Ken Burns’ ‘Country Music’ Tells the Story Of a Genre’s Working-Class Connection


Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn Help Tell The Tale Over Eight Episodes On PBS

In classic storyteller fashion, Florentine Films team saved the most powerful moment in the PBS series Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns for the last of its eight episodes.

Kathy Mattea had fought an uphill battle to record “Where’ve You Been,” a ballad about an aging couple separated in a hospital. Despite an unconventional story and production, it became an unlikely hit in 1989, and Mattea recounts in the series how a woman once appeared in a meet-and-greet line , exchanging tears and nods with Mattea as she got an autograph and a hug without saying a word.

“Her husband just leaned down, and he grabbed her arm when they were walking away,” recalls Mattea in the installment. “He said, ‘She buried her mom this morning, but she really wanted to come and see you tonight.’ And I mean, that’s it. That’s it. That’s country music.”

That’s country music the genre. And that’s Country Music the production. The idiom itself was built on three-minute story songs that hone in on some aspect of life’s truths. The docuseries, which launched Sept. 15, likewise uses storytelling to connect the dots from the genre’s rural beginnings to its multiplatinum apex during the Garth Brooks era. In the process, Country Music employs a parade of acts who emerged from mostly poor beginnings — such as Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and The Carter Family — to make a name for themselves by establishing a human connection through songs about life’s emotional hardships.

“We say it’s all good old boys and pickup trucks and hound dogs and six packs of beer,” says Burns. “That is an honorable, and rather minor subgenre, of country music. But what it’s really about is love and loss.”

Burns’ approach to documentaries is highly recognizable, thanks to previous treatments of Baseball, The Civil War, Jazz and Vietnam. The productions mesh vintage photos, sometimes-obscure footage and expert, on-camera interviews to place a topic in the context of the culture. That context is particularly important for Country Music, and its foundation is laid out in the first episode.

Producer Ralph Peer ventured outside of New York in the 1920s to capture field recordings of ethnic music that might appeal to consumers outside the mainstream. Peer stumbled on hillbilly music when he was actually looking for blues musicians. Country, according to writer Dayton Duncan’s script, represented people “who felt left out and looked down upon.”

That perceived lack of appreciation has informed country’s musicians, its fans and even its industry, all of whom have often felt like outsiders to the rest of the music business. That tenet is conveyed in Country Music mostly by artists — such as Dolly Parton, Dwight Yoakam and Bill Anderson — but also by Bill C. Malone, an historian whose 1968 book, Country Music U.S.A., was a seminal document in logging the genre’s story.

“When he first came out 50 years ago with Country Music U.S.A., the topic was deemed not worthy of that kind of scholarly attention,” says Duncan. “It’s part of what country music’s history is — always looked down upon as sort of a lesser form of culture and a lesser form of music and a lesser form of art. And if you’re writing about it, you’re therefore writing about a less important thing. We just don’t believe that.”

Country Music elevates the discussion, showing how artists used songs about the only topics they knew firsthand — life, death, love and blue-collar work — to connect with the masses who were like them. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Folsom Prison Blues” are just some of the 500 songs in the series — and among the 105 in an accompanying five-disc box set, released by Sony Legacy — that explore those themes.

“It doesn’t have the sophistication or complication of classical music and some forms of jazz,” says Burns, “but that truth part — it’s mainlining universal human experiences.”

They’re not easy experiences, either. The series covers the battles faced by women such as Kitty Wells and Reba McEntire to succeed in country’s maledominated industry. It demonstrates how outlaws such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson skirted norms to outmaneuver the business. It explores the difficult paths taken by DeFord Bailey and Charley Pride as people of color in a predominantly white genre. And it looks at artists such as Hank Williams and Keith Whitley, whose lives were cut short by tragedy.

Country Music mines the life cycle of the genre just as the idiom’s songs have often reflected the life cycles of humanity, exemplified by the narrative in Mattea’s “Where’ve You Been,” written by Jon Vezner and Don Henry.

That song charts the arc of a relationship from first meeting through difficult moments to a husband and wife’s fragile final days. Mattea, as the first artist to appear on-camera in episode 1, helps Country Music outline a similar journey for the genre, demonstrating how it has endured difficult economic periods and the tumult of some of its biggest stars to become a bedrock format in popular American culture. At its heart, the music provides a forum for listeners to discover their shared emotions through working-class tales.

“The whole thing that makes us stand up in front of people and play music is there’s a connection there that we’re reaching for,” says Mattea.

Which is why the story of the grieving fan in an autograph line is such a big moment for Mattea, and for Country Music. It confirms that a genre once thought of as second class has reached people in a profound way.

Burns similarly screened all eight episodes of Country Music for some of the series’ contributors, looking to discover if the Florentine Films project connected with the people who knew the genre best.

“At the end of it,” says Mattea, “Bill Malone looked up and said, ‘Thank you for validating my life’s work.’ It was something.”