‘Country Music’ Review: Ken Burns’ Epic, Essential Look at an American Artform
Country Music, Ken Burns’ PBS docuseries on a musical journey that spans from hollers to honkytonks to hit parades, is a whole lotta things. It’s long, which is a given when you consider the authorship — clocking in at a shade over 16 hours, this eight-episode megillah’s running time falls somewhere in between Burns’ look at WWII (The War) and his recent exploration of the conflict in Vietnam (The Vietnam War). It’s a tribute to artists with colorful nicknames like “The Singing Brakeman” and “The Hillbilly Shakespeare,” and those who can be identified by a single moniker: Willie, Dolly, Merle, Emmylou, Waylon, Reba, Garth. It’s a love letter to something that’s old enough, and big enough, to encompass scratchy field 78 rpm recordings of centuries-old folk songs and 64-tracked platinum albums sold by the millions. (The five-CD soundtrack doubles as a good ol’ Country 101 primer.) And by God, it’s most definitely a Ken Burns’ production in every way, shape and form, right down to the slow-zooms into sepia-toned photographs and soup-to-nuts testimonials; you have not lived until you’ve heard the filmmaker’s go-to narrator Peter Coyote utter the phrase “quaint and quirky backwoods hayseeds” in his weathered baritone.
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But most of all, this epic, essential survey (which premieres on September 15th) is both a history lesson of an American art form and 20th century U.S.A. itself. Like Burns’ 2001 deep dive Jazz, it puts the music’s cultural and geographic roots front and center. You are never allowed to forget that this sturm und twang was forged in the flaming-blowtorch fusion of the American South, incorporating melodies from English/Irish/Scottish ballads sung in the Appalachians and instruments brought over by European immigrants and African slaves. The early recordings of what was called “Hill-Billy Music” shared labels with “Race Music,” as well as a sort of sneering bluenose contempt from so-called respectable society. Mass popularity made them both too big to ignore or dismiss. (Both would help form rock & roll.) Old-timey notions of rural “primitives” picking and grinning get beamed into parlor rooms courtesy of technology, i.e. radio. Suddenly, regional music is working-class America’s music. Songs that took cues from Western cowboys, below-the-Mason-Dixon-line minstrel shows and vagabond medicine shows finds a popular national footing thanks to a down-home barn dance broadcast out of…Chicago.
And while most of the foundational business is laid out in the first episode — every subsequent installment covers a timeframe, from between four to a dozen years — all of Country Music‘s chapters seem to have one eye on the past as they rocket forward into the future. The Carter Family staple “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” is either name-checked, played over the soundtrack or briefly sung by interviewees in seven of the eight episodes; Johnny Cash shows up in Part 2 as a toddler and shuffles off this mortal coil as an old man in Part 8. Hearing modern musicians wax poetic about Jimmie Rogers, Hank Williams, Grand Ole Opry O.G. Roy Acuff and bluegrass pioneers Bill Monroe and Ernest Tubbs keeps the lineage in line. Occasionally, one of the talking heads will start singing an old ditty right after Burns gives us a verse of the original, and time collapses in an instant. The artists are gone. The music is alive, well and very much still here.
And while the phrase “country music” might bring to mind a certain specific type of tune to you — maybe it’s the lightning-speed breakdowns of bluegrass; maybe it’s the arena C&W of Garth Brooks — Country Music endeavors to go full Baskin-Robbins and give viewers as many flavors as possible. Both the acoustic style practiced by Monroe, Ricky Skaggs, et al. and the Music City bombast of the late 1980s get the close-read treatment. So, to various degrees, does the high lonesome sound, Western Swing, Countrypolitan, the Neo-Traditionalists, the Nashville sound, the Bakersfield sound, the Outlaw era, country-rock and a few other subgenres. Two Cashes — Johnny and Rosanne — get a lot of lip service/screen time, as does Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Marty Stuart, Dwight Yoakam, Vince Gill and the late, great, irreplaceable Merle Haggard. The series stops at 1996, relegating the Dixie Chicks, Taylor Swift and Sturgill Simpson, among others, to quick cameos in a climactic montage. You could probably point to omissions if you wanted to (whither No Depression alt-country, Red Dirt country, etc?), but why grouse when there’s so much ground covered, and so wonderfully?
It’s a massive enough endeavor to attempt charting the form’s dozens of evolutions and legion of MVPs, much less trying to use it as a vehicle for viewing our nation’s attitudes towards prejudices, protest movements and political-tide turnings. You can tell when Burns has found a story like Deford Bailey’s, an African American musician who went from early Grand Ole Opry stalwart to pariah, or Charley Pride’s, who won over racist colleagues, that he feels he can use as a microcosm for a given historical moment. And you can also sense when he’s given something like the trend towards Silent Majority conservatism in country music a mere skim so he can go back to talking about Johnny Cash really digging Bob Dylan. There are moments when this topographical chart regarding “a complicated chorus of American voices…joining together to tell a complicated American story” loses direction or bypasses detours you’d hoped it would travel down a little further. Yet the overall effect of watching how an outsider art became a major part of our everyday sonic landscape, and the way it let a thousand different flowers bloom from the rocky soil of its origins, is overwhelming. After eight episodes, 16 hours and a hundred different stories told with four chords in three-minute bursts, you turn off your television feeling like you know why calling this “country” music has a double-meaning.
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