This latest series, which took eight years to produce, continues his investigation into peacetime American culture, and is as comprehensive as his previous works, aiming to explain almost a century of music, from the genre’s origins, via the singing cowboy genre, bluegrass and honky-tonk, Nashville and more, through to today’s American superstars.
Like his previous works, a personal interest in the subject is not a necessity to enjoy Country Music, especially the early episodes, which focus on the birth of “America’s music”, which arose from the amalgamation of cultures and instruments which seem so very distant when looking at today’s glossy, largely white output.
Burns traces the genre’s early days from the 1920s, growing out of America’s South and a divided nation: the (arguably overlooked) influence of black music, arising from the riverboats and plantations (the banjo, of course originating in Africa) coupled with the fiddle’s European origins, a popular instrument among the rural poor. Interestingly, the first few episodes reveal some early “cultural appropriation”, with musicians playing up to the “hillbilly” image, such as Fiddling John Carson, one of the first artists to cash in on the “down home” image.
It’s a shame Burns doesn’t give more time to exploring how integral the African-American roots were to country music – and how, and why, they were gradually left behind. There are some references to these origins (and the racist minstrel shows of the era), and a decent section dedicated to black country singer Charley Pride, but it feels somewhat lacking.
Perhaps had the series encompassed the last couple of years, we might have heard from African-American artists such as Lil Nas X, whose mega-hit Old Town Road was removed from Billboard’s Country charts because it lacked “elements of today’s country music”. Which opens up the questions of just what the elements of country music are.
It remains a genre that doesn’t seem able to shake off its early origins of being designated “white music” when record companies began creating genres for marketing, “hillbilly music” for the white audiences and gospel and blues, or “race music” for black listeners.
As quoted often in Burns’ series (which features country legends such as Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams jnr and Kris Kristofferson, among others), songwriter Harlan Howard famously described country songs as “three chords and the truth”, but the truth can seem murky.