By Robert Dean
The sound of Hank Williams breaks my heart. Every time I hear him, something inside shatters, no matter how happy or sad. His ghost haunts me. When I die, I hope my friends and family surround the jukebox, drunk, and sing along to “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry," which, to me, is the world's most perfect song.
From heartache to the silence of the lost night, with the bottle in your hand, country music has a song for all of us – saints and sinners alike. If someone has stepped on your heart or made you fall in love with a bat of an eye, it's all there in the aural roux that was forged across the American landscape all those years ago.
After binge-watching Ken Burns epic 16-hour Country Music documentary, I felt a sense of wholeness again, something that I'd been missing for a hot minute lately. To say the documentary affected me would be putting it lightly, at different times, I got choked up, laughed at stupid jokes and was thrown back into a well of youth I hadn't thought about in a long time. Seeing the Carter Family, The Judds, Buck Owens, and George Strait the memories of riding around on the back roads in Arkansas, swerving through pothole ridden streets in Chicago in my Grammie's 1994 Honda Accord, or just passing through my parent's garage as my dad wrenched on his Harley.
I was excited for the event, I’d marked in my phone as something I needed to watch, but I never anticipated the emotional impact the series would have on me. Lately, my life has been a hurricane and this body of work felt familiar, something to cling onto.
Despite knowing a major chunk of the music’s history, there was much to gush over, to fall in love all over again. It had been years since I listened to Roy Acuff, or looked up those Little Jimmy Dickens deep cuts. I forgot that when my grandfather died, we played Vince Gill’s “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” a song I generally avoid due to its absolute soul crushing beauty and sadness.
Our parents raised us on the riffs of Black Sabbath, the ache of Muddy Waters, the twang of the Allman Brothers, and honesty of Willie Nelson. Growing up, we knew Conway Twitty just as well as the Black Crowes, and you best believe the jukebox in my grandparent's basement had some "Tulsa Time" by Don Williams. Despite being raised in Chicago, a significant portion of my family was southern, so I'd always had a foot in both worlds. My grandfather was from Bradford, Arkansas, while my Uncle Bruce and cousins lived on top of a mountain just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. The static of a radio moving down the dial, finding some Dwight Yoakam in the middle of the night while rolling through quiet town on the way to visit family is a memory scorched.
But then I discovered my own music. I liked rock and roll, grunge, and metal. I liked the honesty of Nirvana and Social Distortion, the rage of Pantera, and piling on to strangers in the middle of a hardcore pit, screaming my lungs out. That was my identity. I left country music behind, I was a kid from an urban area, how could I relate to country music, something my friends would never understand?
It took Hank Williams to break everything down, to make me feel small.
Around 20, I was cruising down a back road, listening to NPR, when a story came on about Hank, and it floored me. Everything I'd known about country music came back, but like a sledgehammer to the guts, it shattered the perceptions like a bad mirror. This wasn't the gross pop country of the day like Shania Twain, this was brutal, honest, and real. Hearing that voice, that song was as emotionally bellicose as anything Kurt Cobain howled about.
Immediately, I raced to the computer, downloading everything off Limewire. I went to Borders and bought the biography of Hank and a "Best of" collection. From that moment on, I was rechristened back into the church of Hank, Cash, Willie, Waylon, Possum, and Merle. I didn't give a shit if my friends didn't understand the music.
I was well on my path to diving deep into the artists, even my parents or grandparents didn't know. I wanted to learn as much as I could about Americana, bluegrass, and everything that wasn't flashy jeans or anything remotely pop.
Country music has always had an in-fighting relationship toward itself considering guys like Townes Van Zandt and Porter Wagoner were around at the same time, but so were Johnny Cash and the Outlaws who finally found their voices in the 1970s. Country Music, tapped into a hundred-year history over 16 hours, and sure plenty of notable acts were left out, but you can't please everyone all of the time. (David Allan Coe is a racist piece of shit and doesn't deserve to be mentioned, no matter how many good songs he has.) I would have been cool to at least see a nod to Johnny Paycheck, if only for his story.
While yes, the overbearing "Nashville sound" did begin to take shape in the late 1950s with its lush strings and pleasant tones, there was still darkness percolating on the edges of the music.
Country Music tapped into my childhood, hearing songs from the Jimmie Rogers and the Carter Family, seeing footage of depression-era families surrounded by a Victrola, listening to the newest "hillbilly" recordings, made something I’d forgotten about inside my skeletal cage swell. I own my great-grandparents shellac records. My grandfather wanted me to have them before he died. Watching that footage, seeing the sinners baptized into the rivers of life, it all felt like a homecoming. What Ken Burns tapped into for a lot of people, not just me was giving the music, a sense of family, of purpose as a soundtrack to our memories. I dug those records out from the cardboard box I’ve kept them and looked at the worn labels from the 1930s and early 1940s - my tastes decades later aren’t too far off from people I know very little about other than I belong to them.
But without a doubt, the two figures who loomed over the entire documentary were Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, two men steeped in a cloud of bleakness most of us will never understand. Cash might have made it for many years longer than ole' Hank, but he never lost his edge. Instead of appealing to new country music sensibilities, he converted millions of new listeners in the twilight of his career with a series of stripped-down recordings with Rick Rubin for the American Recordings.
Willie was there, and so were his four walls that Faron Young made famous. We learned about the tragic death of Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn's powerful message of individuality and freedom against the industry's wishes. Emmylou Harris got her due, as well as Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs. Looking back at some of the themes present throughout the documentary, it’s crystal clear that Lorretta Lynn is not a woman you mess with.
Dolly whips out this breakneck version of "Mule Skinner Blues" and it kills. There’s the saga of George and Tammy, drinking and fighting till their dying days. Charlie Pride, Kitty Owens, Ricky Skaggs, and Kathy Mattea all chime in on their experiences in Nashville, at the Opry and why the Ryman is the Mother Church. Who knew Carlene Carter was so magnetic on television, while Marty Stewart stole the show with his critical insight into the culture and the history and the music.
Seeing the music come to life, hearing Dolly Parton wail out those hits, reminded me that she was my first crush, that I was into Garth Brooks at the same time I liked Nirvana after spending a summer in Arkansas with my grandparents. When I got back to Chicago, I promptly hid my cassette of Ropin' The Wind.
According to the news, a ton of people are discovering the roots of country music, which is a good thing. When you're a die-hard fan of country music it gets exhausting having the same conversation over and over again with people, "I like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings but hate the new poppy stuff."
Trust me, there are two schools of thought when it comes to this: it's very much an us vs. them situation. Once you dig deep and grab those Bill Monroe records out of the dollar bin, you'll discover the Louvin Brothers and so on. There are a ton of current artists like Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, and Tyler Childers out there making the big noise, while smaller artists are carving up names for themselves in the honky tonks and bars everywhere. They're swinging, grooving and channeling those ghosts of old. Those are my people.
One of the best stories about country music was back in the heyday of Bebop Jazz, Charlie Parker was standing in front of a jukebox pumping in nickels, playing Hank Williams and Roy Acuff. When one of his fellow musicians asked him what he saw in the music, he replied, "it's the stories, man."
Sometimes, we all need to wrap our arms around the ghosts of the past, no matter how painful or sweet. There's a lot of love in those sepia tones, but also the technicolor of today, too. Charley Pride, Ray Charles, and all of those old school blues musicians have their fingerprints on the success and soul of the music and it was only right to see that they were given their due.
While rock and roll was lost in it’s own bullshit, country music moved on its own axis.
Waylon was punk rock, defying a genre, asking his peers, "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" while Jeannie C. Riley's "Harper Valley PTA" and Kitty Wells "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" shoved it right back to the men who treated so many women like second-class citizens. "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" acts as a conduit between worlds, emotions, and generations, showing that a song about death can connect us all, no matter who's singing it.
And of course, my favorite song of all time, Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" stands as some of the most exquisite poetry the genre ever produced. For almost two decades, I've been chasing after a man that's been dead for sixty-six years. I even have his face tattooed on my left wrist.
Now, at thirty-eight, my cowboy boots are scuffed and worn. I've lived in the south for over a decade, and the obsession with the music hasn't changed. I'm thankful Ken Burns came along and gave us this newest masterpiece dedicated to one of the most significant American art forms. Now, it should be our mission to spread the word of all of these new musicians and move them into the collective conscious to be front and center, where they deserve to be.