Nothing connects the country like country.

Ken Burns

By Dr. Jim Ferguson

A reader thanked me for last week’s essay about the Tennessee River and travel. In the essay I used Forrest Gump’s metaphor regarding life as a “box of chocolates.” Well, this week’s essay from Ferguson’s topical “sampler” may surprise the occasional reader, but probably not those who are regulars to my weekly column.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus is famous for saying, “everything changes.” And so it does. The youthful picture posted with my first column of March 10, 2008 is not the same as the mug above. Have you ever looked in the mirror and asked, “What happened?”

The Knoxville Focus has changed and evolved, just like this column. My essays, which once focused almost entirely on medical issues, have now followed my other interests and changed. As a result this “sampler” now offers observations on science, history, politics, philosophy, religion, cinema, literature, art, travel and, in this week’s Focus, music.

In college I was a liberal arts student with a science emphasis. I believe this educational focus prepared me to think critically and appreciate diverse perspectives. One of my favorite courses in college was music appreciation which, understandably, emphasized classical music. I grew up with classical music which accompanied Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons of Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny. In my teenage years I became a devotee of rock ‘n’ roll. As a pubescent boy I “vividly” remember the song about an “itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny yellow polka dot bikini.” Then came Motown, the British invasion and later the folk-rock music of Simon & Garfunkel. But like the evolution of my column, my appreciation of jazz, pop and opera has also evolved. Along the way I discovered my love of country music.

I used to feel guilty about watching an old movie or rereading a book because our days are numbered (Psalm 90:10) and there is so much to consider in a lifetime. However, given the scarcity of network and Netflix quality, I delight in old movies and again savor treasures on my bookshelf. If it is OK to listen over and over again to favorite songs or the “Ode to Joy” of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, feel free to listen, watch and reconsider things of beauty that repeatedly bring you joy.

Several notable art forms have originated in America. Some examples are nonrepresentational abstract art, jazz and country music. I began to listen to and appreciate country music forty years ago. And along the way I discovered I liked bluegrass and gospel music as well. While being exposed to something may lead to a measure of appreciation, it does not make you like a style of writing, a movie, a painting or a musical genre. I’m no musical expert, but I know what I like, and I do not have to be told what is good. The famous jazz pianist Count Basie said it best, “If it sounds good, it is.”

This year I’m exploring biographies of historical and noteworthy people. Biographies have never been my favorite genre, but the Founders considered biographies important, so my education continues. However, I’m supplementing biographical books with cinema.

I’m no fan of Ken Burn’s progressive politics, but I appreciate his artistic biographies and documentaries. I first discovered Burns’ work in his 1990 documentary “The Civil War,” and I am still moved by the hauntingly beautiful musical theme, “Ashokan Farewell.” I also recommend the Burns’ biography of the Roosevelts.

But in my opinion, Ken Burn’s best documentary is “Country Music,” released in 2019. I was drawn to the music, but the brief biographies of the recording artists are also wonderful. And because I now allow myself to enjoy things I love over and over, I just finished watching the sixteen hour series again and enjoyed it even more this time. Yes, the music and stories of Jimmy Rogers and Hank Williams are wonderful, as is the show casing of Dolly Parton and Garth Brooks. But there is more. The quote I chose for the header of this week’s column describes Country Music as Americana. Burn’s documentary is as much a history of 20th century America as it is a retrospective of country music.

Each week I write about what is on my mind or heart at the moment. Obviously, Ken Burn’s documentary has impacted me. But I might have written about something else were it not for an email from a friend. He sent me a link with an adaptation of the song “The Older I Get” by one of my favorite country music stars, Alan Jackson.

It has been quite a journey, but I will, as the Psalmist sang, turn “three score and ten” this week. It’s been a good run, and the lyrics of Alan Jackson’s song are especially meaningful to me. I can’t duplicate the music in this column, but I urge you to go to YouTube and listen to the troubadour in the cowboy hat’s ode about getting older. The simple yet lovely melody and the accompanying understandable and wisdom-filled lyrics are, in my opinion, the essence of country music.

I still listen to classical music and I love opera, especially selected arias. I still love Paul Simon’s poetry set to music, vintage rock ‘n’ roll and Motown. But these days I listen more to country music and far less to the news and talk radio.

I identify with Jackson’s song which says it is “the people you love, not the money and stuff that makes you rich.” The troubadour in a cowboy hat sings he’s “just getting to my best years yet” and “the older I get the longer I pray, I don’t know why, I guess that I got more to say.” And he finishes with a note of thankfulness “for the life I’ve had, and all the life I’m living still.”

To have produced this wonderful documentary Ken Burns must love country music, and we share that in common. A recurring theme of country music is “Will the Circle be unbroken?” Like Ken Burns I can hope that the Americana of country music resonates with us to re-discover who we are as a people and reconnect the country.