Ken Burns has done it again with his film documenting the prominent role country music has played in the history of the American songbook. His PBS documentary, also in book form as “Country Music: An Illustrated History,” follows “hillbilly” music from its earliest beginnings to the days it morphed into the country and crossover music of today. As a fan for years, I knew the artists and their pop hits, but learned the backstory of the odds they faced as they took their music to the sound booth and stage and weaved their music into the social and political fabric of the day.
Most came from rural and poor America, with many fleeing family dysfunction that weighed heavily against any hope of making it in Nashville or anywhere else. The ravaging effects of alcoholism, large families with children in the fields picking cotton at tender ages, dangerous work in logging and mining, fathers deserting families and leaving mothers to care and provide for the children — all played supporting roles in building barriers for those seeking country music success. Yet, these barriers also contributed to the strength of character and the resolve of mind to make it in one of the most competitive businesses in America.
Those who did make the big time endured long road trips between performances too often aided by amphetamines to stay awake on top of excessive use of alcohol. One group of country singers was dubbed The Outlaws for taking on the Nashville studio system with their own brand of music, but their run-ins with the law at times landed them in jail or prison, adding new meaning to the brand.
In Merle Haggard’s case, he was an inmate at San Quentin when Johnny Cash performed there. Haggard vowed after watching Cash perform that he would find a way to the stage when he got out. Years later, Johnny Cash invited Merle Haggard, a star in his own right, to join him on his TV show and Haggard would tell Cash the secret of his presence at Johnny’s performance years before. Johnny asked Haggard if he could tell the San Quentin story on the show as a sign of hope for those who question the power of redemption. Haggard reluctantly agreed and said later it was the right thing to do.
Cash was always rooting for the underdog, the poor, the prisoners, exemplified by his visit to Folsom Prison and the subsequent album.
He also found his way to the White House where he performed for President Nixon who asked that he play the song, Welfare Cadillac. Johnny stiffed the president of the United States explaining to family later that the song made fun of poor people and he wouldn’t abide.
Even though a number of country artists like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash were inspired by black artists, country music was not ready for an African-American when Charley Pride would test their loyalty to the music and their racist tendencies. Son of a dirt-poor sharecropper family in the Mississippi Delta, Charley made his way to the country stage, but it didn’t take Charley long to realize that disc jockeys wouldn’t play his songs.
Charley sought out Faron Young, a popular country entertainer of the day, and Young took to Charley. When he heard one radio station refused to play Pride’s music, he told the station if they couldn’t play Charley’s records then he would pull his music from the station. Charley would later say that all the fans needed to hear was his music and it didn’t make any difference if he was green. Faron Young and Charley Pride entered the Country Music Hall of Fame the same year, and Charley would call Faron “one of my best, best friends there ever was.”
Not all of country’s stars and songwriters came from impoverished backgrounds. Kris Kristofferson, known as country music’s poet laureate for his songwriting ability, came from a military family, was an English major and Rhodes scholar who would later serve his country as an Army helicopter pilot. He wrote hits for Johnny Cash and others and went on to build his own repertoire that would earn him success in folk and country music.
Women played a prominent role in the course of country music over the years, and they didn’t always play by the men’s rules. Loretta Lynn may have been known as the Coal Miner’s Daughter from Kentucky, but she was a feminist back when folks didn’t know what that meant. One of her songs about the pill took on contraception when the culture gave women far too little say in the size of their families.
Loretta Lynn is still with us and still making music, but some of country’s stars died way before their time. Hank Williams, in the back of a car on an overnight drive to another gig, succumbed to drugs and alcohol. Patsy Cline died in a plane crash on her way back to Nashville from a benefit performance.
Hank was 29, and Patsy was 30.
Burns’ series may be about country music, but it’s about so much more. It shines light on the stars that made history and shows them to be ordinary people from the cotton fields, the hollers, the river towns, places lost on a map of big cities. Their upbringing, their roots gave birth to extraordinary musical talent that delivered fame and fortune not easily digested by some. Their personal stories, as much as their music, touch the heart and awaken the soul to the goodness in people and the power of redemption in turning around lives and paying it forward to help those coming up behind you.
As much as I enjoyed the country music highlighted in the series, it’s the humanity that springs forth from those who made it that stays with you long after the music is over.