Worth Watching: Ken Burns, Country Music – Episode 2: Hard Times (1933-1945)

The heroes of the silver screen, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, are among the artists featured on tonight’s episode, as the Great Depression and World War II loom large.

Picking up after the death of Jimmie Rodgers, the spotlight remains on the Carter Family for another episode, as their unique working arrangement continues through separation and divorce.  Their influence begins to surface in upcoming artists as varied as Maddox Brothers & Rose and Woody Guthrie.

Ken Burns is in his comfort zone during this time period, and he is very effective at connecting the challenges of the Dust Bowl and the great western migration to the cross pollination that brought new sounds and influences to the genre.

Radio also makes its big breakout during this time period, and the barn dances that made stars out of Tex Ritter, the Coon Creek Girls, and Patsy Montana.   Equally important is the emergence of Bob Wills, bringing Western Swing to country music, and influencing generations of stars that came afterwards.   We also get the beginning of bluegrass, as Bill and Charlie Monroe become stars while crafting what eventually became its own genre of music, but never really stopped being country.

This episode has far more footage to work with, which really makes the stories come to life.  One of the best sequences uses a series of still photos to trace the creation of Minnie Pearl, with her early routines playing as a voice over.  Another more heartbreaking sequence follows, as DeFord Bailey is summarily dismissed from the Opry, with racist commentary from the head of the management.



  1. KJC wrote “Equally important is the emergence of Bob Wills, bringing Western Swing to country music, and influencing generations of stars that came afterwards.” So is it correct to say that western swing IS country music?

    Not surprised about the Deford Bailey dismissal.

  2. Western Swing is definitely country in my book, and so is bluegrass. It’s funny that honky tonk is largely considered the ultimate example of traditional country music, despite bluegrass and swing predating it. This doc does a great job of illustrating how diverse the genre really is.

  3. @ KJC:

    The ironic thing is that all of the three country sub-genres you mentioned (honky-tonk; Western swing; even bluegrass) would have a hand, albeit an unintentional one, in giving rise to this strange early 1950s mutation called Rockabilly. leading into Rock and Roll. And bluegrass, which is really an expansion of the mountain music of the earlier eras, would, after its initial burst in the 1940s, fall slightly off the country music radar map in the 1950s, only to be revived in the early 1960s by the young folks of the folk music revival (or “scare”).

  4. I really liked the fact that they gave Minnie Pearl a segment. I remember watching her as a young kid and enjoying her comedy. Hearing her backstory (coming from a wealthy family, and enjoying her time with the common folk) made me respect her even more. It didn’t feel like she was looking down on people with her character (or doing a caricature), but was simply trying to relate to people and make them laugh. She was someone beloved as much as the end of her career as she was at the beginning, and I can truly understand why.

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