E Pluribus Country

E Pluribus Country

Politics flattens, but the best country music invites us into people’s complex and contradictory lives.

Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson in 1988 (Beth Gwinn/Getty Images)

After living in New York City for a few years, I noticed something about my closest friends among writers and editors on the left. We all loved country music. I’m not sure if this should be surprising or not, given how often it’s associated with conservative politics—“we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way,” and all that. For me at least, country music was part of growing up working class. I remember my grandfather’s Conway Twitty records, and the time he announced that “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog” was Johnny Cash’s finest song. After retiring from his job as a welder, he spent hours in the garage he’d built, drinking beer and listening to country music with his head under the hood of his pickup truck. He’d provide running commentary on whatever the radio was playing—a not very politically correct appreciation of Charley Pride, say, or that Willie Nelson had always been a friend of blue-collar folks.

I never asked my grandfather what he heard in country music. I’m sure part of it was that country music actually depicts the lives of working people; that’s one reason my friends, who mostly are not from the working class, listen to it as well. Intellectuals on the left have always had a complicated relationship to those they theorize about, and country music offers a way into the experiences of others. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become convinced there’s more to it. I realized that my grandfather drank too much, and I wondered what injustices had been inflicted on him. After a few beers, he’d make sweeping pronouncements about lazy bosses or incompetent political leaders, resentments he nursed over the course of his life. His love for country now seems like a lesson in the way we can never really know the wounds carried even by those we’re closest to.

A songwriter once told me, “If it ain’t sad, it probably isn’t true.” The good times take care of themselves, demanding not answers or explanation but simple enjoyment; it is when we suffer that we look to art, perhaps especially music, to articulate the pain we can’t speak about directly. Country music is not always sad, but its best songs are. Maybe that’s why my friends on the left and I also receive sustenance from country. Behind any politics is a certain view of the world, what you take to be fundamentally at work in this vale of tears. Country music can remind us that there’s “a dark and a troubled side of life”—not just that the world we’ve built leaves so many exploited and struggling, but that this can never be divorced from our own weakness and frailty, our cheatin’ hearts, which no amount of progress can do away with. This is a different way of thinking about what we all share: a recognition that we’re united by how easily we can ruin our lives, or have our lives ruined, and how quickly everything we love can be lost. The only sustaining response to this is something like mercy. Its political expression might be called solidarity.

Unsurprisingly, such sentiments were not a part of the promotional material for Ken Burns’s new documentary, Country Music. But I kept coming back to them when, during a recent interview, he explained what held together all of his work. “I make the same film over and over again,” he said, “each one asking a deceptively simple question: ‘Who are we?’” It’s obvious how this might apply to a documentary like The Civil War. Much the same could be said about Prohibition or The Vietnam War, which both recount chapters in U.S. history that saw fierce clashes over what kind of country we had become—or might yet be.

Country Music takes up his abiding question in less obviously political ways. The story he tells is one of a motley set of musical influences and traditions coming together to form something distinctive, and greater than the sum of its parts: out of many, country music. It isn’t hard to discern how this might reinforce more complacent renditions of the American experiment. The glossy, oversized book published as a companion to the documentary even features a section titled “The Musical Melting Pot.” But it would be a mistake to reduce Country Music to nothing more than patriotic idealism, a twangy soundtrack playing as the arc of history bends toward justice.

Running about sixteen hours long, the eight-episode series traverses most of the twentieth century in the United States, beginning with Fiddlin’ John Carson in the early 1920s and ending with the spectacular commercial success of country music in the 1990s, with a coda about Johnny Cash’s death in 2003. It proceeds mostly chronologically, though particular places anchor the documentary, too: Nashville, of course, but also cities like Memphis, Austin, and Bakersfield. All the greats are covered, many recognizable by just their first names: Hank, Johnny, and Waylon; Patsy, Loretta, and Dolly. But even true country music fans will be left scribbling notes and scrambling to track down many of the artists Country Music retrieves from obscurity.

The interviews that fill the documentary are another of its distinct pleasures. Few get more airtime than Marty Stuart, who played in both Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash’s backup bands. He seems to know everything and everyone and figures as the keeper of the flame. Less prominent but more charming is Hazel Smith, a long-time Music Row publicist with endless behind-the-scenes gossip; she gave “outlaw country” its name. And occasionally someone appears on screen who elicits a wistful sigh, like Guy Clark, the soulful wordsmith who died in 2016, who talks about his friend Townes Van Zandt.

The documentary’s narrative, however, is driven most of all by a series of dualities, often personified by particular artists, that country music holds together in creative tension. Take an example from its early episodes. By the end of the 1920s, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family had emerged as two of the most successful acts in what was then called “hillbilly music.” The former drew on his time as a railroad brakeman to evoke a world of hobos and trains and hard living, punctuated by his distinctive yodel; the latter featured A. P. Carter, his wife Sara, and his sister-in-law Maybelle, who together sang and played folk and gospel tunes. But the documentary doesn’t treat them merely as important figures in country music’s development. They also represent different impulses within the genre: Rodgers was its Saturday night, the Carters its Sunday morning. Take away either—the sinning or the salvation—and country music as we know it would not really exist at all.

Country Music’s handling of Rodgers and the Carter Family showcases Burns’s gifts as a storyteller. In his hands, their individual biographies are riveting. Rodgers’s decline as tuberculosis slowly kills him will moisten the eyes of even the most hardened viewer; he died in a New York City hotel room, drowned in his own blood, after struggling through his final, morphine-fueled recording sessions. And the love triangle that ripped apart the Carter Family—think Middlemarch in Appalachia—comes as a surprise twist. But what Burns does especially well is weave their stories together. They’re introduced separately, but eventually their lives converge in 1927 and 1928 in Bristol, Tennessee, where Ralph Peer put notices in the local paper announcing he’d set up shop and was searching for talent. Both cut records with him there. These were some of the most consequential recording sessions in country music history, and it seems improbable that Rodgers and the Carter Family would see the same ad and find their way to his makeshift studio. And yet they did—the kind of auspicious occasion that lends coherence to the sprawling documentary.

Another happy coincidence brought together Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, who by the 1970s had become two of country music’s biggest stars. Nelson had chafed at life in Nashville, where he’d had some success as a songwriter—he wrote “Crazy,” which Patsy Cline made famous—but otherwise felt stifled creatively and personally. It took him moving back to Texas to come into his own and make the records he’s rightly known for, like Red Headed Stranger. Haggard had also become a dominant figure in country music, rising to fame on the strength of songs like “Mama Tried” and “Hungry Eyes.” In the early 1980s, they were working on an album together but were still searching for its “one big song,” as Nelson put it. One night, in the midst of this frustration, Nelson’s daughter made him listen to Emmylou Harris’s recording of the Townes Van Zandt song “Pancho and Lefty,” which Harris had been introduced to by country-rock genius Gram Parsons. Nelson instantly knew he’d found their hit. He ran out to the tour bus Haggard was sleeping in, shook him awake, and told him they had to record it right then. “Pancho and Lefty” would become the title track of their 1983 album, and both the song and the album topped the country charts.

It’s a fine behind-the-music moment. But the point isn’t just to provide the background to a landmark recording. As the documentary’s narrator intones:

The song had traveled a long, meandering road. Two of country music’s legendary songwriters—the musical “outlaw” from Texas and the “Poet of the Common Man” from the hardscrabble streets of Bakersfield—had listened to an album recorded by a former hippie folksinger who had been converted to country by a cosmic cowboy, and in doing so stumbled upon a song written by an eccentric vagabond, who spent his days trying to write the perfect song, and some of his nights crashing with friends, at a home where the focus was on art, not commercial success.

Here, the hippie Nelson and Haggard, who in “Okie from Muskogee” sang, “We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy / Like the hippies out in San Francisco do,” come together. Geographical distances are spanned, and different generations embrace. Industry stalwarts, who themselves were once up-and-comers, draw creative energy from, rather than dismiss, the new music being created by those who fit uneasily in tidy categories.

The promise that difference—between tradition and progress, mainstream and outlaw, Saturday night and Sunday morning, Nashville and Austin, conservative and liberal, art and commerce— will finally, happily, be transcended runs through the documentary. Country music gathers them all in, proving that there’s no need to pick a side. The message is hard to miss. Burns told an interviewer that as he’s traveled around the country talking about the documentary, he noticed the way people turn to “binary, oppositional” ways of thinking that point the finger at an “other.” But he was offering a different approach. “[L]ooking back, I sort of feel that the collective message . . . is that there’s no ‘them.’ There’s only ‘us,’” he said. “[W]e’re all in it together.”

That offers at least one answer to Burns’s question of who “we” are—an answer marked by a kind of liberal optimism. This sentiment can be found in Country Music’s approach to race. Burns can’t be accused of failing to recognize its central place in American history. Every episode touches on it in some way, and Burns captures numerous African-American contributions to country music. No one can view the documentary and still believe that country has just been about white men, beer, and pickup trucks.

But it all can feel a bit too easy sometimes. The first episode, for example, is titled “The Rub”—meaning, white and black Americans (especially poor ones) rubbing up against each other. The real origins of country music are found in the songs of the downtrodden and weary, toiling in the field or working the railroad, resting on porches or lifting their voices in praise of the Lord. Some of these were traditional ballads that came with immigrants from England, Ireland, and Scotland; they brought fiddles, too. Others emerged from the experience of slavery and its aftermath, often accompanied by a banjo—an instrument that originated in Africa. Country Music underscores how different peoples and cultures met and mingled to euphonious effect.

By the end of that first episode, the music that came out of “the rub” starts making people money—the Carter Family, for example, through their partnership with Ralph Peer. A. P. used their royalties to buy an automobile, land, and a sawmill. Maybelle and Sara both bought motorcycles. What’s not explained is if Lesley Riddle, a one-legged African-American blues singer and slide guitarist, received a cut. In the Carter Family’s search for material to slap a copyright on and record, A. P. traveled around asking folks if they had any old songs to share. He would write down the lyrics on scraps of paper but had trouble remembering the music. Eventually, he met Riddle and asked him to come along and learn the songs’ melodies—and then teach them to Maybelle and Sara. “I was his tape recorder,” Riddle recalled years later. And with that Country Music never mentions him again.

Or consider the case of DeFord Bailey, the brilliant African-American harmonica player. The documentary describes the injustices he faced as a black man during Jim Crow. When he toured with white country artists, he suffered all the typical indignities of the era, like being denied hotel rooms and other accommodations. His talents made him a star of the Grand Ole Opry, but a dispute over his recording contract meant he was forced to stop performing on that stage in 1941. After that, he was nearly forgotten, shining shoes for the rest of his life. Bailey was, however, invited back for a special performance at the Opry in 1974. In Country Music, this is portrayed as, if not exactly a triumph, then at least righting a wrong from the past.

This happens again and again in Country Music, and not just about race. The women of country music, from Maybelle and Sara Carter to Minnie Pearl and Reba McEntire, figure prominently. Burns rightly holds up Loretta Lynn standing on stage in her short skirt, singing about the pill, as an image of newly empowered women in the 1970s. The documentary makes clear that they often experienced unfair treatment, but most of all it emphasizes the way supremely talented and persevering individuals overcame sexism. Burns also highlights the ever-present commercial imperative behind country music—from the flour companies that sponsored early broadcast programs to the later consolidation of radio stations, which put playlists in the hands of executives rather than relying on the tastes of particular DJs. Country Music acknowledges that artists had to fight for more creative control or better deals; it’s more hesitant to ask how far these forces have taken contemporary country music, with its slick pop stylings, from its roots. Those looking for something like systematic accounts of these matters will be disappointed.

Perhaps all this helps make sense of why the documentary sputters out in the 1990s, right around when “history” ended too. Without 9/11, there’s no need to investigate the jingoistic anthems country music singers released in its aftermath. Without the financial crash, it’s easier to take a relatively sanguine view of the economic forces shaping our lives (and the music industry). The same could be said about Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the looming climate crisis, or the demagoguery of Donald Trump; they call into question the pieties Americans like to recite about our past, pieties that Country Music tends to leave mostly undisturbed.

This all leaves Burns open to justified political criticism. But I can’t help wonder if he was trying to make a different, less didactic point about the relationship between art and politics. Politics flattens, but the best country music invites us into people’s complex and contradictory lives. Burns’s aim seems less to produce a set of progressive lessons about American history than to remind us of the unruly, astonishing human beings all noble causes are meant to serve—a reminder he offers by always returning to the often wrecked, sometimes redeemed lives of those who offered up their suffering in song.

Even familiar stories in this vein feel fresh in Country Music. Though few country singers have received as much sustained attention as Johnny Cash, the documentary’s depiction of his life and career is superb. Cash’s addiction to pills and booze nearly destroyed him. Footage of Cash on television, gaunt-faced and constantly squirming, taking off his shoes and rubbing his face, is shocking. He fitfully cleaned himself up, partly thanks to his second wife, June Carter (daughter of Maybelle), and partly thanks to Jesus. Cash emerges in the documentary as the most searching, restless talent in country music. His attention to the plight of Native Americans, his prison recordings at Folsom and San Quentin, his collaboration with Bob Dylan, his late-career albums produced by Rick Rubin—taken together, they amount to a portrait of true greatness.

Cash’s own wounds, going back to his childhood, when his older brother died due to a work accident with a saw, seemed to imbue him with compassion for “the poor and the beaten down.” When he visited the White House in 1972 to discuss prison reform, Richard Nixon asked him to play Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” and Guy Drake’s “Welfare Cadillac,” two songs with a right-wing slant that appealed to the president. Cash said he didn’t know them but would play a few of his own—and launched into “What Is Truth?” He followed that song with “Man in Black” and “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” Here Burns simply describes what Cash did—no commentary necessary.

Another addict with one of the most recognizable voices in country music was George Jones. He too was hooked on pills and booze, a habit that earned him the nickname “No-Show Jones.” (At one point in the documentary, we learn that his reliance on speed reduced the five-foot, seven-inch Jones to just about a hundred pounds.) He grew up with a father who would come home drunk, asking a young George to sing for him, and then would beat him if the tune wasn’t to his liking. That pain comes through in song after song, from “He Stopped Loving Her Today” to “Choices.” His tumultuous marriage to Tammy Wynette figures into Country Music, too—on the brink of divorce, they would record the hit “We’re Gonna Hold On,” a studio session that staved off their separation for a few more years.

We hear a happier story about Dolly Parton. The documentary traces her rise from a spot on Porter Wagoner’s television show to a country music star in her own right, eventually with crossover success and her own business empire. Few featured in Country Music exhibit as much kindness, decency, and drive as Dolly. But one moment in particular stands out. After years under Wagoner’s wing—and occasionally, under his thumb—Dolly knew it was time to move on, a fraught decision given all Wagoner had done for her. Mulling what to do, she went home one night and wrote “I Will Always Love You,” and then sat down and played it for him the next day. It was her way of saying goodbye.

Country Music tells story after story like this—and it is these stories, and the songs of those who lived them, that provide another way of answering Burns’s question. Who are we? We are addicts and drunks. We are poor and hungry. We break our promises and live with regret over the pain we cause others. We are selfish, we are sinners, we hope one day to be saints. We are frail creatures who know we are destined to die. We try, again and again, to “get back to the basics of love.”

The attempt to put these struggles into words is why country music endures. It is why we keep listening. And it is what makes Country Music, whatever its flaws, a documentary worth watching.

Matthew Sitman is associate editor of Commonweal.


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