KEN BURNS: I'm always looking for topics uh that's American history running on all cylinders and this is my gosh that, uh over and over and over again. The songwriter Harlan Howard said that country music was three chords and the truth.


SARA A. LEWIS, HOST: The three chords of Harlan Howard's theory of country music is easier to explain than the truth part. That intangible thing that good lyrics do. We've all got our favorites. “I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn't hurt” or “the more I learned to care for you, the more we drift apart. Why can't I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold cold heart?” My favorite is Rosanne Cash's “Seven Year Ache” about the tricky business of falling out of love. “Don't bother calling to say you're leaving alone because there's a fool on every corner when you're trying to get home” or John Prine’s "Angel from Montgomery" when Bonnie Raitt sings, “How the hell can a person go to work in the morning and come home in the evening and have nothing to say?”


It's not just the words, but how they're delivered. The taking of something simple and making it profound. It's defamiliarizing—a rearranging of the vocabulary we already speak and think into something new that reveals an essential part of the human condition.

How the hell can a person go to work in the morning, come home in the evening and have nothing to say? You can imagine that. You can imagine yourself. The major topics of country music center on our daily dramas, lyin', cheatin', stealin’, leavin’, and mamma. These are the stories of underdogs, the downtrodden, and they emerged from genuinely sorrowful experiences.

KEN BURNS: Most of the great country artists arrive from a poverty as great as anyone has ever experienced in the United States. Dolly Parton's parents paid the doctor who came to the holler in East Tennessee to deliver her with a sack of corn meal. That’s how poor she was. They had to pour water on the ground wire so that they could get the battery powered radio to play in their holler. She was earning more money than anyone else in her family on a little Knoxville TV station before her family had a TV.


LEWIS: Welcome to Points South. I'm your host, Sara A. Lewis from the Oxford American. We're kicking off the show with what we love best: Southern Music.

What can the history of country music teach us?

We're joined by Ken Burns who produced the Civil War and Vietnam. He's got a new eight part 16 and a half hour documentary called Country Music. It traces the genre back from the acoustic era before music was recorded all the way through to the entry of two of its biggest superstars, Reba and Garth. It's airing this week on PBS.

The film explores issues of class and gender, the poor farmer, the empowered woman, and it also looks at the contributions across cultures and continents that created a uniquely American sound.


BURNS: It's a very elemental music. It does not have usually the elegance of and sophistication of classical music. It is about directly connecting, almost mainlining human emotions to other people.

LEWIS: For a film about history, this one's interesting because there aren't many historians in the film. Instead it relies on dozens of musicians. People like Dwight Yoakam, Dolly Parton, Charlie Pride, talking about their predecessors. One of the film's, early standouts is Rhiannan Giddens, a multi-hyphenate artists known primarily as a singer and banjo player of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. It's difficult to distill Giddens’s relevance as a musician and folklorist. When Gayle Wald profiled her for our blues music issue, she wrote, "When Giddens composes for or performs on her banjo, she channels both the history and mystery of early American Banjo music. What has been passed down as well as what has been lost.”

“COUNTRY MUSIC” DOCUMENTARY RHIANNON GIDDENS: Country music. It’s the music of the working class is the music of people who don't have a lot of power. We like to talk about the founding fathers a lot, but the people who built this country, that's the people where country and blues come from, you know, are those people and you don't have America without them.

LEWIS: In the documentary Giddens is well suited to talk about the history of country music, the history of the Banjo in particular. In this segment we've woven her interview from the documentary with a recent phone conversation in which she elaborates on the cultural memory of African Americans in country music.

“COUNTRY MUSIC” DOCUMENTARY RHIANNON GIDDENS: Jazz emphasizes this and blues emphasizes this and country emphasizes this, you know, but where they all start is in this beautiful sort of boiling American music pot.

LEWIS: The film opens with an image. It’s Thomas Hart Benton’s last painting, which hangs in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Titled “The Sources of Country Music,” it looks like how country music sounds. Basically, everyone's in motion. Even the woman with an Appalachian Dulcimer seems to be moving. People are dancing. Two white guys with their twin fiddles square off. You've got a choir that's animated. There's even a train in the background that's moving. But then you also have a black man sitting on a log playing a five string banjo by himself. You have either enslaved people or recently freed people painted very much in the background.


BURNS: Let's think about the simple and most basic country music band. It's got a fiddle and a banjo. The fiddle we know comes from Europe and the British isles, the banjo, it comes from Africa.


RHIANNON GIDDENS: It really is the history of America, the Banjo. I mean it really, no, no other artifacts so beautifully represents, what this country is. An instrument that was invented in the Caribbean by African enslaved people. Originally they would have been gourd bodies, so a hollowed out gourd with the skin stretched over it and a stick attached to it, and then strings stretched over the stick and the, the skin. And then it traveled up to North America and got into the hands of European Americans.


GIDDENS: The idea of the wooden hoop with a skin stretched over it and a stick attached and strings. Influenced by the existence of the frame drum, the tambourine, that existed in the United States at that time.


GIDDENS: As time went on, it became steel strung, the fittings became more metallic and the pitch became higher.


GIDDENS: It sort of journeyed into different versions like the tenor banjo, which became very popular in New Orleans for jazz.


GIDDENS: Um and then bluegrass banjo with the big heavy rim around the outside and played with picks.


LEWIS: From the very basic two instruments, the banjo and the fiddle, it’s clear that the importance of African Americans in country music cannot be overstated. The documentary establishes early on that most of the people we associate as founding the genre, derived their sound in part from black mentors.

JULIE DUNFEY: Hank Williams, his mentor was Tee Tot. A man named Rufus Payne. And Hank Williams said all the music training I ever had was from him.

LEWIS: This is Julie Dunfey, producer of the film.

DUNFEY: Johnny Cash was very influenced by Gus Cannon, a black musician he met when he was out making his rounds as a door-to-door salesman of home appliances. And Willie Nelson's heroes were Django Reinhardt and Ernest Tubb. Chet Atkins' influences were also Django Reinhardt and Merle Travis.

BURNS: Let's just take the early founders of country music, the Carter family, Jimmy Rogers, Hank Williams, um, Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash. Just to take five people who could exist on Mount Rushmore. All of them, all of them to a person had an African American mentor who took their chops from here and raised it way up to here.

LEWIS: This remark illustrates a perception of black people in support roles. Not actually on Country Music’s Mount Rushmore, but carving the faces. This is a perception that appears in Benton’s painting. Going back to the colorful scene of “The Sources of Country Music,” it does more than show the diversity of country music. In terms of the frame of the painting, the man playing the banjo, and just over his right shoulder, the people in the background, are pretty close to the center of the frame. But they’re isolated. It illustrates country music's marginalization of black experience.


LEWIS: One of the things that seems heartbreaking as a representation to me of not necessarily the music and the influence of the music, but the perception of the music and the way that the industry has portrayed that history.

BURNS: I won't put it on the industry. I'll say I'll put it on human beings. That isolation is absolutely heartbreaking. It's the American original sin as historians called it. It's pervasive everywhere in our culture.

GIDDENS: American music comes from the constant conflict of not only the different cultures but also the power differential.

LEWIS: Racial inequalities and tensions are presented in the film as a catalyst for the music and why it emerged from the South. Rhiannon Giddens explains this as “The Rub”

“COUNTRY MUSIC” DOCUMENTARY RHIANNON GIDDENS: The Rub is people mixing. It starts going back and forth and it becomes this beautiful mix of cultures. That’s why they met and mingled and became this edge. The heart spoke musically to each other and then somebody from the up up here says, “Oh, we can't have that. You guys can't be doing stuff together.” That's what the rub is.


GIDDENS The creation of the African American identity is a unique on.African people on, in both continents, in South America and North America, African people have had to forge a brand new thing. In a, in a volume, in a way that has never, I don't think ever occurred on this planet, freely. They weren't allowed to keep religions and languages-- all that innovation is coming out of necessity. Out of that comes the banjo. Out of that comes the fiddle and banjo together.

LEWIS: Imagine fiddle and banjo as stand ins for the European and African cultures from which they emerged. Throughout the history of country, the pairing of these instruments, and more importantly, these cultures has resulted in music we consider to be essential.

DUNFEY: There's the influence of Lesley Riddle on AP Carter. Now, AP was collecting songs, He would go out on walking tours. And he would just, if he heard about a song, if somebody told him about a song, he would walk 10, 15 miles and try and collect it. But he had trouble memorizing melodies. He would copy down words. So he hired a black man named Lesley Riddle. And as Lesley Riddle said, “I was his tape recorder.” He memorized the melodies on 15 different trips with AP. He also shared his Blues Guitar stylings with Maybelle.


DUNFEY: Not only did he share some Blues guitar stylings with Maybelle, he introduced the Carters to hymns that had been sung in African American Pentecostal and Baptist churches. One melody he taught them was “When the World's on Fire,”


DUNFEY: The Carter family later reused the basic tune from that for a song they called “Little Darling Pal of Mine.”


DUNFEY: A few years later, Woody Guthrie, who was an admirer of the Carter family, incorporated that into his classic, “This Land is Your Land.”


“COUNTRY MUSIC” DOCUMENTARY RHIANNON GIDDENS: That's America. It came from this black church and ended up as this folk anthem. You know, you have all these different people going, “oh, I love that. Let me use it.” It's not like, “oh, we can't use that because it's black.” But it's like, “Oh, I love that.” That's the beautiful part of American music—it’s like, it doesn't matter who it came from. I love that and I want to do something with it.

LEWIS: But if I walked up to your average country music fan and said: AP Carter, Lesley Riddle, Woody Guthrie. It’s likely this person has person heard of only two of these three people.

So where did that contribution get lost?

DUNFEY: I don't know where it got lost. Um, did it get lost on the business of things? I'm not sure. You know, this is not something we discovered. We just hope that we're giving the role and the influence of African American music its proper place. It would be historical malpractice not to give it its proper place.

LEWIS: The business side of things is essential to understanding how we have country music, which came out of hillbilly music. The genre distinctions and the audience divisions we experience today came from the 1920s and a man named Ralph Peer. Peer had previously seen success releasing records aimed at America’s immigrant populations. Segmenting those populations—Italian, German, Russian, Turkish and Chinese. Each of these groups could buy music recorded in their own languages. But this approach to marketing, the breaking up of an audience into groups, ultimately tied race to genre. And it stuck.

DUNFEY: Well, Ralph Peer was a record producer who, he was in the business of trying to sell records. And he understood that so-called "race music" and so-called "hill country music" shared common roots. He knew that Blues and Gospel Music, uh, both black and white gospel music, came from the same sources. They weren't separate, but they had to be marketed to different audiences.

LEWIS: I've been trying to find a line that maybe isn't there when country became the representative of the white working class experience and the blues became the representation of the black working class experience. And maybe there is no thing to point to--

BURNS: There's not, there's not a moment. Uh, but let me help you out a little bit because I think this is a dimensional issue. At the very beginning the impetus to record is always a commercial impulse. I can sell this record to this particular group, right? However, the influences, once that music is out crosses all those borders. I mean you can't take Hank Williams's “I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry,” one of the most beautiful songs, one of the most poetic songs, one of the most elemental songs, one of the most obviously human songs. Everyone has experienced it who still has a heart beating in their breast and say, “Oh, that's a white man's music.”


GIDDENS: So I find genres abhorrent. I'm going to be honest with you. I find them awful. I hate the fact that we have them. People may go, oh well it's just music, you know, like, no, it's not just music. Like if a black group walked into a recording studio and they were recording country, they're going to tell those guys turn around. Which is what happened. Or do you know any blues? Come back tomorrow. That is literally what happened. These are why we have genres.

This is, this is how like serious. it wasn't just a kind of, oh, you know, let's kind of group this here and group this here. It was a very, very deliberate thing and it leads then to things like the Lil Nas X or whatever writing a commercial country song and people saying, oh or images of black cowboys, and people saying 'that's cultural appropriation.' I literally was like—it made me want to give up.

They succeeded! You know, they rewrote the cultural history of America. Of how black people are in the history of country music. We're not just like coming to it like, "Oh hey, can we sing you guys' stuff?

LEWIS: I find words like cross-pollination and cultural exchange to be somewhat generous. [laughter] I just, I struggle with like, like agreeing with this idea of history where we look back at country music and see cultural exchange instead of appropriation.

GIDDENS You said it not me. I mean look-- You have to realize that we are at a real basic point in this history. Let's stop talking about the “influence” of African Americans. You know, I'm tired of hearing that. The “influence” was—there was “influences.” It's like we were like these shadows off to the side. And we were side by side the whole time and sometimes leading, you know, sometimes being taken from! The idea of cultural exchange is important because AP Carter also copyrighted stuff from white people. Ralph Peer also copyrighted stuff from white people. So in this is also a capitalist issue of people making money from the working class. Like that is an issue as well. And that does not belong to one color. You know yeah it’s hard for me to hear about the frickin’ Carter Family and see those uh those copyrights. Yeah it’s hard. It’s hard to see that. Especially knowing that Riddle most likely would have changed those tunes as he wrote them down, putting himself into them.

LEWIS: Like those are his melodies to some degree?

GIDDENS: They're his melodies! Yeah. I mean, is that fair? Hell no. Do I wish they'd made a bigger point of that in the, in the film? Yeah, sure. But I also understand that the idea of what country music is, is so far away from what it actually is. The idea that there's any kind of whiff of that in what is perceived as extremely white genres. That's a big ass hill. Like sorry, you probably can't use that. That's a big hill.

LEWIS: Is there a necessary tension that contributes to the music? Is it possible to have this music without having some amount of conflict?

GIDDENS: No, no. You don't have American music without the African experience. Sorry. That's what gives you Canadian music. And I love Canada, but Canadian music did not take over the world. You know what I’m saying? The very foundation of the country is there is this group of people who are constantly creating something new. Because they're constantly having to. You create because you have to. Because you're under the foot, because you are, you know, surviving. And that is shot through American music.

LEWIS: This perception of country music as having emerged at the intersections of so many cultures-- many more than we cover here—that’s not really all that visible on CMT, the Opry, and most of country music’s fanbase. Take the recent decision to remove Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” from the Billboard Country Chart.


LEWIS: Though not the first song to mash country and hip hop, Billboard initially disqualified it from being included on the country charts for not being “country enough.” Sparking a debate about what it means to be country. A conversation that revealed historically inaccurate notions of how the black experience fits into country music. Wrangler released a clothing line with Lil Nas X that faced so much backlash, the musician tweeted "Y'all really boycotting wrangler? Is it that deep?"


LEWIS: How do we reshape our understanding of country music to see that “it” racism or erasure is that deep? To borrow Rhiannon Giddens’s phrase—It's a big ass hill.

BURNS: One of the great gifts of history as opposed to journalism, is it has the perspective, it has the passage of time necessary to triangulate these things so that you can learn that sometimes the truth and the opposite of that truth are true at the same time.

GIDDENS: Ultimately, we have to decide what story we want to tell. The actual story, which is-- like American history is more amazing and more terrible than any story we tell. The actual history. And it tells us, it tells us everything.


LEWIS: Thank you to Ken Burns, Julie Dunfey, and Rhiannon Giddens.

Here's Lesley Riddle, singing and playing “I'm Working on a Building,” a spiritual that he introduced to AP Carter.


LEWIS: After the break, we're back with Ken and Julie on creating a soundscape for country music, and later Dom Flemons performs from Black Cowboys.




JULIE DUNFEY: Music is in all of our films.

KEN BURNS: We've always felt as filmmakers that it was as important an element as the writing. As the talking heads, as the images, as the newsreels, as the live cinematography, as the sound effects. In most productions, music is added at the end. Scored, a mathematical term, to help elevate emotions you hope are already there. But, um, we believe that it should be baked in from the beginning.

DUNFEY: This is a film about lyric-driven music. It's about the stories. And we knew we were going to have to figure out um how to let the music live and breathe. We needed to be able to hear something. Sometimes musicians would just burst into song or recite lyrics and we got really lucky a couple of times because they would start singing and then it would turn out,they were singing in the correct key for the recording of that song. So we could blend it right into the recording.


DUNFEY: It's the same with, uh, Dwight Yoakam talking about Merle Haggard's “Hungry Eyes. He remembers every single word of that song. And again, we're able to blend it in.


“COUNTRY MUSIC” DOCUMENTARY TAPE DWIGHT YOAKAM: He sang that for Buck and Buck’s family, the Maddox Brothers. All those unnamed Okies and Arkies and Texans. Merle Haggard is one of the greatest poets ever in American music.

DUNFEY: That’s the score of this series. We have 500, I think it's 584 music cues over 16 and a half hours. And the score is the songs.

BURNS: We take and accept a piece of music and then allow its pace and rhythm to do its thing, to work its magic. And if you think about it, this art of the invisible as Wynton Marsalis calls it, is the fastest art form there is. Two notes and you can already be feeling something.


DUNFEY: If you're writing a scene about say Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and the revival of his career, you know, obviously you're going to play Folsom Prison Blues at some time in that scene. But if you're writing about earlier, about Johnny Cash’s life story, I mean his childhood, then it becomes a whole question of, okay, what do you use? And the songs that Johnny Cash would have listened to as a child coming over the radio in Dyess, Arkansas.


DUNFEY: We picked Poor Wayfaring Stranger, which becomes a little bit of a theme for Johnny throughout. Johnny Cash is in every episode from four and up until eight and so there are other points as his story comes back in that you might just hear a few measures of Poor Wayfaring Stranger, maybe a different instrument this time.


DUNFEY: And it's just a little signal. Oh, we're, we're kind of back to, to, uh, Johnny again, it's very, very subtle. But, um, it just, at least I start to identify it a little bit with Johnny Cash.


DUNFEY: You know, country music is all about the stories and yet, There's often a story behind the song as well. Sometimes we're telling the story of an artist such as Johnny Cash’s childhood. Sometimes we're telling the story of a song, um, and how it got written and why it got written. And Dolly Parton, in her interview, tells us the story of leaving the Porter Wagoner show. She had ambition and felt she had a lot to offer and wanted it to be more than than Porter Wagoner’s "girl singer.” In the film, we started to hear an instrumental version of “I Will Always Love You” under Dolly talking. It's performed by Bobby Horton.

“COUNTRY MUSIC” DOCUMENTARY TAPE, DOLLY PARTON: So I wrote the song. Took it back in the next day. And I said Porter sit down, I got something I gotta sing for you. So I sang it and he was sitting at his desk and he was crying. He said that’s the best thing you ever wrote. ‘OK you can go. But only if I can produce that record.’ And he did. And the rest is history.

DUNFEY: And so by the time. She tells the story, the tune is in our ear and then we hear Dolly sing these beautiful lyrics.


DUNFEY: So that's one example of kind of the story of a song and then how we open up to let you hear the song on your own with that backstory. Another favorite musical moment for me is hearing Loretta Lynn's story and the story behind her song, “The Pill.” It's just kind of this incredible moment when we’re trying to understand the 1960s and country music artists of that era and how the world was changing so much. And then you've got Loretta's feisty personality on top of everything else. It’s just a great moment.

“COUNTRY MUSIC” DOCUMENTARY TAPE, LORETTA LYNN: Everybody would look at me like, another dirty song. It wasn’t dirty. Everybody went out and bought it. And if they’ve had the pill out when I was having kids, I’d eat ‘em like popcorn. I don’t know where I’d got the money but I might have to steal ‘em!

BURNS: That scene of Loretta Lynn, which goes into much greater detail. It's followed by a small civil rights scene and then followed by this huge scene on Charlie Pride that then segues into our longest scene on Merle Haggard. And it's one of the proudest stretches of highway that I've ever been involved in constructing in my entire professional life. I can't wait for people to see it and shake their head at the similarity of all three stories. And, and just the transcendent nature of a very elemental art that is still three chords and the truth. But don't get me started on the last episode or any of the episodes I'll bore down and tell you why each one is as important as any one of my kids.


DUNFEY: Well, Ken often says, you know, I make the same film over and over again. I'm just trying to discover who we are, who are these people, Americans? And they're just these stories. These subjects are different perspectives of coming at that story. Country's music is much broader than, than I understood it as I went into this project. And it connects so many different things, whether it's Blues, Gospel, hymns. There's a country song for everybody and I hope people take that away. There's some song in the 16 and a half hours or some artist who is going to move you very, very deeply.

BURNS: We've had a lot of people come into the editing room and leave like weeping or somebody saying, I didn't realize how much of country music I already knew! And then of course to see the fans of country music go wow, I had no idea that was the story behind Dolly writing “I Will Always Love You.” That's all we want to do. We're looking for good stories. We're just storytellers. However, we're American storytellers and we also know that human beings love to say history repeats itself because then they don't have to think about it anymore.

SARA A. LEWIS, HOST: After the break, Dom Flemons performs from Black Cowboys.



RYAN HARRIS: Well, welcome. My Name's Ryan Harris. I'm the executive director of the Oxford American. Dom Flemons of course, has been here once before, founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. He's written for the magazine two, three times, something like that. And just such a wonderful spirit and person.His current album Black Cowboys was nominated for a Grammy. Out on Smithsonian Folkways. Without further ado, let's bring him up. Thanks.


DOM FLEMONS LIVE : Thank you so much ladies and gentleman. It's a pleasure to be back at South on Main and over at the Oxford American offices. You know now this song here. This is one that I've had the great fortune of being able to play on the Grand Ole Opry. Yeah, several times now at this point. But um, this is a song that, uh, I knew I had a leg up in Nashville with it because this was one about food. I wrote about a dish in Nashville, Tennessee, in East Nashville. Adish called hot chicken. And this is this is one that I was proud to say that the Oxford was the very first one to take up the call of hot chicken many years ago with one of their articles. And when my song came out in 2014, they made sure to rerun it and said, read all about the history of Mr. Prince and Prince’s Hot Chicken down in East Nashville, Tennessee.



FLEMONS: My name is Dom Flemons and I'm known as the American songster. I came across a gift shop where they had a book called The Negro Cowboys. And the book talked about how about one in four cowboys who settled the West were African American cowboys working alongside the Mexican vaqueros and the Anglo cowboys.I had this idea to put an album together that would be a musical soundtrack for this history. Having worked in African American string band music, a lot of that work, uh, you had to take very small pieces of information and really compile it into a very full narrative story. And with black cowboys was the exact opposite. There was so much information about black cowboys throughout history.

Being a big fan of country music, country and western music, I wanted to find the connecting points in which, I could use the music that was familiar to people and then also use music that was not familiar to people to tell this story. Because part of the thing that makes black cowboys so interesting is that they're part of the landscape. They're not even hiding. When you start to look into this history, you find that these guys aren't hiding. They're in every picture.



LEWIS: This episode of Points South was produced by me, Sara A. Lewis, with help from Eliza Borné and Ryan Harris. Monique LaBorde is our production assistant. Post-production and score by SpaceBomb. Thanks to Chris Pigott, Jeff DiLea, Leah Beth Johnston, Tom Leavins, and Rounder Records. This program is made possible by Fayetteville Roots Festival and Andy and Somers Collins.

FLEMONS: You know, recently I had a situation come up where there's this song that's now like the number one song in the country. This song “Old Town Road” with Little Nas X. And I was called about it and they asked me well, “What are black cowboys? And “Is this really country music?” It's not about is the song good or bad. Those are aesthetic choices. But to understand that black cowboys are a culture in of themselves. That's something that people still are just wrapping their minds around. Most people know black cowboys somewhere or another ‘cuz they've always been present. You know, it's just shifting the lens slightly so that now people can see them.