Ken Burns’ ‘Country Music’ relegates genre to high art

Luaine Lee
Tribune News Service
Country performer Dwight Yoakam calls the late Merle Haggard a “great American musical poet” in Ken Burns’ 16-hour documentary “Country Music.” The first two hours will air at 8 p.m. Sunday on WITF.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — People who don’t like country music are in for a shock. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and his co-producers have created another long-form film for PBS. This time his palette is country music. And the 16-hour series relegates the humble category to high art.

“I think we cloak country music in its one aspect of … hound dogs and pickup trucks and good ol’ boys and six-packs of beer,” says Burns, “Because it’s really hard to acknowledge that it deals with two four-letter words that are very difficult to talk about — which are love and loss. And all the other things we’re talking about here, particularly love, are what these things are about, and it is hard to address it.”

Singer-songwriter Roseanne Cash is the daughter of famous country minstrel Johnny Cash. She traces her musical roots back to the Carter family, rural folk who were at the forefront of what we call “country music.”

“Musicians are not one-dimensional. We don’t just listen to one thing and only one thing,” she says.

“My dad took me to see Strawberry Alarm Clock when I was 15 years old. We sat in the front row, and the band was looking at Johnny Cash in the front row of this concert in a high school gym, Strawberry Alarm Clock. It was so great. And he took my brother to see heavy metal bands. And he listened to everything, and he had the widest, most ecumenical taste in music. He loved all music. And like … Louis Armstrong said: ‘There was only good music and there was only bad.’”

Fiddles and banjos: The documentary, which premieres Sunday, follows the course of country music from the dirt roads of Appalachia of the ’20s to the sleek highways of Las Vegas of the ’90s. “It all begins when the fiddle from Europe met the banjo from Africa,” says Dayton Duncan, writer of the series.

“And the collision of those two and the mix of those two instruments, and the cultures that they grew out of is actually the chain reaction that came from that,” he says.

“(It) reverberates not just in country music, but all of American music. And what we show in our film —all the way through — is the interaction of that. Jimmie Rodgers carried water to the principally black train crews in Mississippi, learned the blues from them. A. P. Carter, going out to collect songs took a black musician, Lesley Riddle, with him, learned some songs from them. Hank Williams said that all the music he ever learned was from Rufus ‘Tee Tot’ Payne in Alabama, a black musician,” says Duncan.

“Rosanne’s father, when he came to Memphis, ended up spending time on the porch with Gus Cannon, a black musician from the old jug band era. Ray Charles, a black musician, decides when he has his first chance to decide what music he wants to play on an album, chooses an album of country music, because he grew up listening to that.

“He loved that music. And he said, ‘You take black music, you take country music, and you got the same goddamn thing exactly.’”

No borders: It wasn’t just the hillbilly faction that culled inspiration from the country artists, says Burns.

“I don’t know what could have more mass appeal than country music, but if you need a little arguments for your cocktail party, the fact that every one of the Beatles enters into music inspired by country music in another country that isn’t ours, is pretty interesting,” he says.

“For Ringo, it’s Gene Autry. For George, it’s Jimmie Rodgers and Chet Atkins. For Paul, it’s the ballads of Marty Robbins. And for John — it will be no surprise — it’s Hank Williams … We tend to, with our conventional wisdom, to silo country music as a single thing,” he says.

“First of all, there’s no silo. There are no borders. There’s no passports needed. It’s a molecule that’s attached to other molecules that form an American musical compound that’s bordering jazz and bordering blues and bordering rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, country is one of the parents of rock ‘n’ roll with R&B. And so the porousness of it is the theme. And so what people discover is they know a lot more about country music than they think they do.”

Elevation: Country artist Marty Stuart was just 13 when he joined Lester Flatt at the Grand Ole Opry. It changed his life. “That culture belongs … under the arts,” he says, “alongside jazz and ballet and classical music and on and on. And this film and this series, it elevates country music … To me, it has a threefold effect. One, I think it gives the traditional country fan who never thought they would hear or see this again, a sense of victory. I think it also gives people who have really never given country music much regard other than the face value of it, here’s your chance to get inside of it to see what a beautiful culture it is, and something in there will pertain to your life.

“And the other thing is, I think … the current stars, they probably haven’t had the same kind of upbringing that Dwight (Yoakam) and Rosanne and myself have had. I think here’s their opportunity to look inside of this culture and go deep,” he says.

“If you try to separate something and say this one music is a single thing, it never is,” adds Burns. “It’s always been a mutt. It’s always been a mongrel. And those who would trade on the notion of a distinct, original ‘American’ have got it wrong … Wynton Marsalis, who’s in this film, says that we have an ethnic heritage, but we have a human heritage that’s much more important, and that the art tells the tale of us coming together. And that’s this story of country music.”