convergence of blues, gospel, jazz, folk, old-time and mountain music. Jimmie Rodgers and A.P. Carter made names for themselves by not only playing the music that they’d heard all around them on streets and in hollers, but they couldn’t help but make it their own by bringing those diverse influences together. It’s totally American to combine diverse influences to create something totally new.
Burns characteristically follows the trail cut by those who created the history from the Carter Family, Bill Monroe, the Maddox Brothers and Rose, Bob Wills, Flatt & Scruggs, Minnie Pearl, and Roy Acuff to Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Elvis, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, and so many more. One beauty of the documentary series is that it shows not only lives and stories of the original pioneers, but it includes the background of songwriters, promoters and producers who set the stage for the performers.
Watching the documentary, I couldn’t escape just how potently expressive country music can be. Rodgers’ “Mule Skinner Blues” was a perfect example of just how powerful the art form could be, even at the very beginning.
But it wasn’t just the tempos and wildness of the vocals and instrumentals. It was the stories the songs told that made country music so powerful and that made R&B singers like Ray Charles want to sing those songs. To musicians, music should always be moving toward the best possibilities regardless of racial divisions. For example, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” had its origins in slave songs about the separations of families due to the evil and injustice of slavery. A.P. Carter got hold of the song as it had made its way from slaves, to freed slaves, to mountaineers, eventually to the Carter family, where it would become one of the most beloved American songs of all time. Its history was America’s not only because it emerged from the darkness of America’s original sin, but because every American either has or will experience the grief of separation and loss. It’s a song that unites.
While contemporary country music desperately needs the renegades and desperadoes who are willing to express something real, “Country Music” offers a powerful re-calibration to the essence of the things that have always made American music great: truth, sincerity, a dash of charisma, courage, vulnerability, and the indomitable spirit to face hardship. What makes America great is not the power and might of weapons, but the incarnation of the ideals of freedom, compassion, and ingenuity. Our best art forms, our most distinct art forms, model those ideals. What makes us collectively great is our art — our music, our literature, our paintings, our films and, even more so, our lives. “Country Music” is a reminder of what we can be.