I’ve been a country music fan for as long as I can remember, having grown up listening to the Grand Ole Opry and what they then called hillbilly music.
One of the favorites on the Sirius XM radio in my automobile is “Willie’s Roadhouse,” where traditional country music from the likes of George Jones and Merle Haggard is played.
I like the old songs better than the new ones — mainly because I can understand the words in most of them. The best ones also tell a story, as forlorn and sad as the tale may be.
So it stands to reason that I have enjoyed the Ken Burns documentary on the history of country music, which has been playing on Public Broadcasting stations recently.
I’ve seen most of it and plan to see it all in time, thanks to repeated broadcasts and a recording device on my TV.
No state is better represented in the series than Mississippi, with Philadelphia native Marty Stuart one of the principal commentators in the series.
Much of the first segment of the documentary is devoted to Meridian’s Jimmie Rodgers, who is recognized as the most influential pioneer in the genre.
Rodgers, sometimes referred to as the “Father of Country Music,” wrote and sang songs that others still use today. He died of tuberculosis at age 35, shortly after making his final recording in a New York studio.
Then there’s Charley Pride from Sledge, an African-American, who essentially broke the color barrier to become a country music star.
The first time I heard him on the radio, I thought he was white, as did many others of my generation.
Among others with Mississippi roots featured in the series is the late Tammy Wynette from Tremont, whose best-known song, “Stand by Your Man,” is one of the best-selling hit singles by a woman in the history of country music.
Wynette’s rocky marriage to George Jones, with whom she collaborated on some great songs, was like a country song itself.
As for Jones, who grew up an abused child in Texas and as an adult struggled with alcohol, Brenda Lee, one of the commentators, noted: “I always say George didn’t sing country songs. George was a country song.”
A common thread linking many of the stars featured in the documentary was hardship. Most of them overcame childhood poverty or abuse, or prison in the case of Haggard, to become famous and wealthy.
An exception is Kris Kristofferson, the son of an Air Force general, a Rhodes scholar and a former Army captain whose foray into music earned the enmity of his mother. She thought his association with the hillbillies in Nashville was beneath his raising.
I noticed on the internet an article listing several notables who received short shrift or were not mentioned at all in the documentary. Included was Jerry Lee Lewis, one of my favorites, although his personal conduct has been open to question.
But it would be impossible to feature all of those who contributed to country music without a series that would become far too long and perhaps boring.
One Mississippian not included that I listened to on Hattiesburg radio stations growing up was the late Jimmy Swan.
Swan, who came to Mississippi from Alabama in the 1940s, became well known in South Mississippi as a radio personality and musician. He recorded some songs with a national company but never made it to the big time on the scale of those featured in the documentary.
Swan is also remembered as a politician, having run unsuccessfully for sheriff of Forrest County and twice, in 1967 and 1971, for governor.
He ran for governor on a segregationist platform, probably with the backing of the Ku Klux Klan.
In 1967, promising free segregated private schools, he finished third in the Democratic primary behind William Winter and John Bell Williams, the eventual winner, but ahead of former Gov. Ross Barnett and future Gov. Bill Waller Sr.
In 1971, Swan again ran third in a seven-man field. Waller beat Lt. Gov. Charles Sullivan in the second primary runoff that year. I always liked Swan’s singing better than his politics.