Music on TV Part 1: Mining country music for riches: A review of Ken Burns’ Country

Growing up in the early 1980s, Anne Murray, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Ronnie Milsap and Eddie Rabbitt, were as common on the pop and lite FM radio stations my family listened to as Air Supply, George Benson, Hall & Oates, Michael McDonald, or Barbra Streisand. By the mid-1980s, however, one would have to listen to a country music radio station explicitly to hear Reba McEntire, Randy Travis, or Dwight Yoakam. In the early 1990s pop and country lines grew more blurred when the emergence of digital technology in the tracking of record sales revealed that a far larger portion of consumers were purchasing country music than imagined. Garth Brooks became the biggest album seller of the decade and country became the most popular radio format. Suddenly record labels were signing “hat acts” in search of commercial gold, and Shania Twain became the new Patsy Cline. Integral to this growth is the ongoing debate over whether a discernible country music, related to but different from pop music, exists or has ever existed since country grew from a regional to a national music. Alongside the authenticity issue, questions about the genre’s willingness to be racially inclusive and politically progressive also linger.   


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Ken Burns’ 16 hour documentary Country Music raises some of these questions but does not offer a definitive answer. It’s a film with useful insights for beginners and aficionados, though it excludes content that would benefit both. Among Burns’ signature mix of archival photos, talking heads, earnest narration, and “magical-inevitable” historical moments (often signified by swelling orchestration) are charming stories and intriguing insights by characters ranging from country luminaries like Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson to respected genre authorities like historian Bill C. Malone.  Some of the more knowledgeable and entertaining voices include Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor, and solo singer and songwriter Jeannie Seely.


Taking a mostly linear chronological approach Burns’ eight episode walk viewers through the genre’s gradual synthesis from a mixture of folk music derived from rural blues, gospel, and Celtic balladry, into a discernible commercial market (originally called “hillbilly”) through the business acumen of producer and song publisher Ralph Peer whose recordings of The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers defined an emerging style. Burns effectively links major milestones such as the Great Depression, World War II, westward migration of families from the Midwest and south, the emergence of portable radios, and the Vietnam War to key developments in country music artistry and audience responses.


Country has sometimes been referred to as the “white man’s blues” and the film frequently invokes this association through yoking visual and aural elements to link the struggle of poor and working class white men to the music. The stylistic innovations of such major figures as Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Buck Owens are thoroughly explored. The film also covers Kris Kristofferson’s breakthroughs as a composer effectively and captures the friction posed to the establishment by “outlaws” Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, and the soulful singing of the troubled but compelling George Jones. The film glosses over the 70s era success of Ronnie Milsap and Charlie Rich, who are supremely underrated to this listener. Though the slick, commercial country-pop of Kenny Rogers is relentlessly bland, he established a commercial blueprint country continues to pursue. The film instead focuses its latter profiles of male singers to a mix of daredevils like Dwight Yoakam, sturdy craftsmen like as Vince Gill, and the commercial phenom Garth Brooks. The film gives Elvis Presley surprisingly limited coverage. Though his actual country records are tepid, his journey from a radical who scandalized the Grand Ole Opry to a reclaimed heritage artist seems germane, especially since country singers have borrowed liberally from him. I was also surprised at the complete absence of the country-punk scene (e.g. Jason & the Scorchers) and the No Depression movement (e.g., Son Volt, Uncle Tupelo) that emerged in the early 1990s. The film’s desire to serve as a primer and highlight outliers and anomalies sometimes veers too far in either direction, hence the inevitable oversights.


Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton are among the artists profiled and interviewed in the documentary.

Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton are among the artists profiled and interviewed in the documentary.

Like 2001’s Ken Burns’ Jazz there’s incessant discussion of music as a national metaphor via country music’s “mix” of cultures but the racial equity argument never quite holds. Burns draws much needed attention to overlooked Grand Ole Opry harmonica player DeFord Bailey and Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne’s influence on Hank Williams, the radical disruption of Ray Charles’s seminal Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music album and the requisite attention to Charley Pride (who possess a wonderful sense of humor and a great voice in his 80s). The film also includes Hootie frontman-turned-country phenomenon Darius Rucker and Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops) as younger black talking heads. Unexplored are the ways black singers like Solomon Burke, Etta James, Millie Jackson, Esther Phillips, Bobby Womack, Dorothy Moore, and Aaron Neville incorporated country music into their repertoires. Or the unique career of Dobie Gray who pioneered country-soul with 1973’s Drift Away and Loving Arms albums. Though the film’s focus on country music through 1996 rules out discussion of more recent country artists of color including Kane Brown and the ubiquitous “Old Town Country Road” country-rap hybrid song no one probes why there has not been a major black country singer since Pride. The film’s blandly optimistic investment in stylistic mélange as proof of racial unity mutes the specter of naming white exclusion explicitly as a defining aspect of country.


Major female artists mostly receive their proper due, including Maybelle Carter’s innovative guitar playing, alongside her sister Sara Carter’s autoharp, in the pioneering Carter Family, Rose Maddox, Brenda Lee, Patsy Cline, Wanda Jackson, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Reba McEntire, Kathy Mattea, and Trisha Yearwood. Burns also highlights important moments such as Kitty Wells’s radical 1952 hit “It Wasn’t God who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” Bobbie Gentry’s haunting 1967 hit “Ode to Billie Joe,” and Sammi Smith’s definitive rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night.” I was surprised by the absence of Dottie West, Linda Ronstadt, Gail Davies, Patty Loveless, and Lucinda Williams. The controversy over pop-oriented country that led some members of the Country Music Association (CMA) to leave and form the Academy of Country entertainers would have benefited from some discussion of the blurred lines of Olivia Newton-John, Anne Murray and Crystal Gayle’s music. Their music, along with that of Kenny Rogers, Ronnie Milsap, the Oak Ridge Brothers, all point to a relationship between country and pop that has always haunted the genre but became especially prominent from the mid-1970s and 1980s. In a section highlighting 80s and 90s artists who challenged the Nashville Sound the film describes the work of k.d. lang and Mary Chapin-Carter.  Odd also that it excluded K.T. Oslin whose songs “Younger Men,” “80’s Ladies” and “This Woman” were ground-breaking female-centric anthems.    


The film‘s sheer volume is actually insufficient to tell as comprehensive or incisive a story as it could. Examining issues of identity and musical authenticity requires an informed view of the genre’s history, as opposed to Burns who has acknowledged the film as a maiden voyage for him. The intimate knowledge required effort to build and sustain an argument exceeds the film’s hagiographic approach. Even a knowledgeable commentator can lapse into bland clichés that satisfy the bromides that go down easy on PBS. As a result, a curious viewer would do better to view the episodes as an on-ramp for further exploration. The ambitious film offers impeccable information about major arcs in the genre’s story and is highly watchable. For a deeper probing of complex narrative threads, however, I recommend reading Country Music USA: 50th Anniversary Edition (Bill Malone), Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music, 1800-2000 (Mary Bufwack and Robert Oermann), Hidden in the Mix: the African-American Presence in Country Music (Diane Pecknold, editor) and Are You Ready for the Country (Peter Doggett).