“These days I don’t like what it means to be a country singer. I don’t like the term country music anymore. It doesn’t stand for what I believe country music is.” –Justin Townes Earle
In her documentary Country Roads, German film director Marieke Schroeder embarks on a search for the authentic America and where country music fits into it. Her journey takes her across the Southeastern United States, meeting people of every color, economic status, education level, and age. Every person tells a passionate tale that seems a part of the big country music story; a narrative that essentially follows American history and a slew of opinions on what country music means in America today.
“In the mid-80s, when I was on a school exchange in the USA,” explained Schroeder, “I discovered that Americans are very emotional people. I come from a pretty down-to-earth background, and such susceptibility to emotions was new to me. I was impressed by people’s willingness to admit to strong feelings like love, heartache and longing. And ever since then I have not been able to get country music out of my system.”
The director assembled a broad cast of characters to truly chronicle the music she fell in love with and the country that birthed it: “On the one hand it is a massive commercial machine, for example in Nashville; and on the other hand it is increasingly identified with the idea of an American homeland, even by young Americans.” Aside from the regular folks she met in her back road travels, Schroeder interviewed people making a living in the music industry, country music scholars, and those from famous musical families such as John Carter Cash Jr., Caitlin Rose, Nora Guthrie and the film’s protagonist, Justin Townes Earle. Schroeder comments about Earle, “He never stands still—he is always restlessly developing—against all the odds.”
Standing on Roy Acuff Place, a part of Music Row and the epicenter of the country music industry for the past 50 years, Earle laments, “It’s amazing to me that the people that work here now can hold their heads up, that they can walk these streets and think that if Hank Williams was here right now that he wouldn’t whip their fucking ass…I just don’t know what to say about Music Row. It’s just a shame…It’s just a bunch of dumb looking rednecks that can barely sing and couldn’t write their way out of a wet paper sack. And that’s kind of what America wants. They want another good ol’ boy.”
In Country Roads, Schroeder shows that not everyone shares JTE’s views on where country music is headed and why it remains an important part of the American fabric. Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, has a different outlook on what young people are bringing to country music:
“One sign to me that I love is that…I have a 26-year-old son and my daughter’s in her 30s…Everyone they know…is playing the banjo, mandolin, spoons, fiddle, bass…washtubs…there’s this huge, incredibly exciting movement where kids are going back to roots music…there’s a couple of reasons, they are really good reasons because they understand in their hearts and souls that all the fabricated music that they’re hearing is insincere. They get it. They might not be able to verbalize it but they feel it intuitively. They go ‘there’s something really screwed up about that, I don’t want to be a part of it, I don’t want to sing on television and be a star.’ They’re rejecting all that, one by one by one. And what they’re doing is…discovering their own methods of creating music, of writing music. It’s so sincere, that’s the thing that moves me, like to tears sometimes, is how sincere this movement is. They’re not doing it because it’s hip or cool or anything like that. They’re doing it because they’re rejecting the insincerity of so much of the music that they’re hearing.”
Schroeder’s attempt to paint the full picture of American society and the where, why and how of country music is pretty clear to Johnny Cash’s son, John Carter. He rationalizes it close to the end of Schroeder’s film with these words: “Country music is the lifeblood that runs through rural America and there are so many people that are looking for solace in that music. And they find it you know? It’s out there. And there’s music that touches, supports and strengthens our very country. So country music in itself is a cross-cultural creation. So therefore it can be defined more greatly by one side from whence it came or the other side from whence it came…so we get this blend in America. We get this blend of the cultures that came together and the spirits that entwined to make this wonderful music.”