Ken Burns Delves into the Hardscrabble History of Country Music

You don’t have to enjoy the genre to find this 16-hour PBS docuseries fascinating.


Country Music. PBS. Sunday, September 15, 8 p.m.

PBS documentarian Ken Burns isn't necessarily modern America's most accurate historian or the most analytically insightful.  He is unquestionably, however, the most irresistible storyteller. Whether the subject is Vietnam or Prohibition, Burns fishes out the most captivating characters and their tales, then follows them down twisting paths that defy signposts, yet always pay off.

Country Music, the new 16-hour documentary from Burns and his filmmaking partner Lynn Novick, may be the best example yet of their artful narrative skills. You don't have to like country music at all—in fact, you can despise it—to be swept away by these gloriously eccentric yarns.

A case in point is Sunday night's opening episode, on the hillbilly madmen and hardscrabble church ladies of the early 20th century who stirred the pot of American musical traditions to produce the earliest glimmerings of what would become country music.

There's Atlanta's Fiddlin' John Carson, the first real country star. His frisky bluegrass tunes got him invited as the featured entertainment at rallies of both the Ku Klux Klan and the Communist Party. And there's DeFord Bailey, the Nashville shoe shiner who could make his harmonica sound like anything from a train whistle to a bagpipe.  When Bailey shouted "Sic 'em!" at the opening of his signature number, "The Fox Chase," radio listeners wrote in to tell him it made their dogs go nuts.

The business side of country music produced its own crop of oddballs, none more so than Dr. John Brinkley, who accidentally created a national audience for country artists. An ambitious, inventive and slightly nutty (that last being a joke you'll get in a minute) Kansas surgeon who came up with the Viagra of his day—transplanting goat testicles into men.

To advertise his specialty, Brinkley opened one of the first high-powered border-blaster radio stations, the 500,000-watt XER, which could be heard throughout most of North America from its studios just across the Rio Grande in Villa Acuña, Mexico. And when Brinkley realized he needed some entertainment between his testicular sales pitches—voila!—country-music radio was born.

Country Music, though, is not just a catalog of tuneful populist screwballs but a serious history of an American musical movement. Burns and Novick deftly trace country's origins through a stew—"this beautiful sort of boiling American music pot," as one singer puts it—of mordant ballads carried across from the British Isles, church hymnsvaquero campfire songsGerman oompah and African music played on stringed gourds, the ancestor of the American banjo. Some of the most insightful bits of the show are interviews with country artists like Dolly Parton and Carlene Carter, who often break into bits of song to illustrate musical origins and innovations.

For some of these artists, the history in Country Music is more like family gossip. Carter is a third-generation descendent of the Carter Family, a penniless trio of farmers who in 1927 showed up at an open audition at a recording studio in Bristol, Tennessee.

A.P. Carter, his wife, Sarah, and his sister-in-law, Maybelle—on loan from her husband, whose cornfield A.P. had promised to hoe in return for her absence—were lured by the promise of a munificent $50 a song for anything they could persuade the studio to record.

The Carters recorded half a dozen numbers, most of them mountain traditionals they'd been singing around the kitchen table for years. When released, the songs—including the dismal matrimonial ballad "Single Girl, Married Girl"—had a collective impact that's been labeled the Big Bang of Country Music. But the Carters couldn't wait around to see what happened. They had to head home; A.P. had a cornfield to hoe. It's almost as if he were scripting his story for Ken Burns.

NEXT: Outgrowing Addiction

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  1. I’m going to watch football.

    1. County music is more American than Fútbol! But you go right ahead and watch your Fussball.

    2. Ken burns is a Lefty piece of shit and his take on topics sucks a bag of dicks.

      1. People like Ken Burns do documentaries on people they believe are beneath them societally, hence they must be studied. Ken Burns once said the only honorable place to work was on PBS, he’s a piece of shit elitist. I refuse to watch his shows. I don’t watch anything that runs for more than one night anyway

    3. a wag once said:
      classical I pre-coital
      jazz is the dirty deed

      country is post coital

      I said elsewhere I would have loved if burns had delved intot he roots of country which were likely ballads and jigs from hand me down celtic music and little german ump pah pah

      he did elucidate on black working songs and gospel

      if you ever want a fascinating read try the ‘Gloat Gland Man’ who brought us musical broadcast radio in furtherance of his aim to sell goat testicle replacement therapy. Dr. John Brinkly. If you ever heard of Border Radio, that’s him

      1. ps: where is the edit button?

  2. Good choice.

  3. Elites can now appreciate the Country genre now that Burns has sanctioned it with a documentary. I guess it can’t be as bad as 7 hours of the Roosevelts.

    1. There was a time when the Democrats pitched themselves as the part for the common man, but that was also when they were beating the shit out of the New Left at the Chicago convention of 1968.

      Country music is probably a pretty good tracker of state of the relationship between the elitist left and the common man. I’m thinking Charlie Daniels in the early ’70s with clearly Democrat sympathies–which is where the common man was at the time. It’s hard to imagine country music and elitism coexisting.

      My understanding was that the very first recorded country song may have been “The Farmer is the Man who Feeds them All”, which is basically a populist, political song–about how the government should prioritize the concerns of common farmers over elitists.

      Check out this poster:

      I see a lot of Trump 2016 in that poster, from the making fun of the last president as if he were an emperor sitting on a throne, “I rule for all” to going after elitist scientists a la global warming, “I physic for all”. It’s all there. It’s always there.

      We’ve been through this before–over and over again. The Democrats will eventually remember that they need the support of the white, blue collar, middle class in the Midwest to win, and when they do, populist country music will suddenly be okay with Democrats again.

      P.S. George W. Bush didn’t speak with a drawl because his parents did. His drawl didn’t survive years of boarding school in Andover Massachusetts, another four years at Yale, and then graduate school at Harvard either. Speaking with a drawl helps you connect with average people in the middle and south. Singing with a drawl helps you sell country music records, for the same reasons–especially if you’re from Canada.

      1. Lots of collectivist virtue signaling, except for “I fleece you all.”

        1. It was a Grange thing and populist as all get out.

          I’ve heard “The Farmer is the Man” cited as the first recorded country song a number of times.

          Here’s a link to some of this stuff that I’ve read elsewhere with the lyrics.

          It was recorded in 1923, but the lyrics evoke the exact same message as the poster. The song probably originated in the 1890s or earlier. In fact, the poster may be evocative of the well known song rather than vice versa. Before phonographs and radio, Americans would spend their leisure time playing and singing songs in polite company. Sheet music sold like hotcakes, and this song may have circulated in that form before it became part of the American folk music by way of recordings in the 1920s.

          Regardless, the lyrics of the song seem to evoke a time when the farmers are going broke because of a financial crisis, and everyone in the song seems to be getting bailed out and getting loans from the bank–except for the farmers:

          “When the banker says he’s broke,
          And the merchant’s up in smoke,
          The farmer is the man who feeds them all.
          It would put them to the test
          If the farmer took a rest.
          The farmer is the man who feeds them all.
          The farmer is the man (x2)
          Lives on credit till the fall,
          His clothes are wearing thin,
          His condition is a sin;
          He’s forgot that he’s the man who feeds them all.”

          It just sounds like campaign music in the aftermath of the recession of 1893.

          And it’s as populist as can be. The reasoning is “Fuck the elitists, give us credit!”

      2. You mean the Charlie Daniels who sang “The South’s Gonna Do It Again?”

    2. “Elites can now appreciate the Country genre now that Burns has sanctioned it with a documentary. ”

      Country music . . . . now as cool as Vietnam, cancer, Prohibition, racism, crop failure, and the Holocaust.

      1. Jesus Christ dude you are consumed with hatred. Music is music whatever the genre. I spent the best years of my life as a professional musician and never played country music. But I’ve heard 5 string banjo players that mastered their instrument as well as Paco De Lucia or John McLaughlin mastered theirs. And there are fiddle players working right now who rival any concert violinist whoever picked up the box. And if you’re really lucky you might still hear a hillbilly on a pedal steel guitar so fucking good he could make a grown man cry. Shit, if it weren’t for country music the mandolin wouldn’t exist except in a museum in Italy. You can disagree with my politics. You can disagree with my lifestyle. But you actually hate people for the music they play? The Nazis actually tolerated the notorious gypsy 3 fingered guitar player Django Reinhardt because he was so fucking good. It’s hard to imagine a more intolerant pathetic piece of shit than you. I don’t wish violence or death on anyone but in your case sooner than later would be a gift to humanity.

        1. “Jesus Christ dude you are consumed with hatred…”

          Naah; that would require thought.
          The bigoted asshole is just plain abysmally stupid.

          1. Progressives are the worst people who have ever existed, bitter, humorless, full of hatred and privileged beyond the Bourbon Kings. They should be shunned. Just complete lowlifes.

            1. And that progressives hate country music makes me like it even more. Anything that pisses those scum of the earth assholes off has got to be good.

        2. BRAVO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! +1,000,000 !!!!!

          BTW, Bluegrass is the best past of the country genre! And for the most part Bluegrass musicians are the most humble, generous & beautiful souls you will ever encounter!

    3. It was a passing fad with them during the Dixie Chicks dust up. One local anchorette was driven to purchase their latest CD. She probably handled it with tongs.

    4. The Roosevelt’s was weak sauce. His Civil War documentary was good enough to fool me into watching a few others – I might check this one out.

    5. came here to say something similar

  4. This should be fun. II was raised on equal parts of opera (my mother was a professional opera singer), Broadway musicals, Beethoven, Bach (and company), The Weavers, and Woodie Guthrie. I still enjoy them all (well, excepting perhaps Broadway), and have been playing bluegrass, country and folk music, and a bit of Bach, for fifty-five years. Good Times.

  5. I am def a city weirdo but I was born and raised in the country so I really dig the music.
    The local indie radio plays a ton of old-timey country on Saturdays and sometimes I listen to the Jamestown ND country station online.
    I think Burns doing his Civil War series counts as a country show if you ax me.

    1. I do like how they play Dixie several different ways during the documentary.

    2. And the first John Wick movie was a country song made into a move, hell his wife died they killed his dog and took his car, if that ani’t country nothing is

  6. Did he mention in his doc how the Democrats double-crossed the S. Vietnamese allowing for the North to over run it all for political expediency?

    1. Cronkite et al were the real traitors. The Tet offensive was an American military victory that was reported as a loss. All downhill from there.

      1. Yeah whatever, ya kinda gotta accept that their was any reason for us to be over there fighting their war in the first place. Been over half a century. I’m still waiting for someone to make a compelling argument.

        1. Communism, domino theory, Cuban missile crisis.

          Ya hadda be there.

          1. Actually I was there, not Vietnam, but watching from the US waiting for my lottery number to come up in the weekly drawing. Yeah so as it turns out Vietnam ended up communist, domino theory, yada yada. Life in the US continued on as before. Sun came up. People went to work and got home. People went surfing, bought Harleys, got drunk, went to church, had babies, argued with their neighbors about the property line, joined cults, had epiphanies, ate bacon, ODed, got laid, got peace sign tattoos, wore tiny american flag lapel pins, bitched about the boss, worried aloud that the country was going to hell in a hand basket, ate soy bacon, applied for credit, filed chapter 7, started businesses, got laid off, laughed at the hilarious sitcoms of the day, got fat, quit smoking, joined the NRA, joined the ACLU, started smoking again, ate more bacon. I could go on but aside from our collective agonizing about having lost 50,000 of our countrymen in a shit hole for no good reason, life in the US changed…not at all. As to the Cuban missile crises I’m pretty sure Cuba is not in southeast Asia and their sponsors were like in Europe or something. Really have a hard time seeing the connection.

            1. Sounds like a county song to me.

            2. I was with you right up until ‘soy bacon’. You fail the Turing Test.

          2. “Communism, domino theory, Cuban missile crisis.”

            One of those isn’t like the others and two of them were bullshit reasons to spend out lives and treasure.

        2. BINGO, GG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. When I visited Nashville I came to appreciate it more than I ever did before.

    When Dylan played with the Nashville Cats and Johnny Cash, the music produced was outstanding.

    1. ++ Folk music, generally considered “urban,” and country music, generally considered “rural,” are inexorably joined at the hip, and always have been.

  8. More bad economic news.

    Charles Koch current net worth: $59.8 billion

    Stuck below $60 billion. Again.

    As any Koch / Reason libertarian knows, a healthy economy is one in which the richest people on the planet accumulate billions more every year. Mr. Koch, however, is only up $390,000,000 this year — which is basically a rounding error to him. Unacceptable!

    Reason needs to continue its relentless advocacy against the tariffs and immigration restrictions that are preventing our billionaire benefactor from truly prospering.


    1. And Mr. Koch isn’t alone in being economically devastated by the Drumpf regime. In fact, out of the top 50 richest people on the planet, five of them — that’s 10% !! — have seen their wealth decrease this year.

      This. Is. Not. Normal.


    2. I’m personally wholly invested in powerball tickets and expect that I will soon join the ranks of the ridiculously wealthy. Nice to know I will have an advocate like you when that time comes.

  9. “Ken Burns isn’t necessarily modern America’s most accurate historian or the most analytically insightful. He is unquestionably, however, the most irresistible storyteller.”

    Hey, if you’ve got a thing for the effluence of bovines, fine. At least you’ve at least got what he does right, he’s a storyteller and not a historian. As far as irresistible goes, the longest I’ve ever gone is about 20 minutes before I decided it was a poor attempt at fictionalization rather than a documentary.

  10. I heard it, I heard it. I heard it on the X.

  11. Yee-haw, time to play one of my favorite country songs:

  12. So…will hipsters stop calling it “bluegrass” before permitting themselves to like it?

    1. Bluegrass is a distinct variation. Bill Monroe et al

      1. I may not be giving the genre a fair shake – to me I associate it with obligatory concerts where the music is bad, and I can’t even tell based on the audience’s behavior whether they’re serving beer in the auditorium.

        I guess you’ll say that’s just me.

  13. Here’s one to pick up your spirits if you’re feeling a bit depressed:

  14. Getting Biblical on all y’all’s asses:

    1. That’s where the term: “the writing in the wall” came from. My favorite story from the book of Daniel is when Nebuchadnezzar throws them into the furnace, and then later looses his mind and goes batshit crazy.

  15. Here’s a foot-stompin’, rootin-tootin’ country classic:

  16. When Johnny Cash sings it, that makes it country:

  17. Narrated by Peter Coyote, who makes everything he says sound like he’s trying to start an argument.

  18. If it sounds country it’s a country song:

  19. Mark Question got bounced. What a dumbass.

  20. In the Blues Brothers, there’s a line where they ask what kind of music a an establishment plays. The reply is, “We play both kinds, country AND western!”

    It always gets a huge laugh. But I never understood it, coming from a place where we really did have country distinct from western. Modern C&W ain’t western and it ain’t country. It’s really southern rock. I can listen to the classic C&W tunes from the thirties through seventies, but most stuff since then has been pop rock.

    1. I come from such a place and yes it is true. “Country” music came from the South and Appalachia originally. It is “hillbilly” music; AP Carter, the Acuff Rose songs, Hank Williams and so forth. “Western music” is cowboy music and comes from the west. Bob Wills is the king of “Western Music”.

      My mother worked in country and western bars before she married my dad. She once worked in a bar that had chicken wire in front of the stage. He only complaint about Bob’s Country Bunker was that it too nice and way to big for an actual country bar back in the day. She thought that line was hysterical but only because it was at one time true.

  21. 65 comments so far, and nobody’s mentioned Ken’s horrible toupee? Are you all blind?

  22. The film tells about the creation of a truly American musical genre through the songs and stories of its greatest pioneers. As a fan of a country music I enjoy the film very much! Meanwhile, here is a great selection of country music apps:
    Free Country Radio is my favorite. I can listen it for hours…

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