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CRITICAL MASS: Three chords and the truth: Ken Burns’ "Country Music" documentary series examines the beginnings of the genre

by Philip Martin | September 15, 2019 at 2:00 a.m.
The Original Carter Family are featured prominently in Ken Burns’ new PBS series, "Country Music." Group members are (from left) A.P. Carter, Maybelle Carter and Sara Carter. The series starts today on AETN. (Courtesy of Carter Family Museum)

In a 2010 interview with Parade magazine mainstay Dotson Rader, Willie Nelson said:

"I think most art comes out of poverty and hard times. It applies to music. Three chords and the truth -- that's what a country song is. There is a lot of heartache in the world."

It wasn't too long after that the "three chords and the truth" quote began appearing on the Internet in memes that featured Nelson's photo and attributed the poetic distillation to him. So Nelson was careful in his 2015 autobiography to attribute the quote to veteran songwriter Harlan Howard, who had written, among many other songs, the Johnny Cash and Ray Charles classic "Busted," Ray Price's "Heartaches by the Number" and, with Hank Cochran, Patsy Cline's "I Fall to Pieces."

That seemed to be settled. During his lifetime Howard was generally credited with the observation. When he died in 2002, it was noted in his obituaries. Still, I couldn't find a primary source for it and spent an hour looking for one. If Howard said it in an interview with a newspaper reporter or wrote it in a letter, good luck finding that cited on the Internet.

The quote comes up in the first few minutes of Ken Burns' entertaining, useful and professionally realized 16-hour PBS documentary mini-series Country Music, which begins today on AETN. Howard's quote also shows up on page 3 of the accompanying book Country Music ("based on a documentary film by Ken Burns, written by Dayton Duncan").

Ken Burns’

"Country Music"

Episodes 1-4, 7 p.m. today through Wednesday, AETN

Episodes 5-8, 7 p.m. Sept. 22-25, AETN

NOTE: All episodes will repeat at 9:30-11:30 p.m. except for Episode 7, which will air 7-9:30 p.m. Sept. 24 and repeats at 12:30 a.m.

ALSO: AETN will re-broadcast episodes 1-4 at 11 a.m. Sept. 22 prior to the airing of episode 5 at 7 p.m.

After each episode, at 9 p.m. (9:30 p.m. on Sept. 24), AETN will present "Talkin’ Country," with Bob Robbins of radio station The Wolf, FM-105.1. Robbins and guests will discuss each episode.


Again, there's no citing of the source. It's not hard to imagine a fact-checker or city editor circling the sentence with a red pencil: "According to who?" (It comes up again on page 228, with no source provided.)

It's common knowledge Howard said that to somebody, and maybe to a lot of somebodies at different times. People still attribute the quote to Willie or to Bob Dylan, who got tagged with it when U2's Bono changed the lyrics to Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" during a live performance. He sang a verse that included the line, "All I got is a red guitar, three chords and the truth." So now you have some people who believe that's Dylan's line. Still, others may believe it's Jimi Hendrix's line.

None of this is to criticize Burns' staggeringly good documentary but to point out the epistemological limits of this kind of inquiry.

I suspect that maybe Howard wasn't looking to distill the essence of a commonplace art form as much as give common-sense advice to a younger colleague -- as in, you don't need all those fancy diminished seventh chords, son -- country music is three chords. And the truth.

And Willie paid a whole lot of attention to that, promptly cramming a ton of jazzy minor seventh and major seventh chords into his song "Crazy."

Maybe it's to Burns' and writer/producer Dayton Duncan's credit that they don't allow themselves to get dragged down rabbit holes like this.


In Country Music's first episode they quickly dispense with the gnarly roots of what we call country music, observing that it "was not invented" but "emerged" from the songs that ordinary Americans sang in their fields and parlors on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings. Child ballads from the British Isles commingled with the rhythms and banjos of slaves. German oom-pah music brushed up against Mexican vaqueros in Texas.

Ketch Secor (left) of Old Crow Medicine Show and Rhiannon Giddens perform during a taping for "Country Music." (AP)
Ketch Secor (left) of Old Crow Medicine Show and Rhiannon Giddens perform during a taping for "Country Music." (AP)

"The rub," interviewee Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops says, "is people mixing. It starts going back and forth and it becomes this beautiful mix of cultures. And what happens is, always, the people who are living together and who are working together are combining and making this music. The hearts spoke musically to each other. And then somebody from the ... up, up here, says, 'Oh, we can't have that. You guys can't be doing that stuff together. It's like they don't want us to know how mixed we are."

"I think that friction is a good way to look at the music," Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show adds. "Country music comes from the South because this is where slavery happened."

There was a professionalism to some of the tributaries. Minstrel shows where white musicians in black-face performed songs by Stephen Foster (who died penniless despite the popularity of his songs and is another rabbit hole down which Burns and Duncan could not afford to fall) and James A. Bland, the college-educated black New Yorker who wrote "Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny."

Christian Frederick Martin developed a flattop guitar sturdy enough to employ steel strings that allowed the instrument to move out of the polite parlors of the middle class onto bandstands and into juke joints alongside fiddles and banjos.

Vaudeville performer Emmett Miller, a yodeling falsetto (who performed in black-face) was a seminal influence on Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Milton Brown, Tommy Duncan and Merle Haggard. He recorded versions of "Lovesick Blues" in 1925 and 1928 that Williams took as models for his version a generation later. (Miller is another figure who might deserve his own documentary.)

Performers on stage during the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium, circa 1960 (Les Leverett Collection)
Performers on stage during the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium, circa 1960 (Les Leverett Collection)

There's too much and not enough here. Like most Burns' products, Country Music is overwhelming and necessarily quick-paced. It emphasizes well-known parts of the story -- Ralph Peer's work at Okeh Records and the Victor Talking Machine Company (later RCA), especially his seminal recording sessions (the "big bang of country music") that took place in Bristol, Tenn., in 1927 and kicked off the recording careers of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, among others.

Conventional wisdom positions the Carters and Rodgers as two sides of the country music coin; the Carters were the Sunday-morning family-oriented gospel-driven "sunny side," while Rodgers represented the Saturday-night restless bounder, an archetypal drifter. While there's truth to both these characterizations, the stories of these artists are rich in complexity.

A.P. Carter married Sara Dougherty in 1915 when she was 17 and installed her in his two-room cabin in Poor Valley, Va. He was a looming man who'd been born with a palsy that caused his hands to shake and his voice to sometimes quaver, yet he had an odd musicality.

While he could play the fiddle, read the shape-note hymnals used in his church, and possessed a rich bass voice, he had trouble holding melodies in his head. Still, he was ambitious and meant to capitalize on the obvious talents of Sara and her younger cousin Maybelle, a guitar prodigy who married A.P.'s brother Eck.


The case can be made that the most important guitar player in the history of recorded popular music was "Mother" Maybelle Carter, the sole guitarist and alto harmony singer in the group. While the Carter Family nominally performed as a trio, A.P. didn't contribute much. He sang a little -- "bassed in a little" -- and sometimes held a guitar on stage.

With A.P. pretty useless as a guitar player, Maybelle was forced to come up with an innovative technique that allowed her to play lead and rhythm parts at the same time. Before Maybelle, the guitar was strictly a rhythm instrument, used almost like percussion, while banjos and fiddles played melodic leads.

This method -- called variously the Carter Scratch, Carter lick, thumb brush and most often Carter Family Picking -- involved Maybelle using her thumb to pick out the melody on the bass strings of her 1928 Gibson L-5 while rhythmically downstroking chords with her other fingers on the treble strings. She usually accomplished this by wearing a thumb pick and a finger pick on her index finger.

As simple as this innovation might seem, no one had played that way before. So Maybelle Carter has a claim as the mother of modern rhythm and lead guitar styles ... because the sole guy in the band couldn't pull his instrumental weight.

But A.P. Carter is an important figure in his own right. His principal role was to find material for the group to record. He copyrighted a lot of songs he didn't write, songs he collected on his "song hunting" trips with Sara or a secretary who were called upon to remember the melodies. While that mightn't have been quite ethical -- we know he didn't write "Keep on the Sunny Side," one of the Carter Family's signature tunes -- he probably is responsible for the preservation of dozens of songs that had been handed down through an oral tradition.

They auditioned for Peer in August 1927. He was immediately struck by the purity of Sara's voice and signed them. A.P. Carter was listed as the composer of the songs the trio recorded, though he hadn't written them. Peer's deal with the Victor Talking Machine Company allowed him to publish these songs, splitting royalties with A.P.

While Country Music devotes a lot of time to the Carter Family, they could have spent a lot more.

The original Carter Family blossomed into three generations of musicians that include A.P. and Sara's children, Joe and Janette Carter, and Maybelle and her daughters, Helen, June and Anita, and their children.

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash are featured in Ken Burns’ series "Country Music." It begins broadcasting on AETN today. (Sony Music Archives)
Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash are featured in Ken Burns’ series "Country Music." It begins broadcasting on AETN today. (Sony Music Archives)

June Carter would famously marry Arkansas native Johnny Cash in 1968. Their son, John Carter Cash, is a musician and producer.

The Carter Family deserves its own The Wire-style HBO series; it could run for years. It's a fascinating and tragic story. A.P. Carter was an odd man and Sara ended up divorcing him in 1936, though the divorce was kept quiet until she used the 50,000 watts of border-blaster radio station XERA-AM in Del Rio, Texas, to send a message to her lover (A.P.'s cousin) Coy Bayes (Burns and Duncan spell it "Bays") via the ballad "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes," which was one of those songs A.P. took credit for writing and Peer published. (XERA was owned by notorious goat gland "doctor" John R. Brinkley, who, after Mexico revoked his broadcasting license under pressure from the U.S. government, would subsequently retreat to Little Rock.)

The traditional melody of "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes" was used in the 1925 Welby Toomey and Edgar Boaz song "Thrills That I Can't Forget," and in Roy Acuff's version of the traditional hymn "The Great Speckled Bird" in 1936. In 1952, it would serve as the melody for Hank Thompson's mansplaining anthem "The Wild Side of Life" and Kitty Wells' better-selling retort "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" later that year.

The great philosopher David Allan Coe -- whose stint in the Ohio State Penitentiary is mentioned in passing in Country Music -- noticed all this and used the melody again in his 1977 song "If That Ain't Country," which concluded with the stanza: "I'm thinking tonight of my blue eyes/Concerning a great speckled bird/I didn't know God made honky tonk angels/and went back to the wild side of life."

Jimmie Rodgers, also known as "The Singing Brakeman," is often called the father of country music. (AP)
Jimmie Rodgers, also known as "The Singing Brakeman," is often called the father of country music. (AP)


Country Music scrapes the surface of the Carters and their legacy -- and Burns and Duncan know it.

As it does with its precis of Rodgers' tragic life and career.

For Rodgers, the Bristol sessions were the culmination of years of work and worry. He soon released "The Soldier's Sweetheart" and "Sleep Baby Sleep," both of which became hits. "Blue Yodel," also known as "T for Texas," made him the first country music superstar. The 1928 hit was the first of 13 "Blue Yodel" tunes Rodgers wrote. Later that same year, he had another million-seller with "The Brakeman's Blues." The next year, Rodgers made the movie short The Singing Brakeman, which provided him with his best-known nickname.

Rodgers died in 1933 at age 35, having spawned thousands of imitators, including Gene Autry and Ernest Tubb (who acquired Rodgers' customized 00-18 Martin guitar, emblazoned with Rodgers' name on the neck and the word "thanks" on the back from his widow). Both went on to make their own indelible marks on the industry.

Country Music pushes forward -- Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard, Charlie Pride, Loretta Lynn, Owen Bradley, Patsy Cline ...

"We are covered in the scars of what was left out," Burns told the Nashville Tennessean last week.

Things must necessarily be left out. We cannot make the map as big as the territory. Our torches only reach so far into the dark; our senses only detect a narrow sliver of what is out there. I was going to unspool my theory about how Emmylou Harris and her Hot Band saved country music. I wanted to talk about Michael Nesmith, and the cultural dominance of country music, the way it colonized network television in the 1960s. But there's no room.

So how can we complain that we don't see Spade Cooley here, that Gram Parsons gets mentioned but not Clarence White? The whole thing wraps up about 20 years ago because, hey, it's history.

It's not cultural criticism, not journalism. It's a survey course that will provide the uninitiated an introduction and put things in context for casual fans. It makes intelligent connections via its well-chosen commentators. Pete Coyote has never sounded better.

Country Music is a codification of what we think we know, of what we think is settled.

Like how it was Harlan Howard who told us country music was three chords and the truth.

Which works the way a poem does, even if he was just trying to give young Willie Hugh Nelson some practical guidance.


Style on 09/15/2019

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