Higher Frequencies

ken burns’ country music.

Dolly Parton, on the Porter Wagoner Show, 1967.

Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you? — Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Sometimes, the full cultural and political significance of popular music gets hidden not in plain sight, but in plain sound. Or maybe in not-so plain sound. For Ralph Ellison’s invisible man, sitting in a subterranean hideaway below the streets of New York City at the end of Ellison’s 1952 novel, messages of cultural and political import, fearful but crucial, lurked in the “lower frequencies.” Bootlegged into the power grid to listen to Louis Armstrong on a turntable as 1,369 lightbulbs glowed around him, the invisible man decides that he too speaks down there, hidden in the rumble and hum of the deeper registers. But what about the higher end of the spectrum? It’s worth remembering that Louis Armstrong could reach up there too. He did so often on his cornet or trumpet, not only on jazz records, but also with founding country musician Jimmy Rodgers on a powerful blue yodel that Rodgers recorded in 1930 (“Blue Yodel #9, Standing on the Corner”). What can we learn if we tune in to those higher frequencies that fizz and crackle in the upper registers?

The new documentary film by Ken Burns, Country Music, tries to get at the larger cultural and political significance of country as a genre—and as a social formation. As is perhaps to be expected from Burns’s sensibility and his PBS production, Country Music stays mostly in the mid-range. He plays it safe, portraying country as a music at the edge of liberal middle-class respectability and rural, working-class resentment. We get to follow many wonderful, classic stories—the tragic heroes such as Rodgers, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, George Jones. We learn about Bill Monroe’s forging of bluegrass’s high, lonesome sound and Buck Owens out in Bakersfield. We hear about the outlaw country of Willie and Waylon and the deep routes of the Carter Family. 

But the more difficult issues, what about them? Sure, Burns shows how country has a racist, patriarchal side; but look, just in time, here’s how Charlie Pride became a star; and here’s Wynton Marsalis to talk about the music from the African-American jazz side of things; and there’s Darius Rucker to give us hope that there’s a little Hank to be found in the Hootie, some Buck Owens in the Blowfish. It’s not wrong—country is as much rooted in African-American forms as Scotch-Irish balladry or European polka oom-pah rhythms. Maybe, we could even say, it is fundamentally rooted in African-American and African Diasporic musical forms. Banjo, anyone? And most country stars, particularly the early ones, always claim some kind of black musician in the background who taught them how to play the blues (Bill Monroe’s Arnold Shultz; Leslie Riddle assisting AP Carter; and so on). But there’s always something a little smoothed over about Burns’s take on race. It notes, but does not quite fully account for the full extent of the racism, the problems with it, the enduring stubborn Americanness of it. We know it’s there, but the searing, cracked pain at the sonic and cultural color line is, for the most part, papered over.

The same goes for the patriarchal dimensions of country music. Yes, we get the stories of some of the great honky tonk angels and tortured duet singers of Nashville fame: Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette. Dolly Parton, of course, steals the show, blasting her way beyond the constraints of Porter Wagoner’s control with a taut grin, just a little more to her story always right at the corners of her mouth. Yet again, Burns misses a chance to let us really see behind that smile fully and grasp the full information packed into the higher registers of Parton’s story, where a mixture of pain and power, constraint and its compacting into a bell-like soprano cry, communicate, within her success story, so much more than just a success story.

Perhaps most of all, class tensions in country music gets mangled in this film even as Burns emphasizes, by featuring the expert drawl of country music historian Bill Malone, the recurring warning “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’,” as the song goes. I love Emmy Lou Harris, but she brings us toward folk and Americana and the more middle-class turn of country music. That’s country for middle-class baby-boomer elites—just the prime PBS audience to whom Burns broadcasts his film. But where are other, more complicated stories. I kept wanting the Dixie Chicks to appear—now there’s a more complex story of country and class and politics—but Burns chooses to end his tale in 1996 for some reason. 

In some sense, Burns simply pipes country through the Burns treatment. It’s the same larger tale as Civil War and Baseball and maybe most of all Jazz. The path gets synthesized. We get a nice overview that pulls together many threads. A few stories and interviewees become the touchstones, tugging with their weight on our heartstrings (in this one, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash are, rightfully, at the emotional heart of the story). Country Music, like those other films by Burns, treats America’s history as a tale of citizens ultimately unified despite their differences. He stitches them together through a panorama of stories and Peter Coyote’s now possibly too-familiar baritone melodramatically narrating the proceedings. In Country Music, as in Jazz, music is the meeting ground, Burns asserts, not the dividing line. From low to high culture, from poor rural Southerners embracing the term hillbilly to high-toned folkies such as Emmy Lou Harris keeping the country flame glowing for more middle-class NPR audiences, country—like jazz—summons up the dream of a harmonious e pluribus unam. Americans sometimes do wrong, but mostly they are trying to make music and dancing together.

To be fair, historians have become unfairly hard on Burns because he can reach such broad audiences. With a shade too much jealousy, they ask him to treat documentary filmmaking as if it were specialized scholarship. Burns always responds that he is after what makes for a good documentary film for a public television audience. While he never says it, the implication is that these are in fact great constraints to this reality (as a side note, they are constraints that academic historians currently romanticizing public history as a way to reach broader readerships need to confront more fully too). To my viewing, within the limitations of his medium and context, he does tremendous work—there are always elements of dissonance within his film even if he folds them too neatly into consensus tales of America, hopeful land of the free, good country that sometimes goes bad but gee-whiz is always trying its best to realize its founding democratic dreams. We should always critique and questions the elisions, falsifications, and problems of Burns’s framing of the American past even as we also grant him his due. 

So rather than write yet another condemnation of who Burns didn’t footnote or what stories he left out or how he tread too carefully around the most difficult aspects of country music (and the United States as a whole!), I was left after watching Country Music with thinking about how it compares to Jazz. What struck me most was that it largely tells the same story from the same conceptual frame of America, but the shift in genre leads to different emphases and perhaps even different conclusions.

Jazz was roundly criticized when it came out in 2001 for its declension story, informed by what was sometimes called the “neoconservative” jazz movement of the 1980s and 90s. Wynton Marsalis (who reappears in Country Music in fascinating ways), Stanley Crouch, Albert Murray and others wanted to recover the golden age of swing, when jazz played a central role in social dancing and modeled democratic efforts to balance virtuosic individual voices improvising within the structures, codes, and rules of big bands and small ensembles, when the music marked both an explosion of African-American musical talent into the mainstream of American life that aligned with a swing (get it?) toward integration in a multiracial American democracy. In their romanticization of that moment in American history, they lambasted the turn to “free” jazz in the 1960s—and without saying it outright, Burns implicitly endorsed their rejection of the more radical, emancipatory politics of black self-determination and nationalism that accompanied the free jazz turn. We Americans have got to get back to the 1930s and 40s, Jazz seemed to assert repeatedly and nostalgically.

Country Music seems to replicate the story in many respects. Both interviewees and the overacting narration suggests that the music has gone off the rails whenever it left its roots too far behind, whenever it got too close to Lawrence Welk pop sounds and styles. Burns and the interlocutors in the documentary film repeatedly emphasize that country has always been rescued by its return to tradition. Neotraditionalists in the 1980s rescued the music from its countrypolitan corporatization; Americana saved the day when radio stations consolidated country into mega-pop in the 1990s; and so on. Even Garth Brooks, who self-admittedly borrowed heavily from Freddie Mercury and Queen, Kiss, and other 70s arena-rock acts for his success in the 1990s, smuggled country attitudes into his massive pop stadium spectacles. He still had friends in low places.

But how did Brooks communicate this message beyond asserting it in his lyrics (no small thing, to be sure)? If Ralph Ellison’s protagonist suggested at the end of the 1952 novel Invisible Man that he spoke truth on the lower frequencies, not only for African-Americans but for all humanity, did Brooks conceal his hidden country radicalism up the scale in the higher frequencies? Maybe Brooks’s 1,369 lightbulbs were not underground but on a stadium stage plugged into a massive rock-and-roll public address system. At the center of Brooks’s country sound, you hear something simple, focused on the melody, unfolding basic stories about elemental modern concerns. He tells the tale straight (as in George Strait). But higher up in the frequencies, something else hides in plain sound. You might call it the feeling you’ve been cheated, to paraphrase the not-country legend John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols (well, they did book their first US tour through rural honky tonk dives, in an act of punk effrontery, so maybe they are country too in their outlaw way!).

Cracking through in Brooks’s show-biz arena-rock roar, in the little hiccup of a Hank Williams honky-tonk vocal, in a Jimmy Rodgers’ yodel, screaming off the top of Dolly Parton’s sparkly bell of a voice, pinched out of Bill Monroe’s high lonesome sound or Earl Scruggs’ banjo machine that kills fascists, caught in the crackle between a Buck Owens and a Don Rich guitar duel or vocal duet (or a Tammy Wynette-George Jones vocal duet for that matter), pealing from the upward cry of a Nashville session man’s pedal steel guitar riffs, and in countless other country moments, maybe what we hear is not so much the blues undertones deposited the lower frequencies as the angry cry preserved in the pierce and hiss of the higher ones.

It’s there where Burns sometimes points us in Country Music. One only wishes he had helped us hear those dimensions of the genre and its American story even more dazzlingly as they dance across the upper reaches of the mix. 

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