Documentarian Ken Burns delivers an extraordinary series, Country Music, that holds up a mirror to reflect the people and country we were and are. Diligent research, photographic and film archives, interviews and performances make it clear—this genre of music represents many cultures within our nation.
The story encompasses 70 years, from the 1920s to the mid-1990s. During that time, musical instruments originating in Europe and Africa found adopted homes in the social and cultural environments of the rural Southern United States and Appalachia, before spreading westward through Oklahoma, Texas, the Mexican border and eventually to California. Tunes became infused with the playing of fiddles, guitars and other stringed instruments, as well as with gospel, to lift the spirits and bodies of disenfranchised and hard-working people worn down by their day’s labor. The stories told through song reveal the trademarks of human experience, some of it very difficult.
As the country went through its own growing pains during the 20th century, so did country music—reinventing itself often. Many artists rebelled and sought experimentation and inclusion, both musically and culturally, allowing the tent to become large enough for all. The music not only survived, but thrived and was revitalized.
But country music was not without its casualties. Many performers suffered extreme poverty growing up. Haunted by trauma, alcohol and pills, some could not escape their wounds and unrelenting demons. To their credit, these courageous and sensitive men and women were able to capture—through their plaintive lyrics, expressive voices, harmonies and melodies—the sadness and joy of their imperfect lives, live, on the phonograph record and over the airwaves. Their gift—a collective reflection and remembrance for their listeners and a reminder of our own common humanity.
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