I have never imagined I would be writing a piece after viewing a film documentary. Ken Burns’ film ‘Country Music’ produced in 2019 is interesting in the way it parallels the struggles of poor American families through hard times using the vehicle of music. Burns digs deep into the America’s historical character like other well known works such as “The Civil War’, ‘The Dust Bowl,, ‘The West’ and his latest, ‘Hemingway’.
Country Music however should interest us all. It chronicles the history of a uniquely American art form that rose from the experiences of remarkable people in distinctive regions of the American nation. From southern Appalachia’s songs of struggle, heartbreak and faith to the rollicking western swing of Texas, from California honky tonks to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, we follow the evolution of country music over the course of the twentieth century. It eventually emerged to become America’s music and the brand of those strong and unique families working the land across regional North America.
What interested me most about the documentary, was the abilities and imaginations of these people who are steeped in traditional culture, and are able to overcome a life of poverty, crime, and segregation in setting a path for their music to transcend successive generations decades later. These creative musicians have now ensured it has its place as a vibrant evolving brand associated with folklore and quoted proudly by today’s musicians who are well aware of the genres origins.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, for example was instrumental in putting together musicians by introduction, which led to a friendship and some of the connections that the band needed to record ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’. That three-disc album brought Nitty Gritty Dirt Band together with both country, folk, and bluegrass legends who had been on the scene decades earlier. Singers and players, like Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle Carter, Jimmy Martin, Merle Travis, and Doc Watson joined the scruffy, young band to record country music standards such as “I Saw the Light” and “Keep on the Sunnyside.” The acclaimed project is considered a landmark recording in American music and illustrates clearly how generational knowledge and skill has been passed.
So what’s the take home message here in 2021? For most of us, music is the vehicle in which we vividly recall the past and subconsciously start humming and drumming the beat. For others it’s the one thing we turn to constantly to provide relief and brighten the day. So let’s not forget the diversity of the creators, their rocky road to get there and the hundreds of tunes imagined by people who cared not a jot who you were, where you came from, or looked like, only the music you played.
There is one story of note that from the documentary that sticks and demonstrates the stubborn resolve of musicians to pursue a career in music against insurmountable odds. It is retold by songwriter Kris Kristofferson, after receiving a letter from his parents telling him what a disappointment he was for taking the unstable singer/songwriter career path as opposed to a military one.
He later subsequently showed the letter to Johnny Cash at a recording session in Nashville, looking for relief and maybe support. Cash replied, ‘Isn’t it great to receive letters from home’.
Mike Briggs, Margate Tasmania. Aug 2021
“Country Music” a Documentary Miniseries, Directed by Ken Burns and written by Dayton Duncan. September, 15th, 2019