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Ken Burns and the ‘hillbilly humanism’ of country music

In many ways, Burns’ ‘Country Music’ says more about what can bring Americans together than what drives us apart

Johnny Cash at his home in California in 1960.
| Sony Music Archives

SALT LAKE CITY —

“Americans are an alloy. And any idea that you can remove one element or one metal, it suggests your foolishness, because you’ve just made things weaker.”

So describes Ken Burns during a recent interview with the Deseret News. Burns hasn’t made a documentary about metalwork, but he is well-versed in the story of America. During the past 40 years, Burns and his collaborators Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey have become the definitive documenters of the American experience. Baseball, the Civil War, Lewis and Clark, the Dust Bowl, the national parks and so much more — the scope of their documentary work is staggering.

Country Music,” the trio’s newest series, premieres Sunday, Sept. 15 on PBS. Its release is timely: 2019 has showcased modern country’s often perplexing relationship with popular music and culture as a whole — from Kacey Musgraves’ album of the year Grammy to Lil Nas X’s chart-topping “Old Town Road” saga. Country music is under the microscope these days.

In “Country Music,” the genre’s entire history in 20th-century America is examined over eight episodes spanning more than 16 hours total. But the documentary does a lot more than that. In classic Burns/Duncan/Dunfey fashion, “Country Music” also weaves its subject into the fibers of American history generally. As a result, the series challenges many of country music’s most pervasive stereotypes.

If you misunderstand country — where it comes from, what it means, who it’s for — you might misunderstand those same things about America, too.

Music of unity

“The notion that there’s a ‘pure’ country music, that is only one style for one group of people, is as obviously untrue as the notion that there’s a pure American,” Duncan said during a separate phone interview. He, Burns and Dunfey started working on “Country Music” nearly a decade ago. They conducted 101 interviews — 100 of them with musicians, only one with a traditional historian — with their footage exceeding 175 hours.

The original Carter Family band, A.P., left, Maybelle and Sara Carter, in 1930.
Provided by the Carter Family Museum

Of the musicians interviewed, 20 have since passed away, including country legends Merle Haggard, Jimmy Dickens and Ralph Stanley. But their stories live on. And stories, “Country Music” asserts, have always been the genre’s lifeblood, long before its earliest commercialization in the 1920s and continuing on today. Duncan mentioned the Carter Family’s “Little Darling, Pal of Mine,” one of country music’s first commercial hits in 1928. Band member A.P. Carter borrowed its melody from a black gospel tune “When the World’s on Fire,” which he first heard from African-American guitarist Lesley Riddle.

Nearly 20 years later, in 1944, folk hero Woody Guthrie recorded the seminal “This Land is Your Land,” which borrows its melody from those two songs.

“That ... story just flabbergasted me when I connected the dots,” Duncan said. “Within that one song’s journey tells you everything you need to know about how interconnected American music is — and how silly, really, it is to try to categorize it into fenced in, totally separate categories.”

A true exploration of country music, Duncan added, shows that within the art form, and often among the artists, there’s a desire for unity — “those songs, those melodies, those lyrics, those emotions and experiences that unite us rather than separate us,” he said, “against the backdrop of the culture that’s often saying, ‘Well no, that music’s not for you. You should be listening to this other music.’”

In Episode 4 of the series (airing Sept. 22), musician Wynton Marsalis notes, “There’s a truth in the music, and it’s too bad that we as a culture have not been able to address that truth. That’s the shame of it. The art tells more of the tale of us coming together.”

Okies, Nixon and the great shift

Why, then, has country music become synonymous with a kind of white conservative tribalism? In recent years, some of country music’s biggest gatekeepers have further entrenched that enmity. Lil Nas X’s country/rap hybrid “Old Town Road” became a true phenomenon, spending 19 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 this summer — a Billboard record — but was removed from its country singles chart for allegedly not embracing enough elements of current country music.

When Beyoncé performed her country-influenced “Daddy Lessons” with the Dixie Chicks at the 2016 Country Music Awards, many country fans and insiders were dismissive, if not downright enraged. Embracing black outsiders has not been the genre’s M.O.

Lil Nas X performing at HOT 97 Summer Jam 2019 in East Rutherford, N.J. on June 1, 2019. Scott Roth, Associated Press

“If you think about the kind of people that consume country music and tailgate and go to these concerts, it’s not an environment where black people feel welcome,” black country artist Priscilla Renea told NPR last year. “So I don’t think it’s that black people don’t like country music or that they wouldn’t like to exist in that space, but I’m not going somewhere where I feel like I’m going to get beat up. It’s an ugly truth.”

According to Nadine Hubbs, a professor of women’s studies and music at the University of Michigan, country music’s current perceived identity has a lot to do with Merle Haggard’s 1969 hit “Okie From Muskogee.” In Hubbs’ book “Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music,” she documents country music’s shifting cultural and political alliances, and the corresponding shifts in how the genre has been perceived.

“Okie From Muskogee” became Haggard’s breakout hit, propelling him into country music’s upper echelon. The song’s fraught status in country music, politics and pop culture gets explored in Episode 5 of “Country Music” (airing Sept. 23). On its surface, the song reads like a tribalist anthem. Take its first two verses:

We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee

We don’t take our trips on LSD

We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street

We like livin’ right, and bein’ free

We don’t make a party out of lovin’

We like holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo

We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy

Like the hippies out in San Francisco do

While Hubbs admits there’s no way to perfectly know Haggard’s intentions, there’s abundant evidence he wrote the song jokingly, as purposeful satire. In Episode 5 of “Country Music,” musician Ray Benson notes, “Everybody in country music knew that Merle smoked marijuana. But the audience didn’t.”

At the time, Reuters wrote, “Haggard has tapped, perhaps for the first time in popular music, into a vast reservoir of resentment against the long-haired young and their underground society.”

Throughout his career, Haggard remained famously vague about “Okie from Muskogee.” In Episode 5 he says, “The main message, I think, is ‘I’m proud to be something. I’m proud to be black. I’m proud to be white. I’m proud to be an Okie.’ And there’s a lot of people that identify with that.”

“You can’t insult your own audience, especially if they’ve just made you the biggest star in country music,” Hubbs told the Deseret News. “But he contradicted that song so much in later work.”

Three years after “Okie From Muskogee,” Hubbs explains in her book, Haggard released the song “Irma Jackson.” It’s written from the perspective of a white man in love with a black woman:

I’d love to shout my feelings from a mountain high

And tell the world I love her and I will until I die

There’s no way the world will understand that love is color blind

That’s why Irma Jackson can’t be mine

“Okie From Muskogee,” she said, represented a turning point in country music — the genre started to be perceived by its detractors as “a kind of place of bigotry and arch-conservatism.” It also marked a change in country music’s fan base. This changing fan base, Hubbs explained, started to include more middle class suburbanites “that had just moved down South now that the South had air conditioning.” These new Southerners were, as Hubbs described, “demi-rednecks” or “faux-Bubbas” — people who espoused working class values without embodying those values themselves.

“This is what Nixon called his ‘silent majority,’” Hubbs said. “And then Nixon suddenly became a country music fan.”

When Nixon hosted Johnny Cash at the White House in 1970, then Merle Haggard in 1973, it may have outwardly appeared like they endorsed Nixon’s politics. Neither of them did. From his landmark “At Folsom Prison” album to his racially and culturally inclusive popular television series, Cash’s working class worldview gets particular focus in multiple “Country Music” episodes. Episode 5 explores Cash’s first White House visit, when Nixon requested he perform “Welfare Cadillac,” the 1970 Guy Drake song that disparages poor people. Instead, Cash played “What Is Truth,” which the documentary describes as “a full-throated defense of those who challenged the status quo.”

The shift in country music’s public perception, Hubbs said, happened in step with America’s civil rights movement. As the 1960s gave way to the ’70s, America’s middle and upper classes increasingly embraced civil rights causes, and incorporated this acceptance into their own persona, at least publicly.

“It became central to middle class identity to not be seen as a bigot,” Hubbs explained. Country music’s long relationship with the South, where race crimes had been the most heinous, placed it in the crosshairs.

According to Duncan, country music “came from the bottom up.” In many cases, the music was an outgrowth of abject poverty — among white Americans and black Americans alike. Historically, it was music sang to one another in work fields, on family porches and in churches. What united these impoverished groups was how they were unfavorably perceived by the middle and upper classes. Some of country music’s biggest stars in the years following the civil rights movement reflected this working class heritage: Haggard was an ex-con; Dolly Parton was born in a one-room cabin in rural Tennessee; Charlie Pride, an African-American, was born in a shack in the Mississippi Delta.

Country music, as Burns described it, tells listeners about an “exquisitely, achingly beautiful human experience.”

“Hillbilly humanism”

Class differences, Hubbs asserts, are addressed more honestly and overtly in country music than in culture at large. In “Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music,” she uses the term “hillbilly humanism” to describe the genre’s overall tone of acceptance. For decades before the civil rights era, she argues, small rural communities were havens for certain alternative lifestyles. According to Hubbs, country songs generally align with the ethos of her own upbringing in the rural Midwest, “which is that you’ve got to live with all kinds of people who have all kinds of politics and all kinds of views,” she said, “and you don’t want to stir up a hornet’s nest — if only because you don’t want to sit there listening to their politics for the next hour on a barstool.”

Ken Burns, co-creator of “Country Music,” a new eight-part documentary series airing on PBS.
Provided by Evan Barlow

Country music, she said, has historically described working class issues from the perspective of those living it, while the rest of what she calls America’s “narrating class” — journalists and academics — are merely writing about the working class without intimate experiential knowledge.

But, as Wynton Marsalis noted before, “There’s a truth in the music. ... The art tells more of the tale of us coming together.” The significance of a Musgraves Grammy or a Lil Nas X single is not just in their visibility. It’s also in the type of country this music actually is. Sonically and culturally, the songs of Musgraves and Lil Nas X expand country music’s borders.

“Here you have a black gay cowboy with the No. 1 country song — the No. 1 single, period — of all time,” Burns remarked. “We are an alloy.”

Art, he said, is not about the dichotomies of black and white, or gay and straight, or rich and poor. It is about how art transcends those binaries.

“There’s no them, it’s just us,” Burns added. “And that’s been a great gift of art, I think, is helping us come to that realization.”

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