Bob Fisher, Guest columnist
Published 5:00 a.m. CT Sept. 12, 2019


An excerpt from Ken Burns’ documentary “Country Music” on PBS

Don’t disregard ‘Country Music’ by Ken Burns as just another music documentary. Recognize it for what it is: A great retelling of our collective American story.

Story HighlightsBob Fisher is president of Belmont University.

My office windows face the entrance to Nashville’s famed Music Row, giving me a bird’s eye view to the city blocks that birthed countless No. 1 hits and legendary careers.

Over the years numerous recording studios, radio stations, record labels, publishing houses and management companies have landed in this district found just south of downtown. It’s sacred ground. Historic and hallowed. This is where so much incredible country music originated, from Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” to George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and many more.

A university president couldn’t ask for a more compelling and inspirational office view. This is where art and history collide. This location felt the impact of technology, learned what it means to bring innovation to entrepreneurship and gave voice to the joys and heartbreaks of us all through poetry like no other. The music made here manages to both affirm and unsettle its listeners, often in the same song, sending powerful messages with sometimes nothing more than, as the late Harlan Howard put it, “three chords and the truth.”

An education on who we are

(From left to right) Marty Dickens, Ken Burns, Julie Dunfey, Bob Fisher and Dayton Duncan stand with the signed guitars in Belmont’s Gallery of Iconic Guitars. (Photo: Andrew Wigdor | Tennessean)

Through lyrics both clever and poignant, country music delivers an education on who we are and where we came from as well as any college textbook. This genre conveys the larger story of America, as artists and songwriters from decades past reflected on periods of depression, war and cultural upheaval. While frequently representing the working class, country music historically has tackled issues across economic, social, racial and political lines, and packaged complex topics in songs so hook-filled, authentic and insightful that they can’t be ignored.

And it’s all at the heart of the latest documentary endeavor from one of America’s greatest living treasures, filmmaker and historian Ken Burns. His eight-part, 16-hour film “Country Music” premieres Sunday on PBS, and Belmont University where I serve as president is a proud sponsor of this work.

What’s a university doing sponsoring a music documentary? It’s simple. That’s how much we believe in this project. We know how important this film will be for our hometown of Nashville and the entire state of Tennessee, both central protagonists in this story.

We know how important country music history is to the people who helped write it and are still writing it today, including treasured Belmont alumni like Minnie Pearl, Trisha Yearwood, Brad Paisley, Josh Turner, Florida Georgia Line and Devin Dawson, to name just a few. And we know how important it is that our students – those who will write the genre’s next chapter – understand the heart and soul of country music so that it can be preserved in future interpretations.

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For these reasons and more, we had to step up to help bring “Country Music” to fruition. But this series will impact far more than our campus, city and state. This genre traces its roots to pockets all across the country, from Southern Appalachia and the Arkansas Ozarks to west Texas and California honky-tonks. Country music’s meaning and value extends to the entire nation. This music connects with so many because it represents our stories, our lives.

Belmont President Dr. Bob Fisher (Photo: File)

Ken Burns said it well when he noted, “[Country Music] is about who we are… American history firing on all cylinders. It’s yet another way to understand the complicated 20th century. It was a way to tell stories about people who felt their stories weren’t being told.”

Thanks to Ken Burns, we can hear those stories now. Don’t disregard this as just another music documentary. Recognize it for what it is: A great retelling of our collective American story.

Bob Fisher is president of Belmont University.


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