Ken Burns, Blanco Brown And Country Music's Decreasing Racial Barriers

J. Kaviar
Blanco Brown

When Ken Burns' PBS series Country Music premieres on Sept. 15, the eight-part documentary will explore multiple storylines in the genre's rise from rural niche format to mainstream plank.

One of the plot threads most likely to surprise -- even shock -- casual viewers is the prevalence of black influence in an idiom that has long been referred to as "the white man's blues."

Burns' series recounts how black musicians taught or assisted such pioneering figures as The Carter Family, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and Bill Monroe. It reminds viewers how Elvis Presley broke out through country after appropriating elements of R&B and the blues. It shows how Ray Charles brought country to popular culture by repackaging songs with soul and jazz arrangements in an era of segregation. And it traces the subsequent rise of Charley Pride, who endured racial slurs and a skeptical industry to become country's first black hitmaker.  

"This is super important," says Burns. "It's nothing that country has spent any time acknowledging, sort of collectively."  

Eight years in the making, the 16.5-hour production of Country Music arrives during a chaotic cultural period. More than half of Americans believe the current president is a racist, according to multiple polls, and white supremacist actions led to a brutal death at a 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Va., plus mass shootings at a Charleston, S.C., church in 2015 and an El Paso, Texas, shopping mall in 2019.   

  

But at the same time, the country genre has become more open to black assimilation. Such artists of color as Darius Rucker, Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown all have earned recent country hits. Blanco Brown's "The Git Up" has topped Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart for eight weeks. The Fisk Jubilee Singers provided prominent backing vocals on Rodney Atkins' RIAA-certified gold single "Caught Up in the Country." And Lil Nas X received a Country Music Association Award nomination along with Billy Ray Cyrus on Aug. 28 for "Old Town Road," a title that reignited long-standing arguments about country's boundaries.

Thus, as some of the loudest voices on the national stage encourage demeaning racial behaviors, it can be argued that a quiet majority is rejecting those outdated ideals and adopting more inclusive attitudes, with their musical tastes leading the way. It's evident not only in the increasing country penetration by minorities, but also in the format's audio mélange, which finds acts like Thomas Rhett, Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line successfully infusing their brands of country with soul and hip-hop influences.

"I think this [represents] most of rural America," says new Sony Music Nashville artist Niko Moon, who blends urban drums and bass with country lyrics and instruments. "Everybody is doing their thing, and they're switching back and forth between Post Malone and Luke Bryan, you know. The lines are getting so torn down at this point."

Burns and his associates could not have known when they started work on Country Music in 2010 how significant race would be in the 2019 cultural landscape. Barack Obama was in his second year as the nation's first black president, and some citizens believed that racism was a thing of the past. But the issue has played a role in many of Burns' previous Florentine Films documentaries -- including The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz and Vietnam --and it was only natural that his team would explore its connection to country.

"We've been making documentaries about American history for 30, 40 years, and anybody that looks at American history knows that race is part of that unfolding story of America," says Country Music script writer Dayton Duncan. "We didn't go looking for it. It's there."

It's woven into the series from its very start. The banjo, one of the hallmarks of country, originated in Africa. Spiritual songs, which provided a form of escape for slaves in Southern fields, influenced the tone of hillbilly ballads sung by white sharecroppers. And producer Ralph Peer guided the first regional country hit, Fiddlin' John Carson's "The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane," while looking for blues artists to record during a trip to Atlanta in 1923.

Lesley Riddle, a black guitar player, joined A.P. Carter on numerous trips into the hills of Tennessee and Virginia to find mountain songs. He learned them and catalogued them, and he taught Maybelle Carter a guitar technique that became revolutionary among early country musicians.

"I will preach from the top of the mountain that Lesley Riddle should be in the Country Music Hall of Fame," John Carter Cash, Maybelle's grandson, told Billboard Country Update.

Other early country artists had their own African-American mentors who inspired their playing or even their pursuit of live performance.

"I would say at least half of these artists in the early days of country music had that same encounter in which they met a black songster and thought, 'I know what I want to do,' " says Old Crow Medicine Show's Ketch Secor in the documentary. "And the torch was passed."

Black-and-white photos in the Country Music documentary show both races playing the same instruments in poor, back-porch settings, though society's cruel divide would be reflected in country for decades. Carson was known to perform for KKK gatherings and Communists in addition to farm families and politicians. Blackface comedy was common, even at the Grand Ole Opry, where black harmonica player DeFord Bailey was popular during the show's first decade. Bailey could not stay at the same hotels as The Delmore Brothers when he toured with them, thanks to segregation. And Opry GM George D. Hay eventually fired him in a dispute over his repertoire, deriding Bailey as "lazy."

Even in that era, white musicians liberally borrowed ideas from their black counterparts -- the musical roots of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," for example, originated in a spiritual hymn.

"I grew up a musician, and we didn't care [about race]," said Vince Gill while praising the PBS series to an industry crowd at a party for his recently released album Okie. "I loved Ray Charles as much as I love Ray Price. None of that stuff ever mattered to me, and to see it matter to other people is hurtful. It's so pointless."

 But separatism remains a cultural flashpoint, fueled in part by the divide between urban and rural living. While growing up in a split family, Blanco Brown was exposed to hip-hop in city neighborhoods and to country when he resided on a farm. Although others might have exacerbated the differences, he found a way to fuse them.

"The gene pool cries out for diversity; tribal tradition cries out for sameness," jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis says in Country Music. "America, we're caught in between those two things. So our music has ended up being segregated. And that's not what the origins of the music would leave you to believe would be its trajectory."

Indeed, though early country and the blues both spoke the language of disenfranchised poor people, the music was marketed under different terms -- "race" music and "hillbilly" -- and those categories have been handed down across generations, creating an artificial barrier that has been difficult to transcend.

In the era of mixed-genre streaming playlists and push buttons that allow radio listeners to jump formats in a snap, the divisions seem to be dissolving, white supremacists be damned.

"Commerce and convenience wants to in-silo and categorize," says Burns. "It's very understandable. We've got a tsunami of information breaking over us at every moment. Of course, categorization is important, and we understand it.

"But we waste so much time reminding [ourselves] that we've got these differences, right? 'Oh, you're from a different part of the country.' 'Oh, you've got an accent.' 'Oh, you're tall.' 'Oh, you're short.' 'Oh, you're rich.' 'Oh, you're poor.' You're gay, you're straight, you're black, you're white, you're male, you're female, you're whatever it is. We're 99.99% the same, and that means the music -- which is, by [songwriter] Harlan Howard, called three chords and the truth -- reaches every single one of us if we open our hearts and our ears."


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