The second episode of Ken Burns' Country Music documentary examines a difficult period of United States history: "Hard Times" covers the years 1933-1945, the height of the Great Depression and the entirety of World War II. "Nearly every aspect of American life would be strained and uprooted" during that time period, narrates actor Peter Coyote.
While those dozen years were difficult ones, Americans' plights gave country music a big leg up. The music of the rural and the working class perfectly encapsulated the general mood of the public; aided by the rise of radio and the "singing cowboy" phenomenon, country music's popularity grew.
Burns' two-hour examination of the country music of the 1930s and early '40s includes numerous names with which newer fans of the genre may be only vaguely familiar. Read on to learn more about five of the biggest key players from the era.
Singer and fiddle player Acuff was known as the King of country Music decades before the title was bestowed upon George Strait. He began his music career in the 1930s, as a member of the Smoky Mountain Boys, becoming one of the Grand Ole Opry's most popular performers following their addition to the lineup in 1938. As an artist, Acuff is known for his renditions of "Wabash Cannonball" and "The Great Speckled Bird," among others, but his name also lives on in Nashville thanks to his publishing house, Acuff-Rose Music, a joint venture with songwriter Fred Rose.
In 1962, Acuff became the first living inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and a number of other prestigious halls. Said Hank Williams once, "He's the biggest singer this music ever knew ... For drawing power in the South, it was Roy Acuff, then God."
Autry's fame far extends country music. Nicknamed the "Singing Cowboy," he was perhaps the most popular of the bevy of Western movie stars-slash-singers in the 1930s. In the early 1950s, he hosted his own television show, The Gene Autry Show, and has Hollywood Walk of Fame stars in all five of the landmark's categories (film, television, music, radio and live performance) — the only person ever to achieve such a feat.
Autry's film and TV career helped bring country music to the masses, but he's also responsible for popularizing a number of beloved Christmas classics, including "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and a composition of his own, "Here Comes Santa Claus."
Monroe started out in a band, the Monroe Brothers, with his brothers Birch, Charlie and Larry, but he's known as the Father of Bluegrass. He literally created the style we know today, and the genre takes is name from his band, the Blue Grass Boys, who were named in honor of Monroe's home state of Kentucky.
A Grand Ole Opry regular beginning in 1939, Monroe is also well known for helping to launch the careers of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, two early bluegrass stars who joined the Blue grass Boys in 1945. In the 1960s, Monroe's career was buoyed by folk music fans' discovery of bluegrass music.
Monroe, an honorary Kentucky colonel, is a Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame inductee. He's also a National Medal of Arts and Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient.
Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon was one of country's earliest comedians. She herself was from a well-off Tennessee family, but Minnie Pearl, her down-home character with the recognizable catchphrase "How-dee!" played exceptionally well at the Grand Ole Opry and on Hee Haw, the long-running television show. Pearl's fictional hometown, Grinders Switch, and its also-fictional residents are based on her hometown of Centerville, in Hickman County, Tenn.
In addition to inspiring a generation of new country-focused comedians (Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy and so on), Pearl also has the esteemed honor of being the namesake for the Band's classic song "Ophelia."
The King of Western Swing, Wills formed the Texas Playboys in 1934. Although his career was briefly put on hold for a tour of duty in the Army during World War II, the artist popularized the Western swing genre, which combined jazz, blues, folk and swing music into a genre that lit up the dancehalls of California, Oklahoma and Texas. Thanks to the migration of Americans from the South and Midwest to California, Wills found a fan base on the West Coast, and influenced a number of future icons, including Merle Haggard.
Wills and the Playboys are members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Western swing, meanwhile, is the official state music of Texas, per a 2011 resolution.