My Dad's family is on a first name basis with country music performers. 'I wish Johnny was still here', my Mom says wistfully about Johnny Cash' or 'I'd reconize Mother Maybelle's voice anywhere', my Dad says as if speaking of his own mother. Throughout the Great Depression in North Dakota, my parent's family was held together not only by the Carter Family music but similar music from Mississippi, New Orleans and Kentucky. It gave them the faith to survive in a world gone crazy as black clouds of dust, war and poverty swept them up out of their home into the bright sunshiney newness of the West Coast. When I was a small girl, I was fascinated by the Carter Family, thinking that they were our distant musical cousins.
Our family was not unique. This is what comes through loud and clear in the new eight- episode documentary by Ken Burns, Country Music. A mixture of cultures and nationalites gave the development of country music variety and spark, but it was that personal appeal, the way that its stories illuminate the human conditon that made it outrageously popular.
Unlike the upper end classical music of Carnegie Hall, the country music stories that came pouring out of the new affordable radios could be enjoyed by the poorest child in Mississippi, a farming family in the Midwest, or a migrant worker in New Mexico. Because all of us know happieness is fleeting and sadness feels like forever, but life is easier if there is someone who understands. Country Music artists and their songs do just that. From The Carter's Family's Single Girl, Married Girl, to Hank Williams' I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry to Loretta Lynn's Don't Come Home a-Drinkin' with Lovin' on Your Mind to Charlie Prides' All I Have to Offer You is Me, country music tells us with every song that we are not alone and our feelings are real enough to put into the words of a song.