The foremost documentarian in the history of the medium hit another home run with “Country Music,” the first six parts of which have been broadcast on PBS and UNC-TV since Sept. 15.
In doing so, Ken Burns effectively turned the national spotlight on several traditional musicians who hail from our central Blue Ridge Mountains.
The star of Episode 1 of the series, “The Rub,” was the “Singing Brakeman” himself, Jimmie Rodgers. Many consider Rodgers to be the father of country music and the genre’s first superstar.
Rodgers was posthumously inducted into the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame (BRMHF) in 2018 as a nationally-known artist. The hall is on the top floor of the Wilkes Heritage Museum in Wilkesboro.
The episode presented a moving portrait of Rodgers as he struggled to perform while battling the effects of tuberculosis. He died of the disease in New York City in 1933, at the age of 35.
Episode 1 also referenced the Hill Billies, a band from Galax that recorded for Ralph Peer’s OKeh label in New York City in early 1925. Half the band—brothers Al and Joe Hopkins—were originally from Watauga County. When Peer asked what their band was called, they famously replied, “We’re nothing but a bunch of hillbillies from North Carolina and Virginia. Call us anything.”
“The Rub” also features the story of Uncle Dave Macon, who is considered the first star of the Grand Ole Opry, the weekly country music revue in Nashville and the longest-running radio broadcast in U.S. history. Macon was enshrined in the BRMHF in 2014 as a pioneer artist.
“Hard Times” was the title and theme of Episode 2, featuring prominently the story of the “first family” of country music, the Carter Family, an inaugural inductee into the BRMHF in 2008.
A tinge of melancholy permeated the story of A.P., Sara and Maybelle Carter—their rise to fame from poverty in Maces Spring, Va., and their eventual breakup. But the Carter Family legacy lives on, something that Burns certainly recognized in “Hard Times.”
“Hard Times” also spotlights Roy Acuff, who ascended to country music stardom through his exposure on the Grand Ole Opry. Acuff was inducted into the BRMHF in 2014 as a nationally-known artist.
The titular “Hillbilly Shakespeare” at the heart of Episode 3 was Hank Williams, whose life and early death have reached almost mythological status. Also getting significant airtime in the episode was three-finger bluegrass banjo master Earl Scruggs.
Scruggs was also an inaugural BRMHF inductee in 2008. In the episode, Marty Stuart called Scruggs one of the most important instrumentalists in music history, in any genre—a bold statement laced with very little hyperbole, in my opinion.
Episode 4, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” spends a great deal of time documenting the rise and tragic death of the inimitable Patsy Cline, who was inducted into the BRMHF in 2019. Patsy’s only daughter, Julie Fudge, seen several times in the piece, accepted the award on her mother’s behalf in June.
The Sept. 18 episode also briefly mentions the global success enjoyed by the Kingston Trio in 1958 for their song “Tom Dooley,” the origin of which was credited to “a true murder ballad from (Wilkes County) North Carolina.”
One of the “Sons and Daughters of America” profiled in Episode 5, which had its broadcast debut Sunday, was the country queen of the Smoky Mountains, Dolly Parton. The groundbreaking singer-songwriter was another inaugural inductee into the BRMHF in 2008.
Parton’s rise to fame from humble beginnings in the hills of east Tennessee was chronicled. The episode explored how, through strong will and talent, she escaped from under the patriarchal thumb of Porter Wagoner and others to write songs that spoke frankly on behalf of women.
Ralph and Carter Stanley, brothers from the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, were two of the “Sons” receiving airtime in Sunday’s episode. They were stalwarts of the steady rise of bluegrass in the late 1960s, according to the episode. The Stanley brothers were enshrined in the BRMHF in 2009 as nationally-known artists.
If the “Country Music” documentary whetted your appetite for country, bluegrass and old-time music (like it has mine), a trip to the BRMHF might be in order. Admission to the Wilkes Heritage Museum is $6, which includes the music hall exhibits, with ages 5 and under admitted free. The museum is on Main Street, Wilkesboro, in the old county courthouse. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday.