We have been watching the 16-hour Ken Burns documentary, “Country Music.” As you read this, there are still four more 2-hour segments left to see on Public Broadcasting System which has been in production for the past 8 years. It is also on Amazon Prime but it is expensive- so find a PBS station, watch the re-runs and start watching the new episodes Sunday night.
I have enjoyed this series of documentaries on a deeper level than pure entertainment or education. My enjoyment approaches something spiritual, which makes sense. Part of country music was born in the church; shape note singing was used and many musicians and singers got their start in church. The Carter family would make up much of this stream of Country music. Some of these of the more religious country music used secular melodies. This may seem odd but the consideration was “why should the devil have all the good music? Let’s take it back for the church.”
The other part of Country music was born in the beer parlor. Jimmie Rodgers would best exemplify this source. Although let’s be clear about sources and streams, no matter what building housed country music it was born of old country music, songs from Ireland or Scotland and Gospel music-among many other birthplaces.
Country music was born of a need for a story, a simple accompaniment and words you could understand. Songwriter Harlan Howard said Country music was “three chords and the truth.” The three chords were easy, the truth was not always such.
This is where I have trouble with much of today’s Country music, it doesn’t tell me the truth. The tiny amount of story told seems only to talk about only how good the singer’s life is-it is a Facebook selfie version of Country music. All brag and no truth.
Country music is about love and loss and making friends with both of them by hearing them sung so you realize others feel your pain. Country Music soothes our pain as it explains our suffering. When you hear someone else bare their soul -and reveal themselves to have similar life experience-you feel like you have company. When you hide your pain it just sits there and hurts, when you sing about the pain, it is almost heroic.
Finally (at least for today,) Country music is poetry. Hank Williams occupied a large portion of the third segment of Burn’s “Country Music.” Williams is often referred to as the Hillbilly Shakespeare because of his lean, handcrafted arrows of emotion that can pierce your heart. I have often held up his lyrics to explain the poetry of country music to those who think it only involves mud-runnin’, cut-off jeans and looking cute in a cowboy hat. William’s music dealt with hurt, love and the light of faith although one of his last quotes was “I guess there won’t be light for me.” His death is covered in the documentary too.
There is talk on the internet that this documentary may save Country music. I am amazed at how often a little education can change minds in a large way. My hope is that people can see the Ken Burns documentary which will give them an appreciation for the history, the depth and the healing of Country music. For me, it has been almost like seeing my own history and future at the same time. It has been wonderful.