The month of October belongs to horror movies and November (Noirvember) belongs to film noir, but all my well-intentioned plans for a celebration of these films threatens to be derailed by a slim 66-year old man who stands a modest 5’ 7”. Two nights ago, I watched “The Rub (Beginnings to 1933),” the first episode in Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns, and right now it’s all I can think about. Thanks, Ken, for derailing my well-laid plans.
In this first installment of the eight-part series that aired on PBS last month (and is now streaming on Kanopy), Burns examines the unlikely beginnings of country music in America, an art form that draws from European folks songs and poetry, African music, Civil War songs, hymns, blues, and much more. I won’t get into details or particulars, but Burns does his usual masterful job of taking enormous subjects, boiling them down to their basic components, and delivering a cause-and-effect timeline that is both fascinating and entertaining. Everything in this initial episode culminates in the stories of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rogers, two cornerstone acts in country music that (perhaps miraculously) converged at the same place at the same time.
Full stop. 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have given a rip about any of this. I grew up in Mississippi where I was surrounded, perhaps even engulfed, by country music. I detested the stuff and fled from it at every opportunity. Thinking it was totally primitive and embarrassing, I ran in two vastly different directions in order to escape it: rock ’n roll and classical music, listening to Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith, Beethoven and Dvořák in (not quite) equal measure.
Thanks to working in my dad’s grocery store, I saw “country” people on a regular basis. They’d enter the store, usually on Saturdays, in overalls, dusty blue jeans, sometimes even wearing straw hats. I shouldn’t have, but I made fun of them, at least in my mind. Maybe I was arrogant enough to think I was better than them and their music, or maybe they reminded me that I really wanted to be somewhere else (although I had no idea where that was). I was uninterested in their fiddles, hoedowns, and square dances. I was offended to see Country and Western acts on TV shows, with performers in sparkling, gaudy outfits, women with big hair, and musicians who had the unmitigated gall to use electric guitars, instruments that belonged to rock ’n roll! As I grew older, I was (barely) able to tolerate the occasional country crossover song, but by and large, forget it.
I had to leave the South to fall in love with country music.
Well, the Deep South, anyway. When my wife and I moved to Maryland (technically south of the Mason-Dixon line) in 2000, I began checking out music CDs at my local library. I’m not sure I can tell you why, perhaps for a laugh. For some reason, I picked up a disc called Worried Man Blues by the Carter Family and that was it. I was done.
The Carter Family hit me with a frenzy of punches to the gut until I was kneeling in the dust, overcome with the power of their songs and especially their performances of them. They were unpolished and ragged, something that would’ve offended me as a band director seeking to teach precision, good intonation, and balance every time I stepped in front of my bands. But the raw power of these performances demanded your attention. These were not finely-tuned artistic expressions; these were in-your-face songs filled with damnation and salvation, utterly sobering and sometimes bordering on the apocalyptic.
Sara Carter’s voice was so thick with Appalachia (“thar” for “there”), but I didn’t dare laugh. The songs were so richly rooted in theology and sadness, longing and pain, yet often with a hope for the future that the present showed no evidence of ever delivering. If you can listen to “Single Girl, Married Girl” or “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?” and not reach for a box of Kleenex, I salute you. Yet other songs are full of hope, looking forward to better days, the promise of salvation, or both.
As I was listening, I just assumed that there were two guitars on each track and was astounded to discover that Maybelle Carter (Sara’s first cousin) was playing the melody with her thumb and strumming the chords with her fingers, all at the time time. And although he didn’t sing a lot, the warbling voice of Sara’s husband A.P. Carter added an otherworldly element to the recordings. These songs seemed ancient, yet relevant. I listened to them over and over. I think I might’ve obsessed over them.
I read a book on the Carter Family titled Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? by Mark Zwoniter and Charles Hirshberg, learning about their rise to fame as country music’s First Family, and the tragic manner in which the family was ripped apart. One scene (which I won’t disclose in detail) involves Sara making a surprising announcement on live radio that devastated everyone, including me.
I went back to the library and found recordings of other country artists: Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams (Sr.), and Bob Wills, just to name a few. I discovered more artists and songs when I lucked upon a Smithsonian set of 4 CDs called simply Classic Country Music. It was like discovering gold, but when the collection moved into the mid-1970s and early 1980s, I quickly lost interest. It seemed that most of the country music that connected with me appeared from its beginnings up until the mid-1960s, about the time the Beatles came on the scene.
I can’t tell you why I denied myself the opportunity to discover these songs when I actually lived in the South. (I even lived in Meridian, Mississippi for three years and never visited the Jimmie Rodgers Museum.) Maybe I had to remove myself from that element to really appreciate country music. I found then, and still find, that the brokenness of humanity is reflected in those songs in a similar way (yet delivered in a very different package) as it is presented in film noir. It’s not a perfect correlation, but if you took the characters from most film noir movies and placed them in a room with characters from classic country music, I’ll bet they’d have a lot to talk about.
So once again, thank you, Ken Burns, for turning my plans of horror and film noir upside down, at least for the next week or so while I take a deep dive into both the roots of country music and myself.
Photos: PBS, Collectors Weekly, Dolly Parton, Britannica,