My wife Liz and I watched it night after night.
For both of us it served as a soundtrack of our lives — the music of Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Buck Owens, Willie Nelson. It resurrected sweet yet painful memories of our grandparents, parents and our own younger selves.
Acuff’s “The Great Speckled Bird” was my granny’s favorite song. My dad often walked around the house belting out Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin’,” which I play on the car stereo for my grandkids, who love it.
There was hardly a song or a singer that didn’t create a reminiscence for Liz or me.
Burns and his colleagues did an admirable job of distilling country’s history and themes.
But they overlooked one central theme behind that working-class art form.
You can’t fully understand country music — or its traditional fans, or those fans’ political, social and religious views — without understanding the power of shame.
I speak from generations of experience.
Maybe this story will illustrate.
Back when I was in graduate school, I won a competitive 10-week fellowship to study in another state. I realize that just being in graduate school set me apart from most of my own country forebears. But I’m still their child. Their DNA is mine.
When I arrived at my new school, I found myself profoundly out of my element.
My dozen or so fellow fellows might as well have been from another planet.
One was the son of a media mogul then on the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans. Another was the scion of a family that owned a metropolitan daily paper. One wrote for the Wall Street Journal and another was on the staff the Los Angeles Times. One had attended Stanford and another Brown. As a kid, one had gone to the same private school as Amy Carter, former president Jimmy Carter’s daughter.
I blush to admit it, but when they asked about my background — I lied. Flat out lied.
I didn’t want them to know I’d grown up moving from rented house to crackerbox parsonage to trailer park, usually one stop ahead of the bill collectors.
I couldn’t admit I still lived in a cramped apartment that had been converted from Sunday school rooms over the kitchen of a Pentecostal church, or that I sometimes had to jump up at 3 a.m. to fight rats out of our kitchen before they could scurry into my 4-year-old’s nearby bed.
To this day, I don’t know whether my perceptions were accurate or else projections born of my own insecurity, but I felt my classmates looked down on me, that they were sneering behind their hands. I thought maybe they were right to mock me.
Here’s how I endured. Every morning when I got in my car to drive to the institute, I’d pop in a Loretta Lynn cassette. I played it on my lunch break. That fall, I just about wore out Loretta’s tape.
Loretta would wail, “I’m proud to be a coal miner’s daughter.” From a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler.
You think you’re better than I am, she was saying, but I refuse to feel ashamed of who I am or where I’m from. No, I’m proud.
I’d hit rewind.
Me, I was ashamed of who I was. And I was ashamed of being ashamed.
But I was proud of it, too. It was complicated and mixed up. I can’t say I understood it. I sure felt it, though.
I played that song until I believed what it said, not just about Loretta but about me.
I gritted my teeth. I decided to show those urbane folks I was as good as they were.
It worked. In the end, I did well.
But that’s not even the point.
Merle Haggard’s classic Okie character sings about exactly the same thing: “I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,” he says. I know you think I’m dumb and square and comical, he’s saying. Well, brother, blow it out your ear.
To understand country music, you need to know what it’s like to feel unworthy because of who you are and where you live and what you love.
Country historically was the music of sharecroppers, textile workers and ditch-diggers, people barely scraping by, people told every single day in a hundred different ways they were hayseeds who didn’t matter.
You can only take that for so long before it seeps through your pores. You start to suspect maybe the city-slickers are right: you are inferior.
If you’re not careful, you self-destruct, because you hate yourself worse than they hate you. You start to drink too much, fight too much, cheat too much — as a thousand country songs testify.
That’s the insidious course shame takes.
Sometimes self-destruction manifests itself as just plain destruction. It becomes defiance and rebellion, a burning rage to blow up the whole rotten system. You wave your rebel flag and vote for any politician who promises to wreak havoc against the elites.
Bring on the end of time, Hank Jr. sings, because country folks can survive.
Outsiders often misunderstand. They think bad judgment and prickliness are the results of ignorance or some free-floating misanthropy.
Instead, they’re often the products of a keen perception and of self-loathing. They’re what happens when a class of human beings is told it doesn’t matter.