Ken Burns’ masterful documentary series, “Country Music,” provides essential musical education, but also a soulful testament to the power of the human spirit.
The veteran documentarian makes repeated use of the famous proclamation that country music combines “three chords and the truth,” illustrating its veracity with the stories of legendary artists, men like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, women like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, who infused the truth of their own sweet and sorrowful experiences into unforgettable songs.
Ernest Hemingway once said that “to be an interesting writer, you have to live an interesting life.” For the truth to resound across the distances of space and time—no matter how infectious the melodies or skillful the singers—it must possess depth of character and imagination. Sensitivity, even vulnerability, is as important to marvelous art as craftsmanship.
During Burns’ episode that depicts the rise of Merle Haggard from an inmate at San Quentin prison to one of American music’s best and most successful songwriters, Dwight Yoakam recites the second verse of Haggard’s original composition, “Holding Things Together”—a traditional country ballad about a man whose wife has abandoned him and his daughter.
Today was Angie’s birthday
I guess it slipped your mind
I tried twice to call you
But no answer either time
But the postman brought a present
I mailed some days ago
I just signed it love from mama
So Angie wouldn’t know
Dwight Yoakam, the singer/songwriter who injected rock ’n roll swagger into a blend of the country his parents first introduced to him in Kentucky and the honky tonk style he learned in California, pauses during his reading of the lyrics to collect his breath and stop his tears. The multitudes of poetry and sensitivity that Haggard contained to write that song, and the fullness of feeling that Yoakam demonstrated in his plaintive recollection of the lyrics, delineates character, gravitas, and humanity dreadfully absent in American culture.
Bill Malone, a country music historian, explains in Burns’ series that one of the animating ideas throughout the genre’s history is nostalgia. The feeling, right or wrong, that the past was better than the present inspires many of country’s greatest songs. Everything from the Carter Family’s “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?” of 1935, to Alan Jackson’s 2009 hit, “Remember When,” couples mournful lyrics with, to use Abraham Lincoln’s phrase, “the mystic chords of memory.”
Many American pundits and activists succumb to the temptation of condemning nearly every aspect of history according to modern moral standards. While we can all celebrate the progress of our society in rejecting slavery and the subjugation of women, we should also have a little humility. That ancient check on human arrogance is necessary not only to maintain respect for our ancestry and history, but also because comparing present day American culture with the past might not be so flattering.
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The most popular performance from the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards was a medley of recent hits from Lizzo, a pop singer and rapper who has made her plus-size central to her public persona. Wearing a yellow corset, Lizzo screamed empty-headed slogans, such as “I feel good as hell,” while chugging Tequila in front of a giant, inflatable ass. The unmusical display of vulgarity received a standing ovation, and garnered the critical superlatives “empowering” and “epic.”
From Bessie Smith to Madonna, bawdy and ribald women have a long and proud tradition in American music. The massive inflatable ass prop, however, is emblematic for a culture suffocating under the flatulent weight of mediocrity and frivolity.
Vince Gill said in the final episode of “County Music” that all genres undergo changes. He would not enjoy country if it always remained the same. Altering tastes and trends create different styles of musical performance, and no one expects the contemporary charts to feature replicas of Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. The inescapable question shouting out from Ken Burns’ documentary is where are the modern equivalents of George Jones and Tammy Wynette? We got Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley.
Where is the new version of Willie Nelson, who after writing “Crazy” for Patsy Cline moved from Nashville to Austin rather than compromise on his own artistic ambition? We have country hitmakers penning songs for vodka and barbecue sauce ads and talking about “knockin’ boots.”
Where, in the “woke” era, is anyone resembling Johnny Cash, who made a deep study of Native American history, released a concept album about indigenous life over the objections of the Nashville machine, and then went to the White House, at the behest of Richard Nixon, and defiantly played a song paying tribute to the anti-war movement? We have Taylor Swift boasting that she is “obsessed with politics,” transforming citizenship into a social media boast as if everyone should collapse in awe.
What has happened to country music itself? In my lifetime, it has transformed from Garth Brooks singing “The Dance,” one of the most moving songs about loss ever recorded, and Kathy Mattea winning awards for “Where Have You Been,” the song her husband wrote about his grandmother recognizing his grandfather after suffering from Alzheimer’s, to an endlessly interchangeable series of “bro country” singers whose lyrics Vince Gill aptly summarized as “I’m hot. You’re hot. We’re drunk. We’re in a truck.”
It appears that America no longer has the infrastructure necessary to produce greatness, and when greatness does emerge, it wouldn’t know what to do with it. Certainly it would be taken out the back door by security at any major, corporate record label—they’ve all decided what’s best for the audience, and for their bottom lines.
And so, the imagination stretches to painful, fantastical lengths in an attempt to contemplate the same audience shouting in adulation for Lizzo, buying records by someone with the heart and soul of Aretha Franklin or Maybelle Carter.
Kris Kristofferson, a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War and Rhodes Scholar, set a new lyrical standard in country music with his attempt to distill the essence of the romantic poets he studied into succinct and plainspoken country songs. It is hard to believe that many contemporary hitmakers have heard of William Blake, let alone read his poetry.
The influential songwriter and actor had a sense and appreciation of history, especially as it related to his craft. One of the consistent ideas of Burns’ “Country Music” is that marvelous music results from the tension between an adventurous spirit of experimentation, and adherence to tradition. Emmylou Harris, and the “neo-traditionalists” of the 1980s, reminded country audiences what originally made their music so magnificent, but without the rebellion of figures like Ernest Tubb and Waylon Jennings, the genre might have stagnated.
Perhaps, one of the reasons why America no longer has great artists in the mainstream is because the progress and prosperity of our society has removed from most people’s lives the hardship and struggle that were so elemental to the creation of country and the blues. Lack of suffering is a good problem to have, but subtracting from an already empty culture is a totalizing disavowal of history. Refusal to appreciate the artifacts of the past will make the art of the present rather trivial.
Writers from several prominent publications condemned Dolly Parton because when prompted, she failed to aggressively condemn Donald Trump. If your assessment of the songwriter of “I Will Always Love You” and “Coat of Many Colors” is that she is insufficiently supportive of the “resistance” than you should never again put words to paper, and consider exercising the same restraint about going out in public.
The Parton “controversy” was a minor episode in a new American pattern—small people evaluating someone of enormous talent, strength, and authenticity.
Andy Warhol believed that art should reflect the image of its society back on itself, whereas other artists, such as Walt Whitman, believed that art has the potential to transform society. Regardless of whether art is a mirror or mechanic —it is often both—the country music of America’s past indicates that there was an audience eager for songs of depth and poetic sensitivity about the dreams and tears of farmers, housewives, prisoners, and ordinary people whose lives possessed none of the glamour that social media asserts as a measurement of human value.
The characters who currently populate American pop culture, and the audiences that applaud them, and the executives that produce them, expose a culture that is hollowed out of its humanity— tragically unable to distinguish between music that moves the spirit and the jingles that make disposable products seem more appealing on television. Worse yet, they don’t even seem to care.
To quote the songwriters Buddy Cannon and Jamey Johnson, whose song Willie Nelson recorded to delightful effect as a duet with Merle Haggard:
Well, it’s all going to pot
Whether we like it or not
The best I can tell
The world’s gone to hell
And we’re sure gonna miss it a lot
David Masciotra is the author of four books, including Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky) and Barack Obama: Invisible Man (Eyewear Publishing).