She was walking down a hallway in her dorm when she heard music coming from the room of a girl she didn’t know. She didn’t know the music either — it was probably Hank Williams, Sherry thinks now — so she stuck her head in.
“She had a little old radio,” Sherry said. “I said, ‘What’s that music?’ And she said, ‘I’m from the hills of West Virginia, and we call it hillbilly.’
Sherry had been into rock and roll, but now her heart was set on country. She’d go to the Music Box, a record store in Langley Park, where the owner would let her sit on the floor behind the counter and spread out 45s, deciding what to buy.
“It’s because of the words,” Sherry said. “The philosophy is so true to life. It’s what people are living, what emotions they’re feeling.”
Sherry worked for 30 years at the University of Maryland, where she trained marriage counselors. That seems like a pretty good job for a fan of country music, a genre that can go from “Stand By Your Man” to “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” in a heartbeat.
Sherry’s late husband, Henry, was an ophthalmologist who’d gone to high school at tony Sidwell Friends and medical school at Johns Hopkins. Sherry did not encounter many country music fans among those crowds.
“When my husband wanted to be really nice to me, he took me to the Stardust in Waldorf to see Tammy Wynette,” she said.
Wynette was a favorite. So were Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard and Reba McEntire.
“My very favorite is Kris Kristofferson,” Sherry said. “But I do not call him country. I think he’s in a category all by himself.”
She recited a Kristofferson lyric: “He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.”
Said Sherry: “I think that should be on my tombstone.”
And it might serve as a motto for Washington itself. This area has always been an incongruous country hotbed, its artists, promoters and fans vital to the music’s success. Ken Burns touches on some of those figures in his documentary — Winchester, Va.’s Patsy Cline, for example — but he didn’t have room for others.
“We felt it was a really good opportunity for a lot of people who are newcomers to the area,” Seth said. “Probably the last thing they think of is D.C. as a country town. Of course, it was.”
Seth traveled to Nashville to interview sisters Roni and Donna Stoneman, part of the famed Stoneman Family who lived in Prince George’s County. Mark spent time with Rob Miller, who used to catch bluegrass acts at the Friendly Inn in Ellicott City, Md. When that place closed, he started inviting bands and audiences to a barn behind his Maryland house.
There’s Cleve Francis, the Northern Virginia cardiologist who in the 1990s put his medical career on hold to seek country stardom.
“One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about this process is the people we connected with have been just incredible to work with,” Mark said. “They are really passionate about what they do, but also passionate about sharing their stories.”
One of the mini-docs is about Connie B. Gay, a promoter and radio station owner who was central to country music.
“A lot of people benefited from the work he did,” Seth said. “Roy Clark, Jimmy Dean, Patsy Cline all got their start here and owed a good share of their success to Connie’s work.”
The pieces are being broadcast at various times on WETA. You can find them online at weta.org/countrymusic.
Working on the project has had an effect on both men, one that will probably be familiar to people watching the Burns documentary: “There’s a lot more country music on my Apple Music playlist,” Seth said.