The first two episodes of the Ken Burns country music documentary were primarily occupied with trying to untangle the cobwebs of country music’s origins, while telling the stories of some of its most important founding fathers and mothers. Even though names like Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Acuff, and The Carter Family loom large for many of country music’s devoted fans, they don’t necessarily rise to the level of household names like Ernest Tubb, and of course the great Hank Williams, who was the centerpiece of the third installment of the documentary, which was titled after Hank’s most recognized nickname, “The Hillbilly Shakespeare.”
Country music began to hit new commercial heights and spread its influence in the form of electrified honky tonk music after World War II, and began to actually be called “Country & Western” by Billboard and others as opposed to “Hillbilly” and the other monikers the music had been categorized under for years. Though Hank Williams would command the lion’s share of the attention in the third episode of the film, it would not be before the importance of Ernest Tubb was explained, and how he started by emulating Jimmie Rodgers, and ended up becoming one of the conduits for helping to bring country music to more people through his record shop and Midnite Jamboree program after the Grand Ole Opry.
The influence of the Maddox Brothers and Rose was once again emphasized, and specifically in their adoption of stage costumes crafted by Western movie costume designer Nathan Turk that led eventually to Nudie Cohn and the Nudie Suit, which is almost just as an identifiable part of country music as the music itself. The Maddox Brothers and Rose also played a big part in the electrification of country with lead guitar player Roy Nichols, who Merle Haggard had a particular fondness of. A few have criticized Country Music for spending too much time on the Maddox Brothers and Rose, but the real criticism should be how there legacy heretofore has been so forgotten.
“They didn’t know it, but they were rock stars as well as country stars and hillbilly stars,” Marty Stuart says, who is the man in the care of many of the Maddox stage costumes now. Merle Haggard told a story of going to see the family band with his older brother when he was young. “You could not be at one of their shows and not be happy,” Merle said.
The electric influence of the Maddox Brothers and Rose helped lead to the rise of artists such as Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Hank Thompson, and the Queen of Country Music Music, Kitty Wells, whose answer song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” to a popular Hank Thompson tune put both Kitty, and women on the map in the honky tonk era of country music.
Meanwhile in the bluegrass realm, offshoots and splinters from Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys resulted in a rapid expansion of the music. You had Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs break away to form their own band, and Ralph Stanley and The Stanley Brothers come to prominence. As the film explains, Bill Monroe, though a brilliant musician and the undisputed father of bluegrass, was also very prickly and territorial, refusing to allow any of the other bluegrass outfits to play the Grand Ole Opry for many years. Though they all influenced each other, they didn’t speak or collaborate due to Monroe’s stubbornness. Still, the music they made reshaped acoustic music in America and beyond.
“Earl Scruggs is one of the single most important musicians not just in the history of country music, not just as an architect of what we know as bluegrass music, but he’s one of the single most important instrumentalists in the world,” is how Eddie Stubbs of WSM described it.
“Little” Jimmy Dickens was also covered in the episode, and was one of the legends Ken Burns was fortunate enough to interview before his passing. Tom T. Hall, Dwight Yoakam, and the recently-passed Hazel Smith also showed up, and the songwriting side of Nashville and country was broached through the story of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who would write some of Jimmy Dickens’ early hits, and go on to have a Hall of Fame career writing country songs. Lefty Frizzell was mentioned, but only in passing, though he will appear again in subsequent episodes. Chet Atkins also appears via The Carter Family, and a great piece of foreshadowing was included in how many in Nashville feared Chet and his jazzy, clean guitar style would “take over” if he ever came to Nashville, which as many country fans know, he eventually did for better or worse.
But intermixed with these important developments in country music from the period between 1945 and 1953 were the important points in the life and career of Hank Williams. Though the film made an important point that just like AP Carter’s black companion Lesley Riddle, and Bill Monroe’s important influence of Arnold Schultz, Hank’s guitar teacher and mentor Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne played an indelible role in his development as a musician, it failed to go more in depth into the story of Tee-Tot, who unlike some other black influencers in country music, quite a bit is known about, and his influence doesn’t have to be embellished for dramatic purposes. Rufus Payne very directly influenced the most influential country music artist to ever live in Hank Williams, and his story could have used more than a passing glance if they were looking for African American artists to pay homage to.
Also, you felt like the filmmakers fumbled another important point in Episode 3 by not giving the steel guitar, and the Hawaiian influence in country that was brought to new heights through returning GI’s from the Pacific theater after the war its proper due. By the late 40’s the steel guitar had in many ways trumped the fiddle and banjo as the primary signifier of country music.
As compelling as the story of the life of Hank is on its own, it’s something that dramatic interpreters have failed to do justice for decades, with one feeble attempt after another to put the story in movie form, and specifically “The Last Ride” that ended with Hank’s untimely death at the age of 29. Perhaps the best way to tell the story is to let the story tell itself, and this is what Ken Burns and writer Dayton Duncan do in Country Music.
Some may be concerned that too much time was spent on Hank Williams in a series where space feels so limited despite its length. But the story of Hank Williams is the story of country music. His life embodied all the major themes of country—the drunkard, the drug addicted, the divorcee, the devout believer, the disabled, the honky tonker, the love struck, the poor, and the broken hearted. All of it was embodied in not only his songs, but the life of Hank Williams, and it set country music on the path to conveying the sorrow and struggles of the common man through simple eloquence for decades to come.
In an episode that struggled early on to find the same emotional connections that many of the moments in Episode 2 did, conveying the final moments of Hank’s life, and concluding with an earth shattering rendition of Hank’s granddaughter Holly Williams singing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” arguably made it the best episode of the series so far, or at least gave the film its most poignant moment.
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Episode 3 can now be streamed online. The next episode is titled “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and will cover the era between 1953 to 1963.