Ken Burns' Country Music documentary is one of the most eagerly anticipated films of 2019, and the sixth episode of the sprawling, ambitious project is particularly interesting. Burns turns his focus to country music's mixed response to the Vietnam War and a very difficult, divided time in American history. He covers the period from 1968 until 1972 in an episode that asks the musical question, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?"
Set against the looming backdrop of the unpopular and very divisive war, the episode uses one of country music's most enduring classic songs as a metaphor for the social upheaval the country was going through. Opening Episode 6 with a scorching gospel/blues performance of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" from Leon Russell, the film portrays how universal the message of the song really is, tying it all together with a recording project from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1972 that brought together classic and progressive elements for a celebration of the enduring power of music.
The final episodes of Country Music PBS are scheduled to air Sept. 24 and 25 on PBS and on the PBS video app and PBS.org.
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The Fall and Rise of Bluegrass
By the 1960s, the traditional sounds of bluegrass had really lost commercial footing at country radio, replaced by the lush Nashville Sound and the hard-charging sound of the Bakersfield Sound. But when Flatt & Scruggs' music was used in both The Beverly Hillbillies and Bonnie and Clyde, the commercial fortunes of the genre began to reverse. That touched off a new wave of bluegrass players who fused the traditional music with a new, more progressive sensibility that helped revive the music and introduce it to a new audience.
Johnny Cash had undergone a career downturn due to his addictions, but he came roaring back with a pair of seminal live albums that he recorded at Folsom Prison and at San Quentin. Cash would go on to become a figure who frequently helped bridge the gap between more conservative, older country fans and a more progressive social edge that was coming into the genre, and he also invited a wide range of musicians of various styles to appear on his television show, including Bob Dylan.
The '60s brought a whole new range of artists to Nashville to take advantage of the exceptionally rich recording scene there, touched off in part by trailblazer Bob Dylan working on a pair of albums in Music City. Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding were among his most important works. Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Dan Fogelberg, the Byrds and more would make their way to Nashville in his wake, bringing an entirely new element to the scene.
Kris Kristofferson Becomes Country Music's Poet Laureate
Kris Kristofferson was country music's own response to the singer-songwriter movement, fusing elements of that structure and a counter-culture attitude to become a new kind of country music anti-hero. The former English Literature major, Rhodes Scholar and Army pilot scored his earliest hits as a songwriter for Johnny Cash and more, but would apotheosize as one of the most important artists to emerge from Nashville in the period from 1968-1972.
Country's Conservative Roots Are Tested
As more progressive acts came into the genre and younger voices started establishing careers in country music, the once conservative-dominated genre began to change. As Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson were becoming counter-culture heroes, Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee" gave voice to the thoughts and fears of "the silent majority" of country fans who supported the war in Vietnam and didn't understand the change that was taking place at a cultural level, demonstrating that Nashville was big enough for conflicting ideas to co-exist.