In the past, when someone asked me what kind of music I liked, I'd answer “Just about anything except country and jazz.” I don't know if the jazz part will ever change, but after watching Ken Burns' documentary series on country, that part sure has.
When I turned on the first segment, it was sort of just to see what he'd done. And maybe to confirm my disinterest. Which of course is always stupid when you don't know what you're talking about.
At first I found it slow-going and pretty much what I expected—music I couldn't connect to. And how was this going to spin into a multi-segment, multi-hour series?
How, indeed. It didn't take long to realize I had a very narrow definition of country music. In fact, I'm not sure, now, that there is a definition. What it does have is multiple sub-genres, some more familiar than others. Cowboy and Western, Bluegrass, Bakersfield, Folk, Blues, Classic, Rockabilly; the list just keeps growing.
Burns takes us back almost 100 years, and layers the evolution of the music with who we are and where we are as a country at any given time.
Early in the series, I decided that if I didn't like country music, I could at least appreciate it and revise my stereotyped opinions of it. But as we progressed, I realized that, in fact, this music has woven itself through the music I grew up listening to. “Ghost Riders in the Sky;” “Wake Up, Little Susie;” “He'll Have to Go;” “King of the Road.” And many more.
It can include Olivia Newton-John's “I Honestly Love You” and Dan Fogelberg's “Run For The Roses” and Elvis' “Don't Be Cruel,” because sometimes the topic of a song qualifies it for inclusion as much as the performer.
When I checked out the cross-over hits, I found some of my old favorites: “Crazy,” “Ode to Billy Joe,” “The End of the World,” “Harper Valley PTA.”
And later: “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Annie's Song,” “Islands in the Stream,” “I Will Always Love You.”
The list goes on and on.
This series also reminded me that I spent many Saturday nights watching “Hee-Haw,” and what could be more country than that? It introduced me to Roy Clark and Buck Owens and Minnie Pearl—that gem from Nashville high society who transitioned so smoothly into her on-air persona.
The other thing that I liked about the series were the personal sketches. To learn that Kris Kristopherson didn't only fall from grace with the sea; his mother disowned him for betraying his “class.”
That Dolly Parton doesn't mind dumb blond jokes, because she knows “I'm not dumb . . . and I'm not blond.” That strong sense of self that can say “I'm a hillbilly” and still know she's the wealthiest female in country music.
Early on, this was the music of “Americans who felt left out and put down upon.” By denigrating country music's value, we reinforce some image that certain Americans somehow deserve to be left out and put down.
Having just finished teaching "Death of a Salesman," I am reminded of the downfall of Willie Loman, left out of a world that has changed around him. His wife says “Attention must be paid,” meaning that Willie might just be a “little man” in the big picture, but he's a human being, and therefore of value.
And that is what this music does. It pays attention and gives a voice to disenfranchised Americans who we would like to lump into one stereotype.
Country music, however, is “a complicated chorus of American voices coming together to tell a complicated American story.” “From Virginia to California, generation to generation, it portrays a people tethered to its past but always reaching to its future.” Maybe disenfranchised; maybe not.
I don't know about you, but I like that definition. Rather than pigeon-holing this music by sub-genres, it reflects what America has always been. And this music, mirroring the joys and sorrows of life, the betrayals and frustrations and heartbreak, is music that moves us, that we can connect to.
Which brings me to the best part of watching this series: What is there to not like about country music?