Country Music and Race: Something Seems Missing in Ken Burns’ Latest

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Hank Williams, Jr. and Charley Pride (L–R) both appear in Ken Burns' new documentary, 'Country Music.' Like many country stars, Williams' famous father learned from black musicians; Pride, however, remains one of the very few black stars in the music's history.  (Chip Somodevilla / Erika Goldring / Getty Images)

Over its 16-hour run time, Ken Burns' documentary Country Music lends dignity and credibility to a genre often denigrated. And just as importantly, it elevates lesser-known figures, delving into a deeper history of country beyond its household names.

But what will surely have people talking is the way the documentary treats race in country music. Specifically, its genesis as a cross-cultural collaboration across racial lines. Within the first five minutes of the debut episode, the documentary credits both enslaved people and those living in border barrios as sources of country music, and emphasizes that the banjo—a key instrument in the genre—came to the southern United States from Africa.

“It's not like we discovered that there's deep roots that include black music that are part of country,” said Dayton Duncan, Burns' writer and co-producer on the film, when I met with him and Burns in San Francisco. “It's just there, in plain sight. But the common stereotype of country music is that it is only white music for white people. It's become so encrusted. And I hope our film will show us that's just as much of an unfair stereotype as any other unfair stereotype.”

Still, from the start of Country Music, there's a power imbalance. We learn that one of the music's biggest stars, Fiddlin' John Carson, performed at Ku Klux Klan rallies. When record producer Ralph Peer went to Atlanta after the success of Mamie Smith's “Crazy Blues” to record more black artists, he instead was encouraged to record Carson, a white man, singing “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane,” a song romanticizing slave life. Meanwhile, Stephen Foster wrote songs for minstrel shows with blackface performers that sold a sentimental version of the antebellum South. Emmett Miller, a blackface performer, recorded the first version of Hank Williams' hit “Lovesick Blues.”

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns backstage at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, July 24, 2019.
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns backstage at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, July 24, 2019. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

What to do with all of this? For Ken Burns, it means asking a handful of black artists to comment about it on camera: Charley Pride, Rihannon Giddens, Darius Rucker, Wynton Marsalis. Much of what they say in the film is about the uniting power of music, and not about the dividing nature of systemic racism in America.

When I met with Burns and Duncan, I wanted to know, especially after watching the documentary's first episode: What happened?

Country music is an almost entirely white genre now. The number of high-charting black country artists can be counted on one hand, and some of them, most recently Lil Nas X, have faced overt resistance from the country music establishment. How did the African American influence in the music, and its help in creating its coalesced sound, give way so easily to overwhelmingly white country stars?

The answer, not fully explored in the remaining 14 hours of Country Music, falls mostly to marketing, according to Duncan.

“Once music became commercialized, it was easier to say, 'Oh, here are the race records,' which meant this is music made by African Americans for an African-American audience, and 'here is the hillbilly music,' and that's made by white artists for white people. On those two styles of music in particular, it was bifurcated really early,” Duncan said. “The truth is that it was more for commerce and convenience. We create certain categories, and we try to organize it a certain way. And some of that is necessary, some of it is good, and some of it can be distorting and bad, and even evil.”


Burns has first-person experience with those categories, having worked in an Ann Arbor record store when he was younger, filing albums into different genre sections dictated in part by race. But he clearly did not want to make the scourge of racism a greater issue in the film than the salve of music's back-and-forth conversation.

“We know the history of the United States has not been exemplary with regard to race. So I don't think we need to be too shocked anytime you find that African-American influence isn't acknowledged,” said Burns. “Saying that race is an issue in America is not a banner headline. To me, the banner headline—which has run through all our work—is that for a population that hovers around 13 or 14 percent, it has had a disproportionate effect on our arts, particularly our music.”

It's no surprise to learn, given Burns' non-cynical nature, that he wants to focus on the better parts of humanity. The viewer sees it in the quotes he chooses. “You have a lot of opposites that create this richness,” comments Marsalis. Giddens is shown adding to this viewpoint: “It starts going back and forth,” she says, “and becomes this beautiful mix of cultures.”

Uncle Dave Macon, the first star of the Grand Ol' Opry, performed songs and stage moves from the black tradition.
Uncle Dave Macon, the first star of the Grand Ol' Opry, performed songs and stage moves from the black tradition. (Wiki Commons)

In fact, the film's first episode is titled “The Rub,” named for the commingling of black and white in the South that gave birth to country music. Over the course of the subsequent seven episodes, we learn about the many black figures behind the scenes, helping white stars become famous. Gus Cannon for Johnny Cash. Rufus "Tee Tot" Payne for Hank Williams. Lesley Riddle for A.B. Carter. Arnold Shultz for Bill Monroe.

But is this true cross-pollination, or is it a siphoning? We learn about the banjo player Uncle Dave Macon, descended from Confederate soldiers, becoming a celebrity by taking songs and stage moves from the black tradition. We learn about Jimmie Rodgers picking up field hollers from black crews in the railroad yards where he worked as a water boy, and then performing in blackface for medicine shows before becoming the wealthiest country singer of his time.

Again: isn't this theft? Not just theft of cultural production, but—when royalties are involved—actual money?

“I don't want to say we stole it—that's a pretty strong word. But I will say that we adapted it,” says Nashville studio guitarist Harold Bradley at one point in the first episode. He's talking about lifting melodies from the British Isles, but his comment resonates with the overall charitable approach that Burns takes in Country Music.

“At the end Wynton says, 'Art tells the tale of us coming together,'” said Burns. “We've categorized music, forgetting that for the artist, there's no border. It's a wonderful two-way street.”

It's a nice thought, the two-way street. But, as many viewers watching Country Music this week will surely recognize, the traffic never really flows equally both ways.

'Country Music' premieres on Sept. 15 on PBS stations, including KQED 9. Details here.