It has been years in the making, and like every other Ken Burns documentary, it has created a lot of buzz. Or in this case, a lot of yearning to hear the fiddles play.
What will turn PBS (starting Sept 15th) into many nights of must-see-television is Country Music, Burns’ 16.5 hour series as he presents the origins and meaning of a major musical force in this land. But such a task will be very hard as getting to the core of the music is almost impossible. The legends in the field admit as much.
Veteran songwriter Harlan Howard famously asserted that “Country music is three chords and the truth.” In one of many revealing juxtapositions over the course of Burns’ series, critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell agrees, then points out: “It’s about the truth, even when it’s a big, fat lie.”
Other artists have taken stabs at crystallizing what they do. “Country songs are the dreams of the working man,” Merle Haggard said. Waylon Jennings offered a broadly inclusive outline: “Country music isn’t a guitar, it isn’t a banjo, it isn’t a melody, it isn’t a lyric. It’s a feeling.”
All my life I have had deep regard for, and interest in classic country music. The contemporary country sound has lost its soul and aims more for mass marketing than hitting the chords of its golden years. Burns will try to show the path that today’s singers have taken, and it will be interesting to see if a credible line can be drawn from Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff to the likes of Lee Brice.
Madison, Wisconsin will have a special reason to pay heed to this series as country music historian Bill Malone is front and center as the musical story is revealed through film. Last year a good friend gave me a copy of Malone’s masterpiece, Country Music U.S.A. He writes with depth and passion about the music which his mother introduced him to as a child.
There will also be background added for this series with Ketch Secor who has provided a traditional sound with Old Crow Medicine Show. His care for the music, and the early influences, is proven with each performance around the country. I much respect what he does.
I will be watching the series from my home on the isthmus, but the first night my heart will be in Nashville as Opry Entertainment and Belmont University will celebrate by screening part one from the hallowed Grand Ole Opry stage. That is most appropriate to have such a setting at the Mother Church Of Country Music.
Since the start of this blog in 2006 I have posted about country music, the Grand Ole Opry, WSM, and the many performers I have had the chance to meet and chat with after a show. My guitar is one of my prized belongings which carries more than their autographs, as it contains priceless memories. From George Jones to ‘Little’ Jimmy Dickens there is a story to be told with each one.
How they came to fame and what their music tells us about the nation and the industry is part of what Burns will allow us to better understand on PBS.