Ken Burns’ documentary series Country Music, like most Ken Burns’ projects, isn’t afraid to cover a ton of ground. It makes the first few episodes feel a little whiplashy as the filmmaker covers the very beginnings of the hillbilly music that would eventually become known as country.. He doesn't shy away from the way that this kind of music has always been extremely commercial, being used to sell snake oil, life insurance, flour, and just about everything else you could imagine. He also doesn’t shy away from country music’s complicated relationship with race. The documentary touches on hillbilly music’s roots in blackface minstrel shows that mocked African Americans while at the same time plenty of artists were using the techniques learned from Black musicians to take their own songs and sounds to the next level. We hear stories like that of black harmonica player Deford Bailey whose skills were instrumental in setting the tone for the Grand Ole Opry radio show, yet he was unceremoniously let due to a licensing agreement years later and forced to shine shoes for the rest of his life. Those that had once paid his checks accused him of being lazy, “like the rest of his race.”
It's storytelling that is simultaneously honest, awkward, and beautiful, but where the documentary really starts to shine is when it zooms in rather than whips around from artist to artist. It tells the complicated story of the Carter Family’s trials and woes while also setting them up as the first family of country. Hank Williams story of the typical tortured artists makes us grieve his early death through exposing us to both his tragic addictions but also his catalogue that is so ubiquitous that a non-country listening type like me can sing along to it. Even in the moments the series focuses more on these specific artists, the contradictory nature of country music still gets highlighted. The Carter Family pretends to be whole for years for the sake of their radio show, even as A.P. and Sara Carter have been long divorced. Hank Williams is a nice looking hillbilly who loves his wife, wears flashy cowboy suits, and sings “I Saw the Light.” But his body becomes ravaged by addictions, and he and his wife have an extremely tumultuous relationship that twice ends in divorce. He sells tickets to his marriage to his second wife. Not exactly, down home family values kind of stuff. It’s more about the image than the reality.
It’s a critique I hear fans of country music make of country's current artist. They aren’t “real” like the old artists.. They are too commercial. Fair critiques to be sure, but apparently ones that aren’t new. Country has always seemed to have its element of show. Which is slightly ironic when one thinks about the often quoted phrase in this documentary that county is “Three chords and the truth.” And still that phrase also rings very true. While Hank Williams was putting on a great public front he was also writing honest songs about losing his love and being lonesome. His image said one thing, but his music told the truth. It’s what seems to happen all along the history of country music. While the black artists influencing various aspects of “hillbilly” music might be looked down on by the primarily white audience and even hidden by some artists mostly looking to make a buck, the music told the truth of their influence. When Sara Carter could stand no longer to be away from her long lost love, her music told the truth. The truth in country music always seems to find a way through the advertisements, the public images, and the over the top cowboy suits or hillbilly costumes. In country music, truth can’t help but bubble to the surface. And sometimes that truth is ugly or awkward, unrefined or unfortunate, but it still bubbles up. Seems kinda like life.
Strange Perspective is a unique weekly look into today's pop culture by Progress columnist Rachel Strange.