Music Monday: Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns

I loved this documentary.  I am going to buy it on blu-ray.  I will buy the coffee table book.  I will buy the soundtrack.

It will be great for country music.  There are a lot of Ken Burns fans who just got introduced to a massive amount of great country.   There are a lot of casual fans who were educated on the breadth of the genre. Even for more serious fans like myself, holes were filled.

That works the other way, too.  I am now a Ken Burns fan and need to pick up another of his documentaries.

It is hard to argue against the documentary as a whole.  My complaints amount to quibbles.  More time should have been spent on the 70s relative to the 60s.  The creators rightly worked to craft a narrative, but too little time was spent on some musicians who maybe didn’t fit that narrative.  Most especially George Strait, who was only briefly mentioned last night, and Conway Twitty, who was twice mentioned as a former rockabilly singer.  Brooks & Dunn weren’t mentioned at all, and George Jones should have been introduced earlier in the series.  Glen Campbell and Alabama were mostly backdoored in (something Burns does well).  Billy Joe Shaver should have been mentioned either in connection with his Texas songwriting peers or Waylon Jennings (he wrote most of the songs on Waylon’s first “outlaw” album).  They spent a lot of time on the outer edges of country, sometimes to the detriment of the documentary.  I hate to say it, but bluegrass as a successor genre to old-time (and alternative to country) could have been dropped entirely (but then I think bluegrass is a bastardization of old-time, so I am hardly unbiased).

The theoretical structure of the final episode made sense, ostensibly focusing on one hand on the neo-traditionalists and on the other on Garth Brooks.  There are some tremendous moments in this episode, most notably Vince Gill breaking up singing during George Jones’ funeral, but they burned up a lot of time. With a decade plus to cover, the episode felt rushed, and it wasn’t just George Strait who got glossed over—so did Randy Travis and Alabama (covered a bit in the second-to-last episode).

There was almost certainly a bias toward artists who would and could sit for an interview.  Vince Gill’s interview is featured heavily.  There is a bit of how-the-sausage-gets-made element to stopping to think about it.  There is a carrot and a stick to Burns’ interview requests.  Artists considering whether to accept had to consider how refusal would accept their portrayal.  We are lucky that Burns was able to interview Merle before he died.  Waylon and George Jones probably suffered from not being around anymore.  Randy Travis isn’t in any shape to sit for an interview anymore.  George Strait is famously reticent.  Burns was also surely biased toward the artists who gave the best interviews.  And, believe me, Merle’s interview is solid gold.

Burns wasn’t trying to create an academic work of scholarship.  Nor was his aim to create an encyclopedic history of country music.  Burns certainly has his themes.  He spends a lot of time on the cyclical nature of country, the constant tug back-and-forth between tradition and progress.  He also spends a lot of time circling the outer edges of country, considering influences of rock and bluegrass, sneaking in Bob Dylan and The Beatles, and spending considerable time on artists at the edge of the genre like Emmylou Harris.  Burns finds time for a good story, most of all any story that might pull on viewers’ heartstrings.  That moment with Vince Gill was one of the highpoints of the entire documentary.  Another came during the first half of the documentary when Dwight Yoakam broke up talking about Merle Haggard’s great, underappreciated Holding Things Together.

Country music has always been the music of the working class.  Nobody spoke for the working class better than Merle Haggard.

The last episode did make a good point (if implicitly).  If we want to complain about the state of country radio, we shouldn’t be worried about who provided the most baleful artistic influence. Garth (and Shania and the Dixie Chicks, although only the former is mentioned) took country to an entirely new level sales-wise, but he also pushed record executives’ expectations too high.  With a new expectation for everything to have the potential for huge sales, there was no room left for experimentation.  Hence the exceedingly beige country radio of today.  Whether that should have persisted so long in what is now a very different music marketplace is another story.

If you are wondering why they chose to end the documentary in 1996 . . . they didn’t, really.  It goes all the way until Johnny Cash’s death, although they don’t talk about any other artist post-1996.  And, hey, using the Carter family and Johnny Cash as the scaffolding of the documentary makes a lot of sense. It would have been hard to not do it that way.  But they wound up going a little too heavy on the Johnny Cash, although I strongly agree with using his death as the endpoint.  Nothing else would have worked nearly as well.

Sticking an endpoint on something that emphatically isn’t dead (it’s only mostly dead) was always going to feel a little arbitrary.  There are advantages to having so long a career.  The importance of the Rick Rubin recordings is immeasurable for that.  Country music was hillbilly music before it was country music.  It should come as no surprise that it is a family affair.  Cash also benefits from his connection with the Carter family through his second wife, June Carter, and from the successful career of his daughter, Rosanne Cash.  All I knew about the latter was that she was married to Rodney Crowell.  I knew far too little about the former.  Episode 6 convinced me to dive into the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s seminal album Will The Circle Be Unbroken.  I wouldn’t have recognized half the names in Grand Ole Opry Song without Ken Burns.

All eight episodes are available to stream at  Amazon Affiliate links to purchase the blu-rays (or DVDs), the coffee table book, and the soundtrack are above in the first paragraph.


Music Monday is the brainchild of Drew at The Tattooed Book Geek.

You can find every video featured in 2019 for Music Monday here.

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