Arts & Humanities

Carolina’s libraries fill gaps in ‘Country Music’

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ research team looked at thousands of digitized images across multiple collections that document the country music industry.

Johnny Cash holds up a large American flag as it unfurls behind him. Photo from the Hugh Morton Photographs in UNC's North Carolina Collection.
In a 1974 photo from Carolina that Ken Burns used in the "Country Music" documentary, Johnny Cash holds up an American Flag. (From Hugh Morton Photographs and Films #P0081, copyright, North Carolina Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill Library.)

The new Ken Burns documentary “Country Music” could not have fully described the origins of the musical genre and recording industry without the help of Carolina’s Southern Folklife Collection at the University Libraries.

“The Southern Folklife Collection’s holdings are among the foremost archives for researching country music and a significant resource for the filmmakers,” said Steve Weiss, the collection’s curator. “Our holdings extensively document the history of country music in all periods of its development, with a particular strength in the music’s formation as a commercial industry. The library was honored to help and contribute to this project.”

(Note: If you missed the original PBS broadcast of the documentary, UNC-TV’s Explorer and North Carolina channels are rebroadcasting episodes. UNC Passport members can stream all episodes through Feb. 28, 2020, and  DVDs, CDs and books of the film are for sale. )

Burns, executive producer of the series, and Florentine Films sent a research team to Chapel Hill in 2016. Aaron Smithers, a former assistant in the SFC who now is the special collections research and instruction librarian in the Wilson Library Special Collections Library, helped them navigate thousands of digitized images across multiple collections. Smithers and Wilson Library’s Digital Production Center staff and audio preservation engineers helped two researchers who made reference images to take back to directors and producers. They also made notes from audio recordings, transcripts and manuscripts

“I always like working with researchers no matter what the result might be, but it is exciting to know the result might end up in a feature documentary,” Smithers said. “The work was staggered over years. At times, as they were coming down to the deadline to lock in a picture, there was pressure to respond quickly with resources, scans or information to help secure permissions for broadcast, but the Florentine researchers make sure they commit time to do thorough research in advance.”

“Vast and perfectly suited to our topic”

Photo of the first big country music stars Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family standing together on a city sidewalk..

The first big country music stars, Jimmie Rodgers at left and the Carter Family (Maybelle Carter, A.P. Carter and Sara Carter), in one of 40 images from Carolina’s Southern Folklife Collection. (John Edwards Memorial Foundation Records (20001), Southern Folklife Collection at Wilson Special Collections Library, University Libraries)

About 40 images made the final cut, according to Florentine Films researcher Susan Shumaker. Shumaker said that SFC collections are “vast and perfectly suited to our topic, from the incomparable John Edwards Memorial Foundation archive to smaller archives donated by UNC-associated scholars like Bill Ferris, Archie Green, Ed Kahn and Mike Seeger.”

“One of the windfalls that Aaron pointed us to was the Russ Barnard collection, which included gems that, in a few cases, had never been published or perhaps had been published once, decades ago,” Shumaker said.

Highlights included a photo of Nashville’s Glaser Sound Studios — aka “Hillbilly Central” — a shuttered stucco building two blocks off Nashville’s Music Row where Waylon Jennings and other “outlaw” performers recorded music their way. The outlaw movement, a reaction to the highly controlled, slick production of country music at the time, included Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter and many other artists.

Shumaker said that the Florentine team had searched “high and low” for the photo, which photographer Leonard Kamsler forgot he had taken. She also listed “a comical shot” of singer/songwriter Roger Miller, in some unknown hotel room, smoking and holding a fifth of whiskey; a photo by Carolina alumnus Hugh Morton of Johnny Cash iconically posed with an oversized American flag billowing out behind him; and a rare photo of Carter and Ralph Stanley performing at a country music park.

The University Libraries Digital Production Center in Wilson Library scanned the images, and SFC audio engineers digitized audio of interviews and music housed in the collections. An audiovisual preservation team at Carolina also did some of that work.

As Smithers noticed possible SFC sources used during broadcasts, he tweeted notes about them. He consolidated the tweets with citations for the first and second episodes.

Jimmie Rodgers, Carter Family and other stars

The documentary’s first segment focuses on pivotal recording sessions with the biggest of country music’s early stars, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, organized in 1927 by talent scout Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company in Bristol, Tennessee.

That episode used journalist Barry Mazor’s biography of Peer, which draws heavily from one of the world’s only recorded interviews with Peer that is part of SFC’s John Edwards Memorial Foundation Records.

Photo of Grand Ole Opry comedienne and longtime star Minnie Pearl was part of the images requested by the researchers who combed the Southern Folklife Collection for the eight-episode Country Music documentary airing on PBS. Photo courtesy of John Edwards Memorial Foundation Records (20001), Southern Folklife Collection at Wilson Special Collections Library, University Libraries.

This publicity still of Grand Ole Opry comedian and longtime star Minnie Pearl was one of the images that Florentine Films researchers requested for the “Country Music” documentary. (John Edwards Memorial Foundation Records (20001), Southern Folklife Collection at Wilson Special Collections Library, University Libraries)

Other significant images that the film’s researchers collected show Rodgers with Peer as well as Rodgers with the Carter Family (Maybelle Carter, Sara Carter and her husband, A.P. Carter) posing on a sidewalk in an unidentified downtown, the Coon Creek Girls featuring Lilly May Ledford decked out in frilly gingham dresses and a young Grand Ole Opry comedian Minnie Pearl in her signature hat.

According to Smithers, a photo of black guitarist Lesley Riddle, who set melodies and wrote many Carter Family songs, came from the SFC’s Mike Seeger Collection. Seeger’s interviews with Riddle are crucial to the story of the Carter Family.

The first episode includes a poignant voiceover from a letter in the SFC. Peer’s wife, Anita, wrote to Sara Carter, consoling her during a separation from husband A.P. but also encouraging her to work out differences so they can make more music Peer wrote: “I have been divorced once myself, as I think I told you so I can sympathize with you perfectly . . . . Even if you never live together again you could get together for professional purposes like the movie stars do. . . . We are anxious to see you, and to make some more records . . . .”

Expertise of University Libraries

To tell the story of harmonica player DeFord Bailey, who became the first black member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1927, the series drew from the David Morton Collection’s images of Bailey performing, video, correspondence, newspaper clippings about Bailey’s contributions to country music and commercial recordings that often imitated train sounds The episode notes that it was during an introduction of Bailey on Nashville’s WSM radio station that announcer George D. Hay first used the phrase “Grand Ole Opry.”

Publicity still from WSM radio showing Deford Bailey in front of microphone.

Harmonica player DeFord Bailey, the first black member of the Grand Ole Opry, stands in a WSM radio recording studio in this publicity still. (Russel D. Barnard Country Music Magazine Collection (20484), Southern Folklife Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill)

Smithers, whose academic background in folklore and ethnomusicology gives him a foundation for understanding historical influences on country music, has also worked in audio and documentary film production. Still, he said that the Wilson Library staff’s diverse and complementary skills produced great results. “If I ever had difficulties, I knew there are colleagues in the building, including Steve Weiss and research librarians like Matt Turi, Sarah Carrier, Emily Kader and our R&I department head Jason Tomberlin, who could help me find a resource or answer a question.”

“The scope of a project like ‘Country Music’ requires researchers to cast a wide net that reaches across so many of our collections and draws on the expertise of numerous individuals in the University Libraries,” Smithers said. “Consulting with the research team helps me to see our collections in new ways. It points to items I may have not interacted with or thought about and, as a result, helps me be a better librarian and resource for students, researchers and future documentary makers.”

Fittingly, credits at the end of every episode in the eight-part series include Wilson Special Collection Library and thanks to Smithers.

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Another Carolina connection to Ken Burns’ “Country Music” documentary is Bill Malone, who taught at Carolina as a Lehman Brady Chair Professor in 2000. Scholars consider Malone’s 1968 book “Country Music, USA” as the definitive academic history of country music. The book provided a foundation on which the documentary is organized. Malone donated his collection to the Southern Folklife Collection, including the note cards that would become “Country Music USA.”