Ken Burns has told stories about the most important parts of American life. His eleven-hour documentary The Civil War is the definitive film on the subject; Baseball, clocking in at eighteen and a half hours, tells the full story of America’s pastime. His work treats life and death events like the wars that shaped our nation and the cultural phenomena that define who we are as people as equally important, and equally deserving of our time and attention.
The latest cultural force to come under Burns’s historian lens is country music, in an eight-part documentary of the same name that’s airing on PBS from now until September 25. Country Music tells the story of the evolution of an American method of storytelling that’s captured the world’s imagination, and—of course—has deep roots in Texas. In an attempt to unfurl country music’s story fully, Burns also necessarily tells some parts that have been minimized in the past: the interplay between country music and jazz, the importance of African American musicians in creating country music, and the way that the whole history of the form, from the Carter Family to Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and even on to Taylor Swift, is about both defying precedent and honoring tradition at the same time.
We caught up with Burns to learn what makes Country Music a story worth telling—and the outsized role that Texas played in developing the form.
Texas Monthly: I think the thing that our readers most want to know is: which is better, Texas or Nashville country music?
Ken Burns: I think what is proven by our series, episode after episode after episode, is that Texas has produced a disproportionate number of extraordinary singer-songwriters, from the beginning to the end of the whole history of country music, and they have added immeasurably to its story and to its legacy. You’ve got Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark and Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings and Ernest Tubb and—the list is literally endless. And we had a great delight in telling the story.
TM: How much does geography matter in the history of country music, especially when you go back further? Were there big differences regionally between what was happening in North Carolina versus Texas versus Tennessee?
KB: Very much. We tend to think of country music as all one thing, but it’s never been all one thing. It hasn’t been since the beginning. In the beginning, the Big Bang is always attributed to the recording, in successive weeks in 1927, in Bristol, Tennessee, of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Now the Carter family are like Sunday morning, right? Home, family values, church. Jimmie Rodgers is a rogue and a scamp, and it’s definitely Saturday night. Their music doesn’t sound anything alike. And then from there they went on to add other things. So yes, the Carters come from the tradition of lower Appalachia string music. Later on, you’re going to have a more Northern Appalachian sound that’s going to come out of Kentucky, which is going to be string bands that really evolved, through the genius of Bill Monroe, into bluegrass. From the Deep South—from Mississippi and Alabama—you’ve got Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. All of their music, by the way, suffused with African American mentors and prodigies. Bill Monroe, A.P. Carter, Jimmie Rodgers, and Hank Williams—not to mention Johnny Cash—all had significant African American mentors. And of course the banjo, one of the two central instruments in country music with the fiddle, is an African instrument. So while we like to segregate and silo all these different musics, you realize there are no borders.
After the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers record Appalachian strings and blues from the Deep South, you then add Western Swing. Bob Wills is from Texas. You go out and do Gene Autry, who’s from Oklahoma, but popularizing in Hollywood a kind of cowboy song. You’ve got stuff that’s incubating in Nashville that is a hybrid of all of those things, because the Grand Ole Opry is sampling every kind of music, and celebrating every kind of country music tradition. And then you’ve got the Bakersfield sound that goes up in the Central Valley in California, mostly from the refugees of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, like the Maddox Brothers & Rose, and Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and later their champion, Dwight Yoakam. You have the Judds, who come out of Northern Appalachia. You’ve got a lot of different places, and each one of those geographies adds to the increasingly wide and diverse big, big river of country music.
TM: How long did it take before they were all talking to each other?
KB: Almost immediately. You realize that the advent of what we consider the birth of country music, even though its roots go back a couple of centuries in the United States, and many, many centuries, to Europe, and the Scotch-Irish, and Welsh, and English—as well as the African influence that I mentioned before—you’ve got the birth of radio that’s occurring, and so people are hearing all of this together. You’ve got these barn dance shows—the biggest one is in Chicago on WLS which is owned by Sears and WLS stands for, well, “World’s Largest Store.” You’ve got WSB in Atlanta: “Welcome South Brother.” You’ve got WLS owned by an insurance company the National Accident Life and Insurance Company in Nashville, which has WSM—”We Shield Millions.” That’s their slogan, and they’re putting on a barn dance show that they hope will help their salesmen who are out on the road trying to sell policies to people. And it does. It works really, really well. And one night after WSM has brought in a broadcaster from New York City of classical music, the announcer says, “Well, you’ve just heard grand old opera—now you’re going to hear Grand Ole Opry.” And an African American harmonica player starts playing a train song with his harmonica, DeFord Bailey. One of the most popular and most frequent guests in the early days of the Grand Ole Opry.
The salesmen, they got a 15,000-watt signal, and it made Nashville, because it was a centrally located place. You played for relatively little bucks on Saturday night on the Opry, thirty or forty different acts, and then you went on the road and you just had to get back there the following Saturday night. Those road gigs were better paying, but they were on the road. So Nashville became an attraction for artists who can appear on the Opry, and become guests there. It attracted songwriters like Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, and then producers like Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley, and what you have is essentially Nashville kind of accidentally-on-purpose becoming Music City USA.
People started going to Nashville from every corner, and Texas is sending lots of them. Waylon Jennings, he goes to Nashville and takes over. He changes the rules by which artists operate. Willie Nelson goes to Nashville, spends years there and can’t get anywhere, and finally goes back to his native Texas, where he’s always been beloved, and finally breaks out. You should see what they tried to do to Willie, in terms of fitting this round peg into a square hole. He got drunk one night at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Broadway, and went out and lay down in the middle of the highway expecting to be run over. He woke up a few hours later, still alive, and packed up his stuff and headed back to Texas. He’d been a good songwriter—of course he’s the author of “Crazy,” for Patsy Cline, the number one jukebox tune of all time—but he finally breaks out after years of frustration. So you’ve got stories of people relating to, or against, what Nashville was doing. Waylon went in there and said, “Look, we’re going to do it on our terms,” and the outlaw movement was born. And Willie’s part of that—he really said, “I just can’t crack it,” and left Nashville. And then there’s modern antecedents. Dolly Parton left for L.A. management, and said “I’m not leaving Nashville, I’m taking it with me.” Taylor Swift, more recently—and she’s not part of our film, we end in the mid-nineties—said that she was now not identifying as country but as something more broad and general. And all of this has been going on from the very beginning.
TM: How do you contextualize the outlaws in the grand scheme of country music? How much did they change what came after?
KB: When you see the series, you’ll see that it’s all about this. The radical change that the Carters and Jimmie Rodgers represented, and the commercialization of cowboy music broadening the audience. And then what Western swing was about, in relation to the swing movement that was taking place all across the country, with brass instruments—so jazz now had fiddles. And so you can see Waylon and the outlaw movement in the context of yet another revolution that seems to be overthrowing the old order, but in some ways is also going back and celebrating the past—which was this fiercely independent streak of authentic music. So Waylon and Willie are outlaws from doing it a certain Nashville way with a smooth and polished sound—they would say overproduced—they wanted something raw.
But country music is always doing that. It’s a big inhalation and exhalation of experimentation, and then a desire to get back to the roots. What’s happening when Waylon comes along is that you’re starting to have the beginnings of phenomenal success—that is to say, records selling a million copies, which was unheard of in that time. Red Headed Stranger by Willie . . . you know they thought they’d humor Willie and let it die a thousand deaths? All the executives thought, “This is just terrible stuff and it will, like all the other things Willie has done, not do well,” and then it sold so phenomenally. They thought he would now be pliable and they could get him to do the things they wanted, and then all of a sudden he was now fully Willie Nelson and fully his own. And and the story of Waylon is just another chapter in that trying to find what artistically is right for you, and sometimes that’s going against the prevailing commercial winds of the day.
TM: When we talk about Texas country music, we’re often talking about the outlaw movement. But you can trace it back to at least Bob Wills. Are there common threads in what defines Texas country music from Bob Wills to Waylon and Willie and on to George Strait, or even more recent artists?
KB: George Strait has got one kind of music. You’ve got Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell, and they’re sort of on the edges of art and commerce. You have Willie and Waylon and their experiences—and really outlaw was born in Nashville, as a kind of rebellion against Nashville, but it’s certainly born of Texas—and I don’t think there’s anything that unites them other than this drive and their ambition to share these kind of universal stories and universal truths with the rest of us and do it in different ways than they’ve ever done.
Texas is so central to this story, I think particularly today, when our tribal instincts may have gotten the better of us. Let’s remember what Willie did in Austin. He was getting redneck truck drivers and long-haired hippies to party together at his Fourth of July bashes. Austin City Limits, the oldest running music show on television, is a place where people’s music could come together. And it didn’t have to self-select the way we do now, particularly in an internet age. And I think the message of country music is that we’re interested in telling stories of those people who feel like their stories haven’t been told, and these people can often be seduced by demagogues, as opposed to being seduced by the art itself. And that’s where I think country music play could play a large role, in reminding us that we’re all part of the same family. And it just so happens a lot of folks in that family come from Texas.