Of Music, Storytelling, and Unity

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Ray and I got up well before the crack of dawn yesterday morning to attend a most unusual event, held so early that we easily made it back to church by 9:00 a.m. We arrived in Cookeville, Tennessee, about 6:00 a.m., an hour before a 7:00 a.m. event at the Cookeville Performing Arts Center. We had reserved free tickets in advance but arrived early because seating was first-come, first served.

The newest PBS documentary series by famed documentary director Ken Burns is titled Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns. Burns is in Tennessee (where else!) to begin a 30-city tour to promote the series. When Becky Magura, the go-getter president and CEO of our very small local PBS station, learned about his tour, she convinced tour organizers that Burns should make a Sunday morning stop in Cookeville (population 33,452) on his way from Nashville to Bristol, Tennessee. Bristol holds a special place in the history of country music. It is where a record producer from the Victor Talking Machine Company first recorded the Carter Family singing their beautiful mountain music.

Even though the only time Magura could schedule Burns for an event in Cookeville was at 7:00 o’clock on a Sunday morning, she decided to go for it. The attendance was excellent. Magura met Burns in Nashville and rode with him to Cookeville, conducting an interview on his tour bus.

Ken Burns’ tour bus parked outside the Cookeville Performing Arts Center on Sunday morning

Cookeville mayor Ricky Shelton welcomed Burns and gave him a key to the city.

Burns spent 45 minutes or so on the CPAC stage, along with his longtime collaborators Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey and with country music performer Ketch Secor. The four formed a panel and Magura interviewed them. Our session began with a viewing of the introduction to the series. Burns and his team have worked for eight years on this project. They have conducted 101 interviews and collected many film clips, plus thousands of poignant historic images of everyday people playing music. Having not seen the entire sixteen hours of film included in the series, I don’t know whether I will be able to recommend it, but the ten-minute introduction was beautiful and compelling. Simply having the privilege to peek into the lives of the folks in the still photos was a privilege.

I grew up with country music playing in my house all night. Daddy kept the radio on WSM in his and Mother’s room. In my room beside theirs, I went to sleep to country music and I heard it if I awoke in the night. Once Daddy took us to a radio station where we got to experience a disc jockey playing country records on a turntable. Once Daddy took us to the Ryman Auditorium to see the Friday Night Opry.

I know that many of the lyrics are not appropriate, but I also know that much country music speaks to the heart and much honors God and much is a powerful reflection of the story of Americans. During the Sunday morning panel discussion in Cookeville, Burns quoted songwriter Harlan Howard, who described country music this way: “It’s three chords and the truth.” Well, maybe that isn’t exactly true every time, but there is much truth in his statement.

Country music songwriters and singers use country music to tell stories. Burns uses film, photos, and stories to create documentaries to tell stories of America. Ray and I share Burns’ passion for telling history stories in a way that touches the heart of the listener.

Burns told the audience yesterday that his father was an anthropologist and a still photographer. He remembers watching his dad pull photos out of photo development chemicals. Burns lost his mother to cancer when he was eleven years old.

The motto of the United States of America is E pluribus unum, which means out of many one. Burns said that in America today we have too much pluribus and not enough unum. I agree. I hear too much emphasis on self and not enough on what unifies Americans. Burns says that country music does not have one root, but that it has always been a mixture. Ketch Secor said, “We are all in the choir together.” I like that idea. We need to remember that we all have the same ancestors and the same Creator.

. . . He made from one man every nation of mankind
to live on all the face of the earth,
having determined their appointed times
and the boundaries of their habitation . . . .
Acts 17:26




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