‘Country Music,’ Episode 1 Untangles Country’s Complicated Root Structure
The opening scenes of the expansive Country Music documentary on PBS finds Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, Garth Brooks and several more legendary singers and musicians attempting to define country music and they do a dang fine job of it.
The relevance of the question in the 21st century hangs in the background and then vanishes as these men and women — each, as it turns out, as much pioneers as they were beneficiaries of efforts made by those who came before them — offers beautiful, artistic descriptions of the genre and what it means.
“It’s white man’s soul music," Kristofferson says.
“Country music at its best is truth telling even when it’s a big fat lie," Rodney Crowell offers with a smile.
“It’s about those thing we believe in that we can’t see," Haggard offers. His smiling face, dusty hat and sturdy voice are warm surprises viewers will appreciate three years after his death.
"Like dreams and songs and souls. They’re hanging around here and different songwriters reach up and get ‘em.”
Episode 1 "The Rub" starts at the beginning and lasts through 1933 but it's not until the two-hour premiere's final hour that you start to learn of artists recognizable today. The Carter Family's sojourn to record in Bristol, Tenn. after Okeh Records founder Ralph Peer put an advertisement in the local paper gets some significant screen time. So too does the journey of Jimmie Rogers. It's fitting as both invented styles and presentations that, while very different, remain hanging over country music today, like a full moon that's slow to set.
Both are also considered as pillars of the genre but by the time we see their faces Ken Burns has established the roots of country music go much, much deeper than Fiddlin' John Carson's early 20th century music, where the program begins.
As interesting is the origins of each primary instrument and the delicate, often fraught race relations in the American south as they pertained to music. White musicians borrowed liberally from black but did not share credit, as you'd expect in an era 50 years removed from legal slave trading. Harold Bradley rightly states how country music borrowed from old English and Scottish songs. Later we learn of the German and Spanish influence and Burns and his team trace many well-known traditionals to 18th or even 17th century Europe. The unifying quality is that all these songs were for people who felt left out of high society.
As expected the Country Music documentary (or at least this first episode) is packed with fascinating trivia. The origin of popular, influential radio stations like WSB ("Welcome South Brother") in Atlanta, WLS ("World's Largest Store") in Chicago and WSM ("We Shield Millions") in Nashville and how each set the music — our music — on a path forward is a near portrait of American entrepreneurship and artistry blending in a uniquely American way.
Origins of the term "Hillbilly" and the Grand Ole Opry are introduced, providing a kind of gotcha smile in both cases for the longtime fan of traditional country music.
The astonishing depth of photographic and video evidence Burns shares is not surprising to those who've seen his other documentaries. This first episode is set in the 1920s but there is no shortage of popular historians willing to speak their mind on a character, a trend or the men and women that came before country music was even called country music. Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, the late Mel Tillis, Marty Stuart, Rosanne Cash and Kathy Mattea offer insight. Vince Gill turns up late, just before the country music record bubble is popped by the Great Depression.
This eight-part series is chronological and as is the case the younger viewer may be quick to turn away from black and white footage of "Old Time" singers and pickers in Episode 1.
There's a satisfying reward that comes with fighting that urge.
The remaining episodes of Country Music will air on Sept. 16-18 and Sept. 22-25. All episodes begin at 8PM ET on PBS and are also available on the PBS video app and PBS.org.
THIS CONTENT BROUGHT TO YOU IN PARTNERSHIP WITH COUNTRY MUSIC ON PBS.