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'It's Never Been One Thing': Ken Burns On His New Documentary 'Country Music'


Explaining country music takes some time — it’s got a long history and draws from a myriad of sources. Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show starts here, "You have the banjo, which comes from Africa. And you have the fiddle, which comes from the British Isles and Europe. And when they meet, they meet in the American South, and that’s the big bang." 

Tracking the impact of that combination is the subject of Ken Burns' latest documentary, "Country Music."

He uses current performers like Secor and North Carolina’s Rhiannon Giddens, along with archival footage — and, of course, the music itself — to tell that story. The eight-part, 16-hour series began Sunday and runs through Wednesday on PBS channels. It continues the same time next week too. Ken Burns joined WFAE's "Morning Edition" host Lisa Worf to talk about the project.

Worf: So, "big bang." Why is that such a fitting way to describe country music’s beginnings?

Burns: Well, actually we call our first episode "The Rub." And that means the tension, the friction of black and white in the American South. Now our history quite correctly charts the many indignities associated with that friction, slavery the most obvious.

But creatively, that friction produced some good things. And country music, though not without its share of indignities to African Americans, has nonetheless sort of been this proving ground where that black and white mixed the banjo and the fiddle and it all came together.

Most of the early pioneers of country music had an African American mentor, like A.P. Carter of The Carter Family or Hank Williams or Bill Monroe, the founder of bluegrass, or Johnny Cash — you know, the great patriarch and polymath of the music, and Jimmie Rodgers, that first superstar was a water boy on the Southern railroads in Mississippi and heard the black train crews laying tracks singing their songs. His influence was hugely from the blues.

The big bang of country music is often considered 1927 in Bristol, when Ralph Peer recorded on Aug. 1 The Carter Family and then on Aug. 4 Jimmie Rodgers and set in motion this modern both commercial category but this artistic category that we eventually called country music.

Worf: How Southern is country music?

Burns: It is Southern. I mean, its popularity is now worldwide and certainly countrywide, but it is born in the South — not just in rural areas but in cities. And it draws on all these different folk traditions and African American traditions that I've described. It's never been one thing. It's always been the different styles. There's just, you know, there's a gigantic rushing river that has been fed by many, many tributaries, and it's interrelated with all the other music forms. And it with rhythm and blues is one of the parents of rock and roll. So it goes both ways.

When Ray Charles was given creative control of an album for the very first time in 1962, he stunned everyone by coming out with modern sounds in country and western music and the number one hit of the summer of '62 is "I Can't Stop Loving You" by Don Gibson — a country song, and if you listen to Ray's version of it, it's a country version. He himself said you take country music and you take black music and you have the same g.d. thing every time.

Worf: So what's North Carolina's share in the tributaries?

Burns Well, there's lots of different stuff, from banjo player Charlie Poole, who had his own distinct way of picking, you've got lots of different string band music. You have in Charlotte one of the really great radio stations that's going to beam stuff out — it was a mecca for a lot of the early country or then-called derogatorily "hillbilly music" places, and so it's hugely part of what it is.

[Related: Amplifier: 'From The Carter Family To Bill Monroe, Unearthing The Hidden History Of Charlotte Country Music']

Worf: What do you think people get wrong about country music?

Burns: Well, I think they tend to — because commerce and convenience categorizes it as a one thing — they tend to think of it as a one thing, and it's never been a one thing. It's always been a mixture of things, just like the United States. It's an alloy. It's stronger because it's made up of so many individual constituent parts. And I think that's what we wanted to prove. And just as in an alloy, if somebody tries to tell you that you're ultimately American if you just pull this one thing out that there is a pure American, you've missed the whole point, and you've made that allow weaker and more brittle.

And so, I think what we do is we celebrate the kind of mixture that in the case of country music working people, the people who built this country, the people who understand it's not always a level playing field, the people who do that work, African American as well as white who ought to be natural friends, not enemies, are the creators of this music, which expresses the human heart ache.

The song writer Harlan Auer said country music is three chords and the truth. It doesn't have that sophistication, but it does have the truth and it's speaking about two four letter words we'd rather ignore, love and loss. And so we disguise it. We say, "Oh, country music" — here's another cliché — "Oh, it's about good old boys and pickup trucks and hound dogs and six packs of beer." Well, it is, and that's a wonderful and distinguished tradition in that music, but it's tiny comparing to the songs that are about direct human experience.

When when Hank Williams says, "I'm so lonesome I can cry," there's nobody on the planet, let alone the United States, who doesn't know what he's talking about. 

The documentary "Country Music" is airing on PBS stations this week and next. You can also stream it for free.