“Country Music,” the latest in filmmaker Ken Burns’ series of detailed documentaries about the American experience, has the potential to bring a whole new audience into the country music fold, a country music expert said Friday.
Burns’ new documentary, which premieres Sunday on PBS, traces the origins and significance of “the soundtrack not of the elite, but of the average, ordinary citizen,” said Don Cusic, who served as a consultant on the documentary project. “The story of country music is the story of America.”
Local viewers can see the program at 8 p.m. Sunday on VPM PBS.
He said that Burns’ film may help dismantle condescending stereotypes about country music and its fans. People who assume the genre is only for rural listeners are in for a surprise, because Burns demonstrates how closely the history of the genre and that of the nation are connected.
“It’s like going to college in country music,” he said of the documentary. “A lot of people in this country do not like country music. I think this is going to open their eyes.”
Cusic, who is Curb Professor of Music Industry History at Belmont University, is an author of numerous books on country music, including “Nashville Sound: An Illustrated Timeline,” and its stars, including Gene Autry, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Eddy Arnold. He also is a songwriter and record producer.
Country music fans already know the genre’s power to reach listeners everywhere from the depth of heartbreak to the exuberance of the dance floor.
“There’s a country song for every mood you’re in,” Cusic said. “It’s an emotional music.”
Heart-tugging highlights in the film include the untimely deaths of singers Patsy Cline and Hank Williams and their lasting influence on the genre.
The rise of country is tied to significant moments of change in American life, including the emergence and prevalence of radio, which brought the musical genre into living rooms across the nation. “Radio came of age in the 1930s, and that’s when country music came of age,” Cusic said.
Sweeping cultural changes after the Great Depression and World War II included major migrations to metropolitan areas. People who moved to cities for new opportunities often missed the pace and values of rural living, and country songs on the radio brought those memories flooding back.
“You looked back on those country roots, and it brought you comfort,” Cusic said.
Country music also played a major role in the history of jukeboxes. Many venues couldn’t afford to hire bands every night, but they could make a wide variety of musicians available to their customers at the jingle of a coin and the push of a button. “That’s who bought records when people weren’t buying records,” Cusic said.
For consultant Cusic, “Country Music” offers some overdue credit for a genre that hasn’t always gotten the respect it deserved.
“The story of country music is a fight for respect,” Cusic said, adding that the fact that Burns has created a new film on the genre in itself reflects a level of respect. “It’s the music I grew up with, and it’s finally getting its just due.”