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Ray Charles

Ken Burns’ epic PBS series “Country Music” puts a spotlight on Georgia artists

Ken Burns will tell you that he makes the same film over and over again. In that sense, according to producer Julie Dunfey, the 16-hour PBS documentary Country Music that begins September 15 on GPB is “one more way, it’s one more lens to look at the American experience, to look at who are we as this complicated, messy republic.”

If you have ever watched a Ken Burns film, you may remember the feeling — that baseball or Prohibition or that forgotten Civil War battle never seemed so fascinating before. This is narrative storytelling bound to hook even those who think they know or care nothing about country music. People in test screen audiences often expressed similar reactions over 10 years of building the project: they arrived assuming unfamiliarity with the subject and left realizing they actually knew a lot of these songs.  

For people to make those connections is the project’s ultimate goal. As writer and producer Dayton Duncan told ArtsATL, country music “so quickly gets categorized and squeezed down into a stereotype, and our film is all about obliterating those narrow boundaries to say it’s part of the large American songbook. It borrows from other places and other places borrow from it.”

Fiddlin' John Carson
Cabbagetown’s Fiddlin’ John Carson became one of the first country music stars through his show on WSB radio.

Distilling this much music history into 16-and-a-half hours is a daunting challenge. It means, as Duncan put it, that “every story we tell is in place of five or six or more that we can’t.” Country music is a web of intersecting themes, people, events and songs that can only be approached strand by individual strand. One musician, one song, one story stands in for many unspoken others.

Georgia musicians stand out among these threads, weaving in and out of the project’s central themes. Fiddlin’ John Carson is there at the start, working in a Cabbagetown factory and gaining notice at the annual fiddlers convention held in Atlanta from 1913 to 1935. Carson’s regional fame grew at weekend square dances, and, during the early 1920s, he bowed his way into living rooms over the new medium of radio on hometown station WSB. “Radio made me,” Carson would later reflect. He quit his factory job to earn a living solely through music, and made some of the earliest recordings to demonstrate a commercial market for the mishmash of sound we now call country.  

Ray Charles is another native Georgian whose music resounds the deeply intermingled nature of American experience: rural and urban, sacred and secular, black, brown and white — in a singular mix. The interconnected nature of music too often gets sorted along falsely rigid lines of distinction. Enter Ray Charles in 1962. As Dunfey says, “The first time he has creative independence to make an album, he does Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.” In so doing, Charles demonstrates how “artists don’t see boundaries. They are a little bit ahead of the culture a lot of the time.”  

Brenda Lee was one of the first country music stars to cross over to other genres.

Among the next generation of Georgia-born artists, Brenda Lee would surely agree. One of the 80 musicians interviewed for the project, she echoes the thesis that “it’s all intertwined.” At one point, she says, “They categorized me as rockabilly. Well I didn’t know it was rockabilly. I’m just singing songs that were given me, singing them like I sang. And then all of a sudden I was rock. And then all of a sudden I was pop. And then all of a sudden I became country. When a singer is absolutely passionate about what they do, I don’t think you should pigeon-hole them. Because if you ask us artists when it’s all said and done, it’s music. That’s all it is.”

Lee is an example of how Country Music integrates compelling biography with major themes but also as pivot points to propel the story forward from one chapter to the next. Born in Atlanta’s Grady Hospital to an impoverished family, Lee sang to support her family as a young child. Over audio of her singing “One Step at a Time” and Patsy Cline’s “I Cried All the Way to the Alter,” she remembers touring with her mentor Cline while the narrative moves from mid-1950s rockabilly to the 1960s rise of Nashville studios.  

Lee’s friendship with the husband-and-wife songwriting team Felice and Boudleaux Bryant brings us back round to Georgia and introduces another key turning point for the story. Born in Shellman (in southwest Georgia), Boudleaux once played in the Atlanta Philharmonic before realizing he could earn more doing honky-tonk.

The Bryants relocated to Nashville after Little Jimmy Dickens charted their song “Country Boy.” There they surfed the wave of that city’s rise as the center for what became the big business of country music in the mid-century. They demonstrated that songwriters could make a living without also being performers, and their work — most famously with the Everly Brothers and the song “Love Hurts” — blurred lines between country and rock ‘n’roll.

Ken Burns, who has produced acclaimed documentaries on baseball and the Civil War, has turned his focus on country music with a new eight-part series.

Country Music proceeds chronologically until its final deep dive into Garth Brooks, who exploded expectations for future artists with his stadium-sized success. His “hot” brand of country arguably bears marks of the same cross-pollination that distinguishes American music, in this case with big doses of Queen, Kiss and other epic 1970s rockers. Born the year Ray Charles released Modern Sounds, Brooks had been turned down by a string of record companies, only to make so noteworthy a connection with the crowd one night in Nashville’s Bluebird Café that an executive who happened to drop in thought twice.  

His marriage to Trisha Yearwood brings another Georgia voice to claim as our own. Her career and the way producers weave her perspective with others throughout the film bind the narrative together and link generations: from Yearwood back to Reba McEntire, from her to Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, from there to Patsy Cline and so on.

The year 1996 marks the Telecommunications Act that ended previous limits on centralized media ownership and, thus, makes a fitting downbeat for a country music narrative that continues into the new century.

In the end, the project’s achievement won’t be measured in how neatly it fits the unruly story of country music into a nutshell but in how artfully it raises questions about the spaces between beats — the gaps from one compelling song to another, one remarkable artist to the next. Country Music will most succeed in prompting us as viewers to realize that this one thread is integral to the greater whole: that we know more about the music than we thought, and that there is still more worth learning.