“I hope life treats you kind and I hope you have all you’ve dreamed of. I wish you joy and happiness. But above all I wish you love.”
– Dolly Parton, from “I Will Always Love You”
It was 1992 when a friend asked me to a Tim McGraw concert at the MSU Coliseum with free tickets. I said “Yes,” having no idea who Tim McGraw was. By the time we were on our way to the concert I was outfitted in cowboy boots, jeans and a plaid shirt. When Garth Brooks came in 1992 as County Music Entertainer of the Year, I was there. Then my interest in big concerts and country music waned, maybe because the Coliseum’s concerts did, too. So, when I heard Ken Burns’ documentary “Country Music” was to air on PBS in eight episodes I was not interested, even though I love documentaries.
Sam was watching episode seven when I walked through the room and stopped. Hank Williams was singing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” There was black and white footage of Hank singing, then the birth of his son, Hank Jr., then Hank Sr.’s death at age 29. By then I was sitting down.
Ken Burns’ style uses footage taken by what looks like one of those old home “movie cameras” — kind of scratchy with poor lighting, yet purely amazing in its authenticity.
He describes country music as a mix of many musical genres — cowboy, western swing, Nashville sound, Bakersfield (California), countrypolitan, string bands, Appalachia, bluegrass, with a little rock and roll and gospel. It’s Saturday night and Sunday morning all connected, always morphing into something else.
Burns looks at the early lives of singers like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Emmylou Harris, Jimmie Rodgers, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Tanya Tucker, the Carter Family and on and on. One commentator said while tabloids try to get the dirt on celebrities, country music singers write a song about it and make big money. Think “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” by Hank Williams, supposedly describing his first wife, or Dolly Parton who wrote a heartfelt “I Will Always Love You,” to Porter Wagner — not for leaving a lover but for leaving a partner, a best friend, a mentor, who had guided her career and didn’t want to let her go. Who wouldn’t tear up over that?
Dolly showed herself self-deprecating and hilariously funny. She admitted modeling her appearance after her hometown’s “trollop” who she thought was absolutely beautiful with all her makeup, big hair and fancy dresses. “You’d be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap,” she says. As a child Dolly was performing on TV for $20 a week while her family didn’t have a TV. And even if they had a TV, it wouldn’t do any good because what’s a TV without electricity?
On the other hand, Kris Kristofferson was a brilliant student, a Rhodes Scholar majoring in literature, avid in several sports including a Golden Globe boxer, football, rugby, track and field. He wrote poetry and magazine articles, was a successful songwriter and actor, and served his country as a U.S. helicopter pilot. He received the American Veteran of the Year award in 2003. And I thought he was just a heartthrob crooning to Barbra Streisand in “A Star is Born.”
PBS is currently streaming “Country Music” online, and it is available on DVD, Blu-ray and CDs at pbs.org.