Worth Watching: Ken Burns, Country Music – Episode Three: The Hillbilly Shakespeare (1945-1953)

Episode Three covers a lot of ground, but as the title indicates, the heart and soul of this episode is Hank Williams.

During this time period, electric instruments are brought into the fold and honky tonk is born.  Ernest Tubb kicks the era off, but attention soon turns to the Hillbilly Shakespeare. The rise of Hank Williams is greatly detailed, as is his tragic death.

In between, other legends emerge.  Eddy Arnold’s clean cut image and smooth vocal stylings turn him into a superstar.  Flatt & Scruggs break away from Bill Monroe & the Bluegrass Boys and further develop the burgeoning style of bluegrass. Maddox Brothers & Rose revamp their sound to include a harder edged honky tonk sound.

Little Jimmy Dickens turns his short stature and sense of humor into a successful career hawking wares and eventually becoming a country star.  Maybelle Carter revamps the Carter Family to feature her talented daughters.   Chet Atkins and his legendary guitar make an auspicious debut.   And Kitty Wells makes an early feminist statement answering back to Hank Thompson, and becomes the genre’s first female superstar.

Did you watch episode three?  Let us know what you thought of it in the comments.


1 Comment

  1. This has probably been my favorite segment thus far, although all of it has been good.
    The Hank stuff dominates this chapter, and his story is definitely haunting and done beautifully in the documentary. But, other favorite parts of this chapter for me were:

    1. The history in the bluegrass segments. I’ve become super into bluegrass over the past ten years, but didn’t know much on the history, sans the names and the songs. I knew Flatt & Scruggs played in Bill Monroe’s band, but never knew there was such bad blood between them upon those guys leaving Monroe. I also liked seeing the Stanley Brothers mentioned, and enjoyed the segments with the late Ralph Stanley. The part where he talks about overhearing his daddy singing as an influence, and sings “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” is chill-inducing.

    2. Seeing Little Jimmy Dickens get a little attention, and a segment to himself. Again, I think a lot of folks look at him as the “guy who was in all of Brad Paisley’s videos”, but he was a talented guy, and it was nice to see his vocal performances/sincerity get praised. I also loved his Hank Williams story regarding “Hey Good Lookin”.

    3. Learning about Chet Atkins, and his connection with The Carter Family, which again…I never knew. The story about The Carter Family holding out on the Grand Ole Opry, unless they agreed to include Chet reflected extremely well on them. It’s even more interesting, given what Chet ended up doing in Nashville later in helping to create the Nashville Sound.

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