Ken Burns’ latest marathon documentary for PBS, “Country Music,” tells America a plain truth: If your vision of country music is good old boys in pickup trucks, then your vision is way too shallow. The film makes clear that the roots of the genre belong to black and white alike. Longtime BS contributor Rob Rushin speaks to Burns and one of his film’s narrators, Rhiannon Giddens, about digging up the real roots of country music.
If one measure of success in the creative world is developing an instantly recognizable style, it’s a safe bet Ken Burns ranks near the top of the heap. From his first documentary, 1981’s “Brooklyn Bridge,” and on through mileposts like “The Civil War” (1990), “Jazz” in 2001, 2011’s “Prohibition,” the 2017 epic history “The Vietnam War” — to name just a handful of what comes to my count as 30 distinct releases, many of them running for a dozen-plus hours — the Ken Burns style has been as easy to spot as a wine stain on a wedding dress. Hell, when Apple began loading its Macs with iMovie software 20 years ago, a “Ken Burns Effect” was part of its pre-packaged tricks to make your work look more like … well … Ken Burns’.
But what’s really important about Ken Burns is his choice of topics. His films challenge viewers to engage with ideas and events that have shaped the course of America’s development, for better and worse.
Ken Burns [photo courtesy of Tim Llewellyn]
His latest outing, “Country Music,” will debut on Sunday, on the airwaves and internet streams of PBS. But that simple title is the end of his film’s simplicity. While everybody “knows” just what you mean when you say country music, there are damn near as many facets and offshoots and stylistic approaches as there are musicians and listeners.
Burns suggests most people view country music in narrow, exclusionary tunnel vision. I interviewed Burns two weeks ago, and he told me his aim for the new series is to present a broader and more inclusive picture of what we mean when we say country music.
“I think commerce and convenience categorizes country into its own silo, imprisons it in its own silo for very understandable reasons,” Burns says. “But what happens then, particularly in a world in which we're overloaded with media, we assume that our conventional wisdom, our superficial knowledge, is it. And that country music is just one thing. And of course, as we know, everything is much more complicated than that. And nothing in America is one thing. It's always a mix. It's always got many different influences. And it's particularly true in country music, like jazz and blues and rhythm and blues and folk and rock and pop and classical even. They're all gospel, all sort of intertwined and interrelated. They're not siloed in their own separate bin. And so I think we've particularly imprisoned country music in that unfortunate situation. We make fun of it. You know, it's about good old boys in pickup trucks and hound dogs and six packs of beer, when, in fact, it is actually dealing in a very simple but very direct way with universal human experiences. It deals with two four-letter words most of us would rather ignore: love and loss. And so it's more convenient to say, oh, it's just about this stuff, the good old boys in the pickup trucks.”
As in most of his films, Burns presents a varied cast of characters to serve as a Greek Chorus, whose members take us from the 1927 sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, when producer Ralph Peer first recorded the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, up through the massive commercial resurgence of country in the mid-90s. And Burns presents the 75 years between the emergence of A.P., Sarah, and Mother Maybelle Carter and the death of Johnny Cash — son-in-law of Mother Maybelle Carter and husband of Maybelle’s daughter June — as the frame around country music’s story.
So, not incidentally, chief among his interlocutors is Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny and step-daughter of June. While Rosanne descends from country music royalty, she is a star in her own right and a charming, down-to-earth guide across the decades Burns explores.
In the first episode, though, Burns goes backwards in time, to 1923’s spread of electronic recording and back through the peculiar American history that encompasses migrations both voluntary and involuntary, and how it was the interaction among poor, rural communities that planted the seeds for whatever American music — not just country — might become. Then he brings us back to the twenties and Jimmie Rodgers and the Carters and, sadly, the division of the original country musics (plural intended) into the categories of “race music” and “old-time music” for marketing purposes.
But those of us who love music are generally a bunch of contrary cusses, and the listening public was not all that interested in being told what they could listen to based on skin tones. Burns makes a point of highlighting the African American influences on country music — beyond the obvious examples of Charley Pride and Ray Charles. The considerable contributions of Mexican musicians and their styles also gets some long overdue attention.
DeFord Bailey, one of the original headliners of the Grand Ole Opry, c. 1935. [Les Leverett Collection, Grand Ole Opry Archives. Photo courtesy of PBS, All Rights Reserved]
Southern song collector and musician Lesley Riddle, right, with blues artist Brownie McGhee, c. 1935. [The Smith Family. Photo courtesy of PBS, All Rights Reserved]
Burns says he “rejoiced” at the opportunity “to tell a complicated story that shows that almost every phenomenon, not just musical, but every phenomenon in the United States as an alloy stronger because of its constituent parts — and that nothing is ever just one thing.”
“If you look at the early days of country music,” he continues, “you have Jimmie Rodgers, who is influenced entirely by black train crews that he sees in southern Mississippi. And all the other sort of members of Mount Rushmore, if you will — A.P. Carter and Hank Williams and Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash — all have African-American mentors who take their chops from here to up here. And this is a seldom-talked-about but central part of what country music is.”
I was particularly curious to learn why Burns included the North Carolina-born Rhiannon Giddens in his chorus. I had interviewed Giddens in the spring after she performed at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee. We had talked about her first band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and how — from their first album in 2005 — the Drops put the African American roots of country music squarely in the public’s face.
Burns says he chose Rhiannon and Ketch Secor, who founded the Old Crow Medicine Show 21 years ago, for their scholarship.
“They know the most about the earliest periods when there is no one living,” Burns says. “We can't interview Fiddlin’ John Carson or Eck Robertson or Ralph Peer. So what we found in Ketch and Rhiannon, and of course Rosanne and Marty Stuart, are just people who have insisted that they become scholars of what took place then. So they helped us understand it and understand its many roots — that [country music] is an alloy, that every phenomenon in American life is an alloy that is stronger because of its constituent metals, if you will.”
Make no mistake. Burns is out to undo some stereotypes that hang around country music’s neck, stereotypes that infect American culture far beyond the boundaries of country music, or any other genre.
“Particularly today in our divisive times, the idea that you could remove one thing and make it stronger … in fact, the opposite is true,” Burns says. “You remove iron from steel and you've got something much weaker and much more brittle. And I thought that what Rhiannon and Ketch — and many other people, particularly Marty and Rhiannon and Rosanne, but also Merle [Haggard] and Willie [Nelson] — is that they reminded us of this: We're all in this together, that it's a complicated thing.
Rhiannon Giddens and Ketch Secor perform at “Country Music” Live at the Ryman. [Photo Courtesy of Erika Goldring]
“I know you've talked to Rhiannon,” Burns continues, “So the banjo is African. But as she would be the first to say, it's not enough to just point out that it's African. You've got to understand this phenomenon — working people of whatever color contributing their folk idiom to this thing that will eventually become a multi-faceted thing that we now call country music. So it's at the great big bang, as they call it, in Bristol in 1927, where Ralph Peer recorded the Carter Family and then a few days later, Jimmie Rodgers.
“And he sounds nothing like the Carter family. Every other song, he's got the word ‘blue’ or ‘blues’ in it. He's been influenced in one way. And the Carter family, they've been song-catching with Leslie Riddle, an African American musician, and they're of a different tradition. So they don't sound anything alike, and then people go off and grab cowboy songs and western swing and the Bakersfield sound and honky-tonk and rockabilly and the Nashville sound. By the time you get up to the present, it's got 20 different tributaries contributing to this rushing river called country music.”
Aside from providing a thoroughly entertaining romp through our favorite tunes and artists, Burns’ inquiry asks us to ponder basic questions: “What’s country?” and “Who’s country?”
Burns’ film arrives at a time when a larger question — whose country is it? — stands as one of the most daunting challenges to our nation’s health, a hate-fueled sword sharper than any since the Civil War and Reconstruction. “Country Music” offers a way of seeing ourselves – all of us – as necessary elements of a larger whole, and that to cling to illegitimate stereotypes is to deny ourselves a great measure of our common humanity.
Rhiannon Giddens has been busy this year. In February, she released a supergroup collaboration with Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell, and Leyla McCalla under the name “Songs of Our Native Daughters,” a Smithsonian Folkways release that, to my way of thinking, pretty much ended the contest for Album of the Year. Then, the Nashville Ballet debuted “Lucy Negro, Redux,” based on the poetry of Caroline Randall Williams, with live music by Giddens and Italian musician Francesco Turrisi, with subsequent performances at the Big Ears Festival. Later, she appeared at the Grand Ole Opry and Jazz at Lincoln Center in support of Ken Burns’ project. More recently, she wrapped up a tour of the Our Native Daughters band.
Since her emergence as a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Giddens has been at the forefront of a bevy of artists who intend to reclaim country music as part of the African American heritage. You can draw a direct line from the drops to Lil Nas X and his country/trap-hop fandango Old Time Road.
In her current work, she has set her sights on a wider target, building from her contention that music is part of a global flow, that not only is the division of, say, “race” and “old-time” music a fiction created by non-musicians, but that the idea that the musics of Africa, Europe, and the so-called East are all part of a vast tapestry of shared elements.
On May 3, Giddens and Turrisi dropped their first recording together, slyly entitled there is no Other. (Capitalization most decidedly intentional.) This Nonesuch release is an intimate affair, mostly recorded live in the studio, a conversation between multi-instrumentalists from North Carolina and Sicily who have discovered common threads in their musical heritages — tracks like “Wayfaring Stranger,” Oscar Brown’s “Brown Baby,” the operatic aria “Black Swan,” and the Italian traditional “Pizzica di San Vito.”
When I interviewed her in Knoxville, Giddens seemed to catch fire during our conversation. She held forth on a wide range of topics that all managed to connect back to what seems her creed: that we are connected, all of us, in ways that transcend race and geography, and that music is one of the best ways of erasing those false divisions.
“Why do we keep this whole idea of nationalism?” she asked. “It's insidious, and, as we see, it's dangerous. People are killing people over these ideas. So if we can in some small way with our music show people, wow, look at all these connections, look at how effortless this is. The only, only thing that allows me to sleep at night is to feel like I'm contributing to that sort of space.”
That space is where we all should live, but it’s hard to enter that space while holding onto the idea that certain groups of people “own” particular musics, certain instruments, or whole cultures. And that’s where we’ll pick up our conversation.
Rushin: Well, nobody owns anything, but there have been efforts to disown people of parts of their heritage. And the banjo is like …
Giddens: The classic, right?
Rushin: Talking to my wife about this, I said that for you to pick up a banjo in the first place was an extremely radical act. And she said, “Maybe she just wanted to play the banjo,” that it wasn't any kind of concerted effort to make a statement or anything.
Giddens: Well, she's right. I just love the banjo. I fell in love with the sound first. And then there's all this knowledge about it. When I picked up the banjo, I just went, that's really different from the bluegrass banjo, which I knew pretty well. Oh, that rhythm. I love that. It spoke to me.
Rushin: How old were you?
Giddens: I was 20-something, after college. I had heard an old Dolly Parton album, "Little Sparrow," and there's this little clip at the end of "Marry Me." I remember it so well, where this old-time banjo comes on and I'm like, what the hell is that? And then I didn't hear it again for a while. Then, I rediscovered it through contra dance in North Carolina, where I heard a lot of old-time, Round Peak-style banjo. But then I was like, oh, that's like their stuff. Okay, I'm going to sneak my way in here. And then I realize, oh no, actually it's my stuff, too. But it was the sound. I really think that's where authenticity comes from. Does it speak to your heart? Then it will be authentic. Not if you're trying to wage war with it.
Rushin: But you are doing battle with it now. I mean there was a certain point where there had to have been a shift of some sort.
Giddens: Well finding out the black provenance of the banjo was definitely like, "Oh no, they didn't." And then the Chocolate Drops forming was, “Hey, let's pay respect to these black string bands.” That's why I kind of feel for a lot of the people of color who are doing it now, because we had each other in the band. But there hasn't been another black string band since the Chocolate Drops. And I'm sad for that. That was one of the reasons why the idea of Our Native Daughters was so strong to me. It was another moment of … let's all come together here and have this moment together, having moments of being with each other to give each other strength. It doesn't have to be the only thing that we do, but it's an important part too, because the majority have it all the fucking time, pardon my French, they have that feeling all the time.
Rushin: Of belonging.
Giddens: Yeah. I'm not taking away from people feeling alienated for lots of different reasons — gender, religious affiliation, sexuality, whatever. I'm now looking beyond black string band music and the banjo. Meeting Francesco was like, oh, okay, now here's where I'm going with this. There's a bigger story to tell here. Not that the black banjo is not big enough [laughs]. I'm not trying to be grandiose. I'm feeling now the importance of connecting to the larger picture outside of America, because of what's going on, but also just because the story needs to be told. There needs to be as many different ways of telling it as possible. So this is ours. I mean, it's all connected, you know?
Rushin: You can hear it, even in something like the tarantella you played today, which sounded like an Irish piece to me. I'm sitting there, I close my eyes, and I know you're singing Italian, but if I just let that go a little bit, I feel like I'm listening to a really good Irish dance band.
Giddens: And you know why? I'll tell you why. Because of the reduction of our musical narrative. Jigs are seen as Irish, that triplet feeling is seen as Irish. But they exist all over Europe. But it's always, always, always way more complicated. It's like this idea that Irish traditional music is like super-old. It's not. It goes back to all the fiddle music that was across Europe. But people start telling these narratives because they support something else. I'm not coming down on the Irish, because everybody's trying to create … who are we, and what is our thing? But I see the damage that it does when you look at what happened in America and people like Henry Ford hosting fiddle competitions where black people couldn't enter — in places where the best fiddlers were black people. And then record companies creating this “old” and “new” music division, the stuff where they're creating these ads going, "You remember the days of the good old barn dance." Missing completely the irony that a lot of the players and the callers would have been black in a lot of areas. And this is a direct result of a pushback against black jungle music such as jazz and blues. The narratives that are being told can be incredibly damaging.
I just think that wherever we can challenge that, it’s good. Because people think — and it's not to dog on you for hearing that — the narrative that has been taught. I mean, I thought the same thing. I was like, yeah, jigs are Irish, and then I go to an old-time session … and then I realized there's actually jigs in old-time music. There's all this other stuff.
I think what it does is strangle what actually is the story, which is actually much more expansive and human. That the Irish had huge amounts to do with where American music is, that has nothing to do with jigs and reels. It takes away from the actual story. It's way more spread around, like bagpipes in Iran for example. I mean they're everywhere, but the narrative is that they're Scottish, because that's an easily digestible form of culture.
Photos courtesy of Michael Weintrob.
Rushin: One of the things you just said is how it strangles. James Baldwin pointed out in so many ways how the whole effort of whiteness has kind of choked off our world. I grew up about 50 miles east of here until I was 10 or so, and we moved to Connecticut, where I got teased something awful for my accent. This was around the time of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” I couldn't run far enough away from country music and bluegrass. I couldn't think of anything more emblematically white and backward than that, like it was almost a taint to be associated with it. So one thing that your work does that's kind of beautiful is you offer old white guys like me a way back into something that's part of my heritage, too.
Giddens: That's the thing. It's like hearing the Tarantella as Irish. What you're hearing is the global nature of the music. What we call it is the issue here. When you find out that the history is much more varied than you knew, you also find out who decided to make that narrative and why. And that to me is the power of knowing. Because it's not like it just happened. No, no, no. It's always somebody who makes it happen. There was a common Southern repertoire between black and white sting bands. Everybody played the same shit. Maybe they played slightly different flavors, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
But then, you're trying to sell it, right? You're trying to put it in a box. And then you have at the same time the rise of the nationalist agenda because they couldn't stand the idea of blacks having any kind of power or any kind of a narrative in an American story. So that was a confluence of events that obliterated the black history of the music. And so then you're running away from it because it's this idea of …
Rushin: Not wanting to be part of it?
Giddens: Yeah. Because it's white. It's like whiiiiiiiite, you know what I mean? Which is an oppressive thing.
As we continued to talk, our conversation soon boiled itself down to a critical point: how the dominant narratives keep exploited communities — poor whites, poor blacks, and poor everyone — from recognizing their common interests.
Giddens: It's always like that, because they always outnumber the rich people. There's letters of plantation owners writing to each other going, this is how you keep your poor whites and your blacks at each other's throats. I mean, they knew exactly what they were doing. This is what I tried to tell people. I'm like, don't feel bad about not knowing this. They have had this on the go since the beginning. This is what power structures do. They want to keep their power. And I'm like, once you know that, then you go, okay, we're all in this together. Like this is not us against you. This is Oh, we were all snookered, we are all snookered now, to keep us down here. That's always what I'm trying to do.
When I was invited to talk to the IBMA [Giddens delivered the keynote address at the 2017 International Bluegrass Music Association conference], that was my one goal. We should just be like, look, y'all, they're taking us away from all of us. It's not just us feeling disenfranchised. Y'all should feel shitty, too, because the real story actually shows how we've come together as a people. How the South is actually (a place of) of inclusion when you look at our cultural artifacts — and one of exclusion when you look at our power structures. And where did the power structures come from?
I mean, I'm no scholar. I just see what I've seen and tried to put it together in a way that makes sense. It is not something where we just wake up going, “You know what, I'm just going to be racist today.” We're taught this, and our structures are supporting it. And if we realize we can free ourselves from that …. We do it with music. We do it with food, and we do it with art. And so this is why I think all artists should be doing this. I mean, this is what art is for, this is what it does, this is where it thrives.
Rushin: So you are on a kind of war path.
Giddens: If not now, when?
In 2007, Giddens married Irish musician Michael Laffan and had two children. Although she and Laffan are now separated, she still spends much of her time in Ireland.
Rushin: Do you feel like things in America are different-looking from Ireland? Does it look like things have changed in any way that's appreciable in the last 10 to 15 years?
Giddens: I think what's happening on the big scale in terms of our policies, in terms of our politics, I think it's gotten far worse. Over the last 40 years, it's been a con. Money took over. It's been a slow, sometimes not so slow, downhill ride to where we are today. Our tax rates, the corporate power. Those things have gotten really, really bad. But in terms of what's happening with people, I think I'm seeing levels of scholarship that are better and better. I see people being racially conscious, being contextualized, being really aware of all these aspects when they write history. I mean, there's amazing books being published. There are amazing allies. There are people like Paul Vasterling who reads a book like Lucy Negro Redux and wants to make it a ballet. People at Spoleto Festival who hired me to write an opera about a Muslim scholar who was sold into slavery and ended up in North Carolina. The Smithsonian, who says make a record and don’t pull any punches. That's amazing.
The uncovering of the strong white nationalists and white supremacists around the country, people think this is new. And I'm like, honey, this has been around forever. They just hid it for a good long time when it wasn't okay. And now it's okay. So I'm like, great: Flip up the carpet and see what's under there. Don't smile at me and then call me a name when you turn your back. Call it to my face. You know, it's dangerous, but when has it not been dangerous? It's dangerous to be a black woman and have a baby, right? We pulled down the national birth rates of the country because the outcomes for black women are so bad. We're like 14th of first world nations in maternal mortality. That's ridiculous. So it's dangerous anyway.
Rhiannon Giddens performs at “Country Music” Live at the Ryman. [Photo Courtesy of Erika Goldring]
Rushin: So where do you find hope?
Giddens: I'm hopeful in a lot of ways because I'm seeing a lot of people waking up and going, oh my God, this is our country. And I'm like, yes, this is our country in all of its horribleness, but also all of its glory. How can you expect a country that was based on genocide and slavery to be anything other than what it is? The miracle is that we have all of these beautiful things happening in spite of it. This is what we need to draw strength from because it's very easy to become very depressed. I'm looking at the state of our environment and I literally am almost losing it every day. Even sitting here having an interview when our whole civilization could collapse in 50 years. But then what do you do? All you can do is say we have to pull it together, we have to not lose hope because once you do that, then it's toast.
And so what we're doing as a part of the larger scheme is we have to be reminded that we are stronger together. That's why Southern culture is so strong, because there were people living together and you just had to make it work. That's how we're going to address the larger things. We have to get our house in order. I don't know what else to do.
Rushin: So is that what the music really is for, to give people that sense of connection and hope? Is that the value of it?
Giddens: This is the story I like most when I have my moments of, well, should I be delivering aid in the Congo or whatever. Dirk Powell [who produced “Songs of Our Native Daughters”] told me this: He plays with Joan Baez, and she recorded the Richard Fariña song "Birmingham Sunday." And [U.S. Senator] Doug Jones, who was one of the lawyers who went after the KKK on that case, he worked really hard to bring those guys to justice. And he listened to that song every day. He was working on that case, and it gave him strength and they put those guys behind bars and then look at where he is now. Senator Jones.
So how can we not say what we're doing is important. We don't know what kind of Doug Jones moment might happen with what we're doing. And for that reason alone, we should do what we're doing. Because everybody has their part to play. The doctor that's working, what are they listening to? The politician who's actually trying to do something was inspired by art installation that they saw and they are going to change a law. I mean it's part of our human condition. Always has been.
Rob Rushin has contributed to The Bitter Southerner for four years now. Two weeks before he traveled to Knoxville to interview Rhiannon Giddens for this story, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Angioimmunoblastic T-Cell Lymphoma. Five days later, he began chemotherapy. Then, five months later, he interviewed Ken Burns by phone from the lobby Shands Hospital at the University of Florida. Five minutes after they said goodbye, he began a rigorous regimen of stem-cell transplantation. Regardless of the method you choose to send healing energy, the entire Bitter Southerner crew hopes you will put it to use in Rob’s direction. You can follow his progress on his website, Immune to Boredom.