Ken Burns’ ‘Coun­try Mu­sic’ tells a tale of an art form born from love and loss

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Cover Story -

No mat­ter how you feel about coun­try mu­sic, one needn’t be a fan to ap­pre­ci­ate “Coun­try Mu­sic.”

In­deed, Ken Burns’ lat­est epic, pre­mier­ing Sun­day, Sept. 15, on PBS (check lo­cal list­ings), is an eight-part, 16-hour doc­u­men­tary that ex­plores the his­tory of the genre, from its roots in Ap­palachia in the 1920s and ‘30s through its evolution in the South, South­west and Mid­west in the mi­dand late-20th cen­tury to its de­cid­edly more rock-and-roll-like sound of to­day.

Along the way, the doc­u­men­tary tells the sto­ries of the pi­o­neers who helped shape the mu­sic, among them Jim­mie Rodgers, Bill Mon­roe, Hank Wil­liams, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Merle Hag­gard, Char­lie Pride, Loretta Lynn, Wil­lie Nel­son, Dolly Par­ton, Garth Brooks and the Carter fam­ily, whose songs tell the sto­ries of the hard­ships and joys ex­pe­ri­enced by or­di­nary peo­ple.

“It’s three chords and the truth,” says Burns, quot­ing leg­endary song­writer Har­lan Howard. “It does not have the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of classical or some forms of jazz but it has the truth. You can hear the lyrics and they’re de­scrib­ing uni­ver­sal hu­man things and we dis­guise it. We love to pre­tend that coun­try mu­sic is about pick-up trucks and hound dogs and six-packs of beer and good ole’ boys. ... No, that’s a sub­genre. What coun­try mu­sic talks about are two four-let­ter words that most of us get un­com­fort­able talk­ing about, and that’s love and loss.”

The film does a good job of ex­plain­ing the struc­ture of coun­try, with jazz trum­peter Wyn­ton Marsalis point­ing out that coun­try has its roots in blues, folk and jazz. It also ex­plains the ori­gins of el­e­ments like the “blue yodel” and the yelps of “A-ha!,” which be­came sta­ples of early coun­try mu­sic. Clips of early per­for­mances by Mon­roe and oth­ers bear that out.

It also of­fers up a trea­sure trove of in­ter­views, in­clud­ing with many of the above.

Burns, who grew up work­ing in a record store in his na­tive Ann Ar­bor, Mich., knew about coun­try but was not a fan. That changed af­ter years of work on this pro­ject, which he called “daily hu­mil­i­a­tions of what I didn’t know.”

As to what sur­prised him most, he says, “Ev­ery­thing.”

“The racial com­po­nent,” he says, “the ex­tent to which the pan­theon of the early days of coun­try mu­sic is filled with AfricanAme­r­i­can in­flu­ence, that the banjo is from Africa. That your strong women from the very be­gin­ning and well be­fore any­body in rock and folk is pick­ing up women’s is­sues, they may not call them­selves fem­i­nists or talk about women’s lib­er­a­tion.

“Loretta Lynn is singing, ‘Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ With Lovin’ on Your Mind’ or ‘The Pill,’ ” he con­tin­ues. “And I won­der what black eye (the Jef­fer­son Air­plane’s) Grace Slick would have got­ten if she had been talk­ing about that in her cir­cle. ...”

“And (Lynn) says, ‘If you’re talk­ing about your life and you’re telling the truth, it’s going to be coun­try.’ ”

Ken Burns is the di­rec­tor be­hind the new doc­u­men­tary se­ries “Coun­try Mu­sic,” pre­mier­ing Sun­day on PBS (check lo­cal list­ings).

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