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Will Ken Burns whitewash country music’s multiracial roots?

The popular genre’s history is complex, multiracial — and segregated

Filmmaker Ken Burns poses in the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn. The Ryman was home to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974, and has returned there in winter months since 1999. (Mark Humphrey/AP)
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Ken Burns’s latest documentary, “Country Music,” begins tonight. Over eight episodes, Burns and his production team tell country music’s story from its roots in the 1920s through the mainstream success of artists like Garth Brooks in the 1990s. In showcasing the history of this quintessentially American genre, the series will no doubt feature the music of figures like Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard.

But it will do more than replay the music of cherished favorites. It will also make an argument about who and what counts as country music — a process that has, until now, privileged the genre’s connection to rural Southern white culture over a more complex but more accurate history of country music’s multiracial roots in the past century.

More than other popular music genres, country music journalists, radio and fans police the genre’s boundaries in ways that keep country music stubbornly white and focused on mass market audiences. Most recently, Lil Nas X’s smash hit “Old Town Road” was removed from Billboard’s Hot Country chart because, it claimed, the song “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music.”

But country music’s fans and artists also assert control of the genre by carefully shaping the historical narrative of the music. And while Burns commendably emphasizes the contributions of African Americans and women to country music, he used artists and fans to construct his historical narrative, foregrounding the perspectives of participants, rather than the work of scholars who have explored the genre’s roots and history. Explaining why he skipped historians, Burns said: “What we found early on is that with country music, the people themselves understood the history. They protected it.”

But privileging the voices of country’s most successful artists is very different from showcasing an accurate understanding of its history, and this narrow view of country music’s history has made it difficult to understand the genre as a rich, complex art form that was not strictly rural, white or aimed at a mass market.

Country music has always battled over control of its historical narrative. Before World War II, folklorists and ethnomusicologists who traveled the American South collected songs. They sought out the “plain white folk” of the South and believed country music emerged organically from their culture. Resulting from their own biases and assumptions, these early scholars retroactively gave the new genre of country music a white, rural history that belied the rich interracial and cross-class mixing that spawned the music.

Certain songs, stories and recordings were selected, preserved and amplified by researchers who believed that white Southerners were “a lost tonal tribe in America.” But in the process, similar songs by black Southerners were dismissed as derivatives of white originals and not seen as influential in shaping the music’s roots.

Country musicians have also advanced these biases. While they have valuable insight on their own careers, their perspective on the genre’s history should be treated skeptically. Consider one of the artists Burns uses to narrate the genre’s history in his docuseries: Merle Haggard.

While songs like “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home” are canonical in country music’s history, Haggard was himself an unreliable historical narrator. In his first autobiography (yes, country musicians often write multiple autobiographies), Haggard admitted that he was so tired of talking about his past that he started fabricating his own history and waiting to see how long it took for the made-up stories to get back to him. Consumers and scholars of country music longed to hear authentic stories about musicians’ roots — an expectation that musicians like Haggard could manipulate.

Haggard is best-known for 1969’s “Okie from Muskogee,” a song that became a conservative backlash anthem in the late 1960s. Conservatives seized the song as an authentic representation of the “Silent Majority” of white Americans who rejected the counterculture. But Haggard was cryptic about the song’s meaning. At times he said it was written as a parody and other times he stood by the song’s patriotic message. Instead of seeing Haggard as a reliable guide to country music’s past, he might better be considered a shape-shifter in the mold of Bob Dylan, an artist who toyed with audiences’ desire for authenticity.

The skewed perception formed by unreliable narrators like Haggard and misunderstandings of country’s early roots have had a significant negative impact. Failing to acknowledge country music’s multiracial origins has made it difficult to shake the perception that it is a genre by and for white people. But historical research over the past 25 years has shown a different reality.

Since the early 20th century, a musician’s race has defined their inclusion in the genre as much as the music itself. Music by black artists was labeled “race music” while nearly identical music by white artists was categorized as “hillbilly,” a precursor to country. Violations of music’s color line were treated harshly. In 1927, Columbia Records mistakenly released songs by the Allen Brothers, who were white, under the label’s race records series. The Allen Brothers sued Columbia “for damaging their reputation” and moved to a new record label, a story told by historian Patrick Huber.

These distinctions began with the color line of the Jim Crow South, but they later channeled radio playlists, record catalogues and entire genres into grooves defined by race. Even today, black and white artists in country, hip-hop and R&B strain against racialized genres. Linking race and genre involved decisions by record labels, but it also developed out of historical narratives told about country’s origins and who counted as a legitimate country musician.

Tonight’s start of the documentary provides an opportunity to tell a more inclusive story about country music’s past, and Burns says the series will emphasize the “African American mentors or influences” behind country music’s founding figures. Featured prominently is Rhiannon Giddens, an exceptionally talented bluegrass and Americana musician who has done more than anyone to highlight country’s multiracial roots. But Burns’s reliance on musicians rather than historians to tell the story of country music upholds a flawed narrative that overlooks country music’s deeper legacies of racism.

Country music itself has tried to downplay the history of segregation that shaped its commercial explosion in the late 20th century and its present position as one of America’s favorite genres. Select historical narratives have played a key role in creating a seamless mythology that country music offers simple songs about the emotional lives of rural white Americans, at the expense of a richer, more complex history about country music’s multiracial and historically specific origins. As Burns’s “Country Music” begins, viewers should watch with an awareness that the series is not just recounting country music’s history but also telling the latest version of an old story of who’s in and who’s out of the genre.

Country music emphasizes its authenticity and simplicity, saying it is little more than “three chords and the truth.” Historians know that the real truth is much more complex.