Why Ken Burns’ new documentary ‘Country Music’ is essential viewing

We’re divided by culture as much as politics. The roots of red state vs. blue state tribalism reflect the different ways we live in rural and urban America. But while these divides run deep, they are also simplistic stereotypes that are reinforced by ignorance and insults.

That’s just one reason why the new Ken Burns documentary “Country Music” is essential viewing right now: It can help break down these divides by increasing understanding and appreciation of our shared American story.

Country music comes from the heart of rural America. But it is both a cruel and stupid mistake to dismiss it as hillbilly music. It is a cross-pollination of different traditions that has evolved over more than a century. It’s the sound of Saturday night and Sunday morning, a music of love and loss. And like jazz, the subject of an earlier series from Burns, country music is an authentic American art form.

The series is arguably the best documentary series Burns has made since his initial epics on the Civil War and baseball. Burns weaves a coherent story from disparate parts, using iconic characters like Hank Williams, the self-destructive “Hillbilly Shakespeare,” and Johnny Cash, the “Man in Black” who managed to be both a traditionalist and counter-culture icon, as narrative anchors.

But it’s the interweaving stories that make the series an eye-opening journey. If you’re only an occasional listener of country music or someone who dismisses the genre entirely, you’ll be fascinated to hear the hardscrabble origin stories of early stars like the Carter Family and Jimmie Rogers. All American music is a cross-cultural gumbo, but you might still be surprised to learn about the black musical influences on country’s earliest evolutions.

If that seems too Sepia-toned, there are lessons about the power of authenticity in art and life to be taken from Willie Nelson, who ditched the star-making assembly line of Nashville for Austin, where he stirred up a new scene and a popular subgenre, Outlaw Country. There is a slice of redemption in the racism that Charlie Pride, one of the few black country stars, confronts and then transcends through the power of his voice and unlikely advocates at the Grand Ole Opry.

Dolly Parton is a study in self-creation, overcoming snickers and doubts to become an iconic singer songwriter. Dolly not only got the joke, but flipped it on her critics when she said, “I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb. And I’m not blonde either.”

Country music is about relationships and so it’s fitting that the series includes the great love story between Marty Stuart and Connie Smith, the father-daughter relationship between Johnny and Rosanne Cash and the doomed love of George Jones and Tammy Wynette that produced enduring songs out of the wreckage.

Ultimately, the music is the medium. And if you think you know country music through a passing acquaintance with honky-tonk bars and whatever comes up on the radio during long drives, you’ll quickly realize what you’ve been missing.

The defiant dirge of Waylon Jennings “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” is the essence of punk rock. Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” and even Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA” are proto-feminist anthems. Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and Townes Van Zandt’s much-covered “Pancho and Lefty” are pure poetry. Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s reimagining of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” fuse gospel and country into the equivalent of four-minute symphonies with their precision and ambition.

Country music’s reputation as a reactionary soundtrack doesn’t hold up on close scrutiny either. Sure, anthems like Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” may have resonated with crewcut audiences with lyrics like “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” or “We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street.” But they did not represent the artists’ own reality: the ex-con later expressed his regret for writing the song, and turned to weed and grew medical marijuana in California in his later life. Bluegrass musicians joined rockers in playing Vietnam war protests, while the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s intergenerational country sessions were a metaphor for healing from the late 60s.

But as always, it was Johnny Cash who walked the line most effectively, opposing Vietnam while playing for the troops overseas, bringing Bob Dylan to a country audience and accepting an invitation to the White House to play for Richard Nixon while rejecting his request that he perform a cynical conservative song called “Welfare Cadillac.”

Instead, Cash played his tune “What is Truth” which honored the rebellious questioning of the younger generation against the conservative confines of their parents. The President had to accept the defiance with a grin plastered across his face.

As with any distillation of a major theme in American life, there will be debates and quibbles as well as questions of inclusion. With hundreds of interviews, the story stops at the turn of the century and brushes over some of my personal favorites like Lyle Lovett. But then part of the purpose of a documentary like this is to establish the tributaries of tradition that get expanded and combined when a new crop of American originals like Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves or Sturgill Simpson come along.

There will be other inevitable complaints from the self-appointed culture police. A new version of looking down at country music as being the music of poor white folks is to dismiss it as a soundtrack to white privilege. Among other things, this willfully ignores the painful and relatable role of class in American life, choosing to focus primarily on the wound of race, which has been a core theme of Burns’ work.

That’s why I was gratified to see a tweet by none other than Chuck D of Public Enemy calling the documentary “amazing” and saying “for those MCs and fanatics in hip-hop that relish the power of lyrics…this is a can’t miss in the knowledge of music.”

And that’s the thing: for all the interesting differences and dramatic details of various musical traditions in America, we’re all part of the broader song. Understanding requires empathy. And by reaching out beyond our respective divides we not only bridge differences, we create something new and vibrant, mirroring the creative leaps that characterize American music.

That’s the American alchemy that Ken Burns brings alive in this latest chapter of his American epic. He is one of our greatest historians, illuminating the past and present while guiding us to a shared future.

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