Ken Burns’ latest epic documentary Country Music is [cue embarrassed throat-clearing] educational.
Of course, I’m well aware of the tradition of minstrel shows, but I didn’t realize that at the Grand Ole Opry (and less famous venues) white performers sometimes blackened their teeth, donned battered straw hats, and smoked corncob pipes to appeal to audiences, who, if you check out vintage videos, appear to be well-dressed and well-groomed. In other words, for whatever reason — nostalgia perhaps? — they embraced the stereotypes of impoverished hillbillydom.
Although I don’t remember my maternal great-grandmother, my mama told me that she smoked a corncob pipe, and her son, whom we, the grandchildren, called Kiki, suffered dental deficiencies that made some of those blackened-tooth hillbillies look like Eric Estrada. Although he spoke perfect grammar (albeit in a thick Dorchester county brogue), Kiki had to quit school in the third grade to work on the family farm. I remember visiting his sister Creesie, who, in fact, didn’t have indoor plumbing, though she did own a large, imposing, non-functional organ. I was absolutely terrified of roosters, and my scampering to the outhouse was a harrowing experience. You can read about it in detail here.
Kiki was a big fan of country music and performed himself as a young man in quartets. If I was at his house on a Saturday afternoon, I’d be subjected to about three straight hours of country and western on Channel 5, and I became slightly familiar with some of the artists featured in Burns’ documentary, for example, Little Jimmy Dickens, Ernest Tubb, Porter Wagoner, and Dolly Parton – all of whom I looked down at from the bridge of my freckled Scots-Irish nose.
None of the above-mentioned performers chose to come off as impoverished hillbillies. Porter and Dolly had their suits made by Nudie Cohn, who also fashioned Elvis’s stage costumes. Minnie Pearl, of course, a caricature created by Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon, wore gingham dresses and her signature straw hat with its $1.98 price tag attached, but she was a gentle satirist, and Minnie such a delightful persona that you couldn’t help but like her.
At any rate, I’ve been able to overcome my childhood prejudice and now appreciate Hank Williams, Sr., Waylon and Willie, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Graham Parsons, Roseanne Cash, Dwight Yokum, and several other performers. The Burns documentary is introducing me to artists who had slipped through the canyon-like crevices of my spotty education.
Perhaps earlier in my life, these country stereotypes hit a little too close to home. Poor Aunt Creesie, poor Cousin Trim. We didn’t attend either one of their funerals.