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‘Country Music’: From Johnny Cash to Racism, Ken Burns’ New Docuseries Rubs Between Fact and Lore

Rosanne Cash, Marty Stuart, and producers spoke to IndieWire about making the eight-part miniseries for PBS.

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash

Sony Music Archives

Musician Rosanne Cash is used to speaking about her father Johnny Cash. After all, she’s been living in his shadow her entire life and even wrote a memoir in 2010 that in part examines her rocky relationship with him. But for Ken Burns’ new miniseries “Country Music” – which details the creation of modern country music – she was unprepared for the emotional journey that revisiting the past would bring.

“Well, some places they went were painful like, ‘What did you sing at your dad’s deathbed?'” Rosanne Cash told IndieWire. “I think that was the first time I told that.”

“Country Music,” delves into these details – not to mine personal tragedy – but to highlight the often complex and tumultuous lives that these legends in the industry led. So much heartache, loneliness, and yes, drama, made headlines and yet simultaneously fueled art.

Straight From the Musician’s Mouth

There’s an additional storytelling benefit, however, to learning that Cash chose to sing “The Winding Stream” for her father’s last moments. The Carter family tune brings the eight-part docuseries full circle to the infancy of country music, which is detailed in the early episodes. This song choice highlights just how influential the Carters were, how their music continues to pop up, and how the family has touched Cash beyond just having a stepmother in June Carter Cash.

It’s what Cash calls “bedrock” music, the foundation of so much country music. And it’s this inborn knowledge and reverence for the bedrock melodies and musical stylings that inspired the “Country Music” producers to lean so heavily on using music industry greats as the talking heads. The docuseries is filled with dozens of singers, songwriters, session musicians, and producers, but only one featured historian, Bill Malone.

“It was a process of realizing that there’s probably a lot of people we we’re going to interview that are historians and then realizing in a way you didn’t really need them because everybody at every age, in every type of country music, seemed to be possessed of the photo album of their history,” said Burns. “They had been looking through it and they felt that they could respond to those things…We didn’t need the scaffolding that scholarly undergirding might represent. In fact, it is better to get it from the people who played [the songs or venues] or met the person and talk to them about how they did it.”

“[The history] has been family talk for me since 1968. This is the world I wanted to be a part of,” said Grammy winning singer-songwriter Marty Stuart. “I started with Lester Flatt when I was 13 so everything that we’ve talked about was just like almost like family stories that I’ve carried. I mean, I’ve lived it through. Those people are still is alive to me in my heart as they were when they were here.”

Facts vs. Lore

Marty Stuart and Rosanne Cash

Marty Stuart and Rosanne Cash

Rahoul Ghose/PBS

Of course, this is the ongoing struggle of the documentarian: the balance of documented facts vs. personal accounts. And while Cash was lending a note of authenticity to the proceedings, she wanted to be sure that “Country Music” spoke to all the right people.

“I was reserved at first. I was a little suspicious because I didn’t know if they had the background or the understanding of what they were going to do,” she said. “I completely underestimated their devotion to their own research and their skills there, how much time and effort they put into it, and how much they wanted to hear from people actually in the music, musicians and people in the music business to know who to even talk to. So I was more and more impressed the longer it went on.”

Dayton Duncan, who wrote “Country Music” and the companion book, went to scholars first before taking a stab at summarizing the history of this American genre. But they also offered critical feedback.

“If you look in the back of this book [at the bibliography], you’ll see a couple hundred books that are part of the backbone of what we do, and it doesn’t even count newspaper articles and interviews that have happened,” he said. “Then we also had about 15 or so advisers to the film who are experts on this. They would read an early iteration of the script, send us their comments, what we were screwing up and what they thought we were getting right. Then as we started making the film, we’d invite them to come to look and go through the same process. You do the best you can.”

Burns added, “By the end they were saying things like, ‘You know, I learned a lot of stuff that I didn’t know. And could you just say that this [song] was co-written by Tim Dubois?’ Just make sure that the co-writers are credited.’ We were happy to do that.”

The Storytelling Lie: Subjectivity and Faulty Memories

Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart at the Grand Ole Opry

Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart at the Grand Ole Opry

Bill Thorup, courtesy Grand Ole Opry Archives

The actual musicians who came onto the project were also able to help bridge the gap between these facts and the lore. Country music is rife with storytelling, and it’s just natural that some stories become more important that the actual way that events happen. Songwriter Harland Howard had once said, “Country music is three chords and the truth. In the series, Texan singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell said, “Country music at its best is truth-telling even when it’s a big fat lie.”

Embracing country music means to embrace the storytelling, and thus it honors the colorful yarns spun and larger-than-life figures.

“I listened to Sam [Phillips] tell how he discovered Elvis. The truth was better than anything Sam ever told, but that nobody was going to go, ‘Sam, that’s not how it happened.'” said Stuart. “One thing that I love about country music, probably more so than any other culture – maybe the blues rivals it – there are so many American folk heroes. There’s the Coal Miner’s Daughter, the Man in Black, the Red-Headed Stranger, and on and on. They didn’t become folk heroes by pure myth; the thing I love is all of those people were voted in by the people.

“Most of the people in this country music film were those kinds of people. They represented their families, they represented their communities, their cultures, their farms, their blue-collar jobs. Those people voted them in and they trusted them with their hearts.”

Personal memory can be faulty though, and sometimes even the storyteller has been convinced of their own story. In the series, Stuart reveals that as a pre-teen, he had attended a concert by Connie Smith, met her briefly, and vowed he’d marry her someday. Twenty-five years later, those words came true. It’s a great story, and mainly true except for one fact.

“I’ve always told that I was 12 years old [at the concert]. We were spot-checking, and they said I was 11 years old. I said, ‘I think you’re wrong. I was 12.’ They looked at me and said, ‘No, you’re wrong. We did the math, and you were 11.’ They taught me about my own life, and so I appreciated that. I was wrong.”

Burns does acknowledge though the temptation and pitfalls of believing the lore, no matter how well-established.

“Time Magazine used to have a phrase: That’s a fact too good to check. We have learned over the years is much better to check even if it destabilizes a good scene to add the complexity of what’s true,” he said. “Part of the reason this is eight and a half years of work is because we don’t want to continue to promote either superficial or factually inaccurate stuff.

“Now, are there mistakes? I bet you there are. But we’ve worked pretty damn hard in all of our films not to do that,” he continued. “In ‘Baseball,’ for example, we promoted a trope that turned out not to be true, that took us 20 years to understand. But Pee-Wee Reese did not put his arm around Jackie Robinson in the famous first trip to Cincinnati where racists were everywhere. It’s not in his autobiography, it’s not in the black press. So we had a chance in our biography on Jackie to sort of correct that and say, ‘You know, it’s just white people wanting skin… in the game,’ and this myth grows up. So we’ve tried to free ourselves of the tyranny of just passing along the apocryphal.

“You learn and sometimes you actually have to say, ‘We disagree.’ This is not a scholarly text,” said Burns. “At the same time, our inclination is drawing us in this direction, and we do feel that it’s worth having a six-minute section on ‘Long Black Veil’ to the exclusion of couple of other big ballad things.”

The Black Influence and Presence

The Grand Ole Opry (left) and Charley Pride (right)

The Grand Ole Opry (left) and Charley Pride (right)

PBS

The origins of country music can’t ignore the black influence, and the first episode is even titled “The Rub,” referring to the friction or rubbing between black and white America. For example, the banjo is seen as a classic country music instrument, and it was descended from the African lute that was made from gourds. “Country music comes from the south because that’s where slavery happened,” the series says.

In the series, only a handful of black country music performers are highlighted, and the common denominator in these stories is how race became an issue in their success and how they were perceived. Of course, standouts like Charley Pride and Carolina Chocolate Drops frontwoman Rhannon Giddens have been embraced in the field, but it still feels as if inclusion is still the exception. Although the series doesn’t venture far past 1996, one wonders how it would’ve handled the importance of someone like Lil Nas X – an out and proud gay black rapper who topped the country charts with his remix of his song “Old Town Road” with Billy Ray Cyrus.

Cash acknowledges how the personal accounts can color the story, but emphasizes that some facts just cannot be ignored, even by those who’d wish otherwise.

“My own experience can’t help but color what I put out there. They were very generous and had respect about wanting to see through that prism, but everybody had it through their own prism,” she said. “Facts are facts obviously – although today we are told they’re not – but they are. Seeing those facts through how they influenced different musicians and also the cohesion of how they told the story – bringing together Appalachian music and Bob Wills and Bakersfield and the African banjo and early folk music – all were put into the piece.”

Early setbacks for black artists are given a passing mention, before the series moves on. African-American musician DeFord Bailey was the first musician to be introduced on the Grand Ole Opry radio program and its first black performer when it became a stage show. When he went on tour, many of his fellow white performers had to stick by him when he was refused service because of his race. But in 1941, during the height of the licensing wars, he refused to learn non-ASCAP songs and was promptly fired. Judge George Hay, who had first hired Bailey, wrote off his longtime colleague, saying, “Like many of his race, he was lazy.”

“One thing we also wanted to avoid is ever being didactic as if we had an underlying political… agenda, or at least switch from narrative into expository ‘thou shall or thou shall not.’ In the genre of documentary, these are challenging ruts to avoid,” said Burns.

“[We wanted to avoid] putting your thumb on the scale and point a neon sign saying what a racist Hay is. We trust our audience to be able to wrestle with themselves, the affection they develop for him if they had, and then the repulsion, which we hope they have for this statement.”

Although “Country Music” doesn’t delve much deeper to examine the everyday racism in the music and its greatest stars, the truth lies in the present day. The mingling of cultures brought about this new genre, and yet, it’s evolved to forget and exclude African Americans. Or perhaps black America has decided to leave country music behind.

Can the Circle Be Unbroken

The-Carter-Family-and-Johnny-Cash-June-Carter

The Carter Family (left), Johnny Cash and June Carter (right)

Carter Family Museum, Sony

There’s no arguing that the history of country music is complicated and messy, but the series offers the genre a legitimacy that hadn’t previously been afforded. It’s not just sad songs about a woman leaving a man and taking his pickup truck, a BBQ stain on a white t-shirt, or any other glib punchlines about its subject matter.

“[Everyone] ended up feeling vindicated that a music that they love, that had been their life’s work either as scholars or performers or singers or journalists, was suddenly being given a kind of legitimate justification for their work. They hadn’t seen that before,” said Burns. “Being a country music scholar is to invite the worst sort of opprobrium from the real scholars who wouldn’t ever dare to stoop to something so common or bottom up as that.”

Stuart appreciates how the series legitimizes country music for the community (“This film has to be a victory for them.”) and the overall culture of country music. But as much as the past influences him, he hopes that the series revives those same stories for the next generation.

“It informs the new country artists that probably don’t know why they’re there in the first place and thinks that country music started with whoever in 1990. It gives them an inside look in into the world. My point has always been whether it’s Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers or the Carter Family or Jimmie Rogers or Luke Combs or Chris Stapleton or Taylor Swift – it doesn’t matter.

“Just get in and start looking around and you’ll find something that applies to your life. If not now, wait till your first divorce comes along, or the first train runs over you or something. It truly speaks to the human condition.”

Watch a trailer for the docuseries:

“Country Music” airs at 8 p.m. ET over eight nights, beginning Sunday, Sept. 15 – Wednesday, Sept. 18 and continuing the following week Sunday, Sept. 22 – Wednesday, Sept. 25.

Additional reporting by Steve Greene.

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