THE READING ROOM: ‘Country Music’ Book Companion Enhances Ken Burns’ Story
On Sept. 15, filmmaker Ken Burns’ series Country Music debuts on PBS stations around the country. The director, who has devoted his considerable attention to telling the stories of the national parks, the Civil War, baseball, and jazz in similar series, now brings the sprawling tale of the origin and development of country music into our living rooms.
Country music lovers, as well Burns’ many fans, have been looking forward to this series ever since news of it trickled out a few years ago. The challenge of such series, of course, is that they too often present idealized versions of a history that’s far murkier than can be presented in one-hour segments. Such a series on country music, for example, could slide into superficiality, glamorizing its subjects and leaving viewers misty-eyed and nostalgic for earlier days when the music was in its purest and most authentic form. There’s a tendency in such series to select the highlights and to focus on those to the exclusion of the details; there’s only so much time to deal with this history, after all.
We can be grateful that, even while this series slips into such moments, Burns and his crew, including writer Dayton Duncan, gambol over a wide musical and historical territory, turning over as many stones as they can to uncover the personalities and the places and the instruments and the songs that tell the history of country music. If fans of this music can’t watch the series, or miss it, or want to have a kind of an enduring viewing guide, they can turn to Duncan’s Country Music: An Illustrated History (Knopf), the book designed to accompany the series. Duncan chronicles the history of country music through over 500 pages of cinematic narrative and through 1,000 color and black-and-white images.
The book, released Sept. 10, is laid out in eight sections corresponding to the eight segments of the series. The first section, “The Rub,” offers an overview of country music before plunging into the stories of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and Ralph Peer. Duncan opens the story of country music with a long reflection about its origins. “Country music was not invented; it emerged. It rose from the bottom up: from the songs Americans sang to themselves in farm fields and railroad yards to ease them through their labors; and songs they sang to each other on the porches and in the parlors of their homes when the day’s chores were done. It came from the fiddle tunes they danced to on Saturday nights to let off steam, as they celebrated the end of another hard week of work; and from the hymns they chanted on Sunday mornings, when they sought forgiveness for their earthly transgressions and found comfort in the promise of eternal salvation when their life on earth has ended. It filtered out of secluded hollows deep in the mountains and from smoky saloons on the edge of town; from the barrios along the southern border; and from the wide-open spaces of the western range.”
Duncan focuses on fiddles, banjos, and guitars and the ways individuals use them to create music, and he tells the stories of early musicians such as Fiddlin’ John Carson and his contributions to early country music. Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor reflects on the roots and the character of country music: “All of American music comes from the same place. It’s just where it ends up — and country music is one of the destinations. It’s what American folk music has come to be called when it followed the path of the fiddle and the banjo.”
The book’s second section, “Hard Times,” moves over a wide range of subjects, covering mostly the years from 1933 to 1945, when the hard times that hit the nation shaped country music. The chapter opens with a look at the National Barn Dance on WLS in Chicago and artists from “Little Georgie” Gobel and Myrtle Eleanor Cooper, known as Lulu Belle. Duncan explores cowboy music in this section in sketches of Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Patsy Montana, and the Sons of the Pioneers. He also provides longer sketches of the Carter Family, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and WSM radio. Marty Stuart reflects on the reasons that so many country songs seem to be about hard times: “I think hard times and country music were born for each other. There’s a strange faith and hope that exists in country music, even in songs that have nothing to do with faith and hope.”
Duncan devotes the book’s third section to “The Hillbilly Shakespeare,” Hank Williams, but he also illustrates the ways that the end of World War II contributed to changes in country music. “The rise of the honky-tonk would be just one way country music changed in the late 1940s and early ’50s … honky-tonk would define the postwar era and create one of country music’s biggest stars, a skinny singer-songwriter from Alabama, who could get any crowd rocking to his good time beat and then bring them to tears with his songs of almost inexpressible heartache, written from his own personal torments.” This section also chronicles the life and music of Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, Maddox Brothers and Rose, Patsy Cline, and Jimmy Dickens, among others. The star of section four, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” is Johnny Cash, but the section also features sketches of Sam Phillips and Sun Studio in Memphis and its significance in the development of country music, as well as the rise of Music Row, and the work of producers Owen and Harold Bradley, in Nashville. “Country music wasn’t always recorded in Nashville,” says WSM radio host Eddie Stubbs. “The major label companies had studios in New York, Chicago, the West Coast. In some cases, they would go to Dallas, Texas, and record as well. But when Owen and Harold Bradley opened their studio, everything changed here.”
Section five explores “Sons and Daughters of America” and focuses on changes in country music in the sixties. Duncan reveals that all the demands for change, as well as the dynamics between peaceful protests and senseless violence and idealism and despair, were reflected in the music. While Cash embodies everything the nation is going through, according to Duncan, this section also features sketches of other artists whose music and approaches to music would reflect the times: Roger Miller, Loretta Lynn, Buck Owens, Charley Pride, and Merle Haggard. Lynn reflects on songwriting and country music: “If you write the truth and you’re writing about your life, it’s going to be country. It will be country because you’re writing what’s happening. And that’s all a good song is.”
The last three sections of Country Music: An Illustrated History — “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” “You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’” — deepen the story and follow the music as it develops after 1968, probing the persistent responses to new styles in the music: Is this country music? Duncan offers sketches of artists including The Dixie Chicks, Kathy Mattea, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill, and Rodney Crowell to illustrate the ways that these and other artists innovate within tradition. Harris writes, “The simplicity of country music is one of the most important things about it. It’s about the story and the melody, and the sound, and the voice, and the sincerity of it.” And, as Gill observes: “If you look at it [country music] over the last ninety years now, that it’s been being recorded, it wouldn’t be one thing. It wouldn’t be anywhere close to one thing. It’s been a million different things in a million different ways. And that, to me, is the way it should be. I don’t think I would enjoy country music if it stayed the same. It’s not supposed to.”
While Country Music: An Illustrated History follows the contours of Ken Burn’s series, Country Music, it gives some of the deeper background on artists and on the places and songs that the film can’t fully provide. Duncan’s lavishly illustrated book — in many ways the photos are worth the price of the book and tell a compelling story themselves — well fulfills its purpose as a companion to the PBS series, encouraging us to swim in the many streams that flow into the big river of country music.