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Our Favorite Moments (So Far) from Ken Burns’ ‘Country Music’

We’re halfway through watching Ken Burns’ Country Music, an eight-part docuseries that explores the genre’s formative moments. Much of the film has taken our breath away, but these moments stand out as some of our favorites.

By Katie Quine • September 18, 2019

1. Sara and Maybelle Carter get their due.

Known as “The First Family of Country Music,” The Carter Family’s enduring influence has continued to inspire renditions of songs like “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” still performed regularly on the Opry by contemporary artists. Even still, the impact female pioneers Sara and Maybelle Carter had on country music bears repeating.

In the documentary, Marty Stuart wastes no time in plainly laying out how the cousins paved the way for every other woman in country music. “And it, it’s Sara, then there’s been everybody else. It’s that simple. As far as guitar playing goes, there’s Maybelle, then there’s everybody else. That’s the genesis of it all,” he says in the film. The best Easter egg from Ken Burns’ retelling of The Carter Family’s story? Maybelle and Sara both bought motorcycles with the royalties they earned from song sales. Vroom.

2. Early radio advertising was just as entertaining as the music.

No other genre’s history is as closely linked to radio as country music. As opportunities surrounding the new format were explored in the 1920s, radio stations sought larger audiences. For inspiration, they looked to traveling medicine shows, which made a buck from advertising various remedies.

While this isn’t the first we’ve heard of medicine shows (how do you think Opry member group Old Crow Medicine Show’s name came to be?), we were amused to hear about the absurd products that were advertised on early radio programs. One doctor in Kansas launched his own radio station to promote a new product that would help men regain potency: goat testes. You can’t make it up. While you won’t hear advertising spots for such elixirs today, entertaining sponsor segments remain a part of the Grand Ole Opry tradition.

3. Unsung black mentors are recognized for their contributions to country music.

Country music was born out of many traditions — gospel, the blues, Appalachian ballads. While much of the genre has ties to black music tradition, that relationship has not always been properly recognized. Throughout the first few episodes of Country Music, we’re introduced to several black mentors who worked behind the scenes as the likes of The Carter Family and Hank Williams rose to fame.

Lesley Riddle introduced A.P. Carter to old-time songs and melodies, accompanying A.P. on “song-hunting” trips. Meanwhile, Rufus Payne taught Hank Williams how to play the guitar and allowed Williams, then just a child, to play along with his band in street performances. They were just two of many black musicians who helped lay the groundwork for the genre. Rhiannon Giddens perfectly summarizes why their stories are important to country music in the film: “I mean, music is always striving to the, to the best thing. And the best thing is the mix, you know? It always is.”

4. Even Bonnie and Clyde were fans of Jimmie Rodgers.

For only living until he was 35, Jimmie Rodgers made a lasting impact during his career. As tuberculosis began to take its toll on “The Singing Brakeman,” crowds still attended his shows in droves. Rodgers was so popular that he could even count two of the nation’s most-wanted criminals among his fans. With some of the money they stole, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow bought all of Rodger’s records. We don’t condone grand theft, but we can commend Bonnie and Clyde on their musical taste.

5. Gene Autry was quite the businessman.

As America’s beloved “Singing Cowboy,” there’s no doubt that Gene Autry had a prolific career. In addition to recording Western songs and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” he also starred in dozens of films, including The Phantom Empire, a sci-fi Western. His ingenuity was rewarded as gained fame during the Great Depression and long after. He even went on to own the Los Angeles Angels Major League Baseball franchise for four decades. “Working with numbers is what I did best,” he was quoted as saying in Country Music. “What I did less well was sing, act, and play guitar.”

6. Hank Williams had his own alter ego.

Turns out, Garth Brooks hasn’t been the only country artist to craft an alter ego. (Speaking of, does anyone know what Chris Gaines has been up to lately?) Hank Williams debuted his own alter ego, Luke the Drifter, on radio broadcasts and recorded an EP with the pseudonym. Many of Luke the Drifter’s songs were cautionary tales, reflective of Williams’ own personal troubles that led to his tragic and untimely death.

7. Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams” is more haunting than originally intended.

There are few times that the country music community has collectively grieved as much as it did after the 1963 plane crash that killed Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and Cowboy Copas. In Part Four of Country Music, we’re reminded that Patsy hadn’t yet released her recording of “Sweet Dreams (Of You)” when she chose the song to close out what would be her last concert ever, a benefit show in Kansas City. The song was released as her first posthumous single. Each time we’ve listened to “Sweet Dreams” since viewing the documentary, we hear its soaring violin and Cline’s yearning vocals a little differently.

8. Merle Haggard revisits Johnny Cash’s San Quentin performance.

One of our favorite anecdotes about the close-knit nature of country music is the fact that Merle Haggard was an inmate at San Quentin State Prison when he saw Johnny Cash perform. The performance inspired Haggard to turn a corner in his own life and become a country artist, which will be explored more in Part Five. Hearing Haggard recount — in his own words — Cash’s performance was a special moment as we watched at home. It’s not often that you get to listen to a rare interview in which one country legend talks about another, and it means even more now that we’ve lost both artists.

For episode airtimes and information on how to watch, read our guide.

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