I know I am late to the party in my praise for the Ken Burns “Country Music” documentary – Willie G. Moseley beat me to the Opry last week in his column.
I was reserving my commentary for the entire 16-plus-hour series which had not aired in its entirety by press time last week.
Now having watched all eight episodes and gone through the deepest recesses of my record collection to listen to classic country and devoted two weekends of my radio show to the old stuff — “I have a comment,” as Mr. Moseley would say.
Burns is in a class by himself when it comes to documentary filmmaking. Whether it’s the brutality of war or the beauty of our national parks, he knows what he is doing. A camera pans slowly across an old photograph while period music plays. A narrator speaks in near-perfect cadences giving the viewer enough time to digest the information.
Peter Coyote’s narration was excellent as usual. But what blew me away about the Country Music series were the stories from the artists themselves and how their stories translated into songs.
Marty Stuart was called the “mascot” of the series by one reviewer; indeed, his story was fascinating. Raised on country music, he saw Connie Smith in concert and said he would marry her someday (he did); he joined Lester Flatt’s band as a child and, later, joined Johnny Cash’s band. Today, he hosts his own show on RFD-TV that celebrates bluegrass and other traditional forms of country.
Ricky Skaggs was right there, too. The multi-instrumentalist performed with Bill Monroe as a child and later with Emmylou Harris and others before going solo. Ricky and Marty were in every episode, which helped to form the unbroken circle that connected the entire documentary together.
The stories behind the songs were great, too. Producer Billy Sherrill made George Jones record the tear-jerker “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and The Possum hated it. He said it was too morbid to sell. And yet, it became the very definition of what a country song is — sung by the man who, Brenda Lee said in the documentary, lived the life of a country song.
Charley Pride was the first African-American to break into country and had an unlikely champion. It was inferred superstar Faron Young had racist views because everyone told Charley he needed to meet Faron and get it over with. Yet, Faron and Charley became best friends and Faron even became Charley’s champion. He even defended Charley against racist radio programmers who refused to play Charley’s records because he was black.
Dolly Parton was revealed to be a top-flight songwriter behind all the glitz and glamour. She managed to break through the walls that separated country and pop. Dolly seemed not to take herself too seriously, saying “I'm not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I'm not dumb. And I'm not blonde, either.”
Merle Haggard is, in my view, the greatest of them all. His voice has the high lonesome in it, for sure, but his songwriting is pure poetry. He was the ultimate bad boy. In and out of jail from the time he was a teenager, he eventually found himself as a prisoner at San Quentin. He was in the audience when Johnny Cash performed his historic concert there, and hearing Johnny saved Merle’s life.
Later, when Merle had found some success, he appeared on Cash’s television show and was scared that people would realize he had once been in prison. Johnny made it all right — he told the audience Merle had been at one of his shows at San Quentin and said it with such calm authority, Merle was able to own that part of his experience.
Willie Nelson was once so broke and depressed he lay down on Broadway in downtown Nashville but miraculously survived. He was so hurt by all of the rejection in Nashville he decamped to his home state of Texas and started making his own kind of music. The record label wanted nothing to do with his spare recording style — until his albums began selling in the millions.
There are so many beautiful stories. The episode about local legend Hank Williams is worth your time, no matter what kind of music you may enjoy. However, I think my favorite portion was when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a group of what were then called “longhairs” or “hippies,” decided to record an album of country music and invited Grand Ole Opry legends to the studio.
At first, only a few participated — Earl Scruggs, for example. Before long, they had Mother Maybelle Carter in the house, and after reaching out to him numerous times, Roy Acuff. When Roy led the assembled multitude in “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” it was hard not to get a little misty-eyed; it’s a great song, but it embodies everything it means to be an American and a music fan.