Even though I grew up to be an omnivorous music fan, coming around to country took longer than it should have, for reasons that had a lot more to do with emotional baggage than with the music itself.
I’ll go ahead and blame that on the social stratification of my small-town high school. As enthusiasts of punk and alternative rock, my friends and I felt obligated to behave snobbishly toward people who listened to genres we considered intellectually and artistically inferior, including pop and especially country.
So I’ve been humbly enjoying a belated education, thanks to Ken Burns’ latest documentary project, “Country Music,” which to an agnostic listener is potentially a revelatory viewing experience. Deploying his usual format of talking-head interviews set to seemingly unlimited troves of archival material, Burns unfolds nearly a century’s worth of history across eight two-hour installments, now airing on PBS and available to stream on its website.
The history of country music proves well-suited to the Burns style, which is so ubiquitous it borders on self-parody. (His technique of slowly panning across old photographs comes labeled as the “Ken Burns effect” in video editing programs.)
In sweeping fashion, he sketches biographies of behind-the scenes pioneers along with well-known figures — Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, the Carter family, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton — and the complicated social currents that swept their music to and from the airwaves and the charts.
Those streams were murky and inseparable from all the darkness and light that defines America. Kris Kristofferson describes country as “white man’s blues,” which is superficially true, but nowhere near the whole story. The music was a potent mix of instrumentation from Africa (the banjo) and medieval Europe (the fiddle). Its early vocalists combined Southern gospel, Appalachian folk, Irish melodies, delta blues, slave spirituals and, for some reason, Alpine yodeling.
Burns reveals a genre as preoccupied with its own narrative as it was with the art and commerce of music-making. From that tradition emerged the familiar archetypes of the cowboy who’s lonely but free, the husband with the wandering heart, the fed-up wife, the working people who follow the excesses of a honky-tonk Saturday night with the cleansing penance of Sunday morning, then do it all over again the following week.
Encoded in those myths are signals about who the music is for, and who it isn’t. Narrator Peter Coyote explains that country “sprang from the need of Americans, especially those who felt left out and looked down upon, to tell their stories.” Indeed, a class divide took root early on — when Rodgers, the first genuine “hillbilly” music superstar, died in 1933, it received no attention from coastal newspapers, but was front-page news across the midwest.
But exclusion went in both directions, particularly when it came to race. Burns is thorough when connecting early hillbilly music to minstrel performances now universally recognized as racist, but manages to leave a lot of that conversation incomplete, even across a 16-hour series. He presents Nashville’s eventual acceptance of Charley Pride, a black singer-songwriter who was hugely successful in the ‘60s and ‘70s, as a redemptive turning point, but it would take until the 2000s for another African-American artist (Darius Rucker) to top the country singles chart.
It makes narrative sense for Burns to end in the late ‘90s, with the ascent of Garth Brooks and country’s full entrenchment in the pop-music firmament. But there’s so much more to tell, from the political estrangement of the Dixie Chicks during the George W. Bush administration, to the debate this year about whether Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” qualifies as country.
Even in the hands of a master storyteller, “Country Music” feels incomplete, which reminds me how much I missed when I was busy making up my own stories about myself.