Ken Burns’ Country Music Is Long, But There’s Not a False Note In It

The 16-hour PBS event celebrates the history of an American music form in all of its racial complexity.
  • An image from Country Music of Merle Haggard on the set of The Johnny Cash Show in 1970 .(Photo: Les Leverett / PBS)
    An image from Country Music of Merle Haggard on the set of The Johnny Cash Show in 1970 .(Photo: Les Leverett / PBS)
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    Country Music, a film by Ken Burns
    September 15-18 and September 22-25 at 8pm ET on PBS stations
    (check local listings)

    There was a time when it seemed like Ken Burns was going to become the David McCullough of PBS. He made films about the Brooklyn Bridge, Lewis and Clark, radio — warm-hearted visions of past American greatness that McCullough often narrated or appeared in. But then ... maybe it was Unforgivable Blackness, but at some point Burns began to seek out subjects that allowed him to tell a more complete and morally complex version of the American story, as opposed to McCullough, who seems content to rehash comforting myths about manifest destiny

    Country Music, Burns’ new eight-part, 16-hour PBS limited series — or as he calls it, “film” — is a beautifully crafted account of country music’s origins and numerous personality changes and facelifts. It is entertaining and arguably has the best soundtrack of any Burns film (and I loved Jazz). Country Music is also full of provocations that should, at some point or another, unsettle everyone watching.

    Bill Monroe on the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville, circa-1958, as featured in Country Music (Photo: Les Leverett Collection, Grand Ole Opry Archives / PBS)

    As someone who grew up listening to both types of music, country and western, I remember my father singing along to Montana Slim, Gene Autry, and the Sons of the Pioneers — those “singing cowboys” he cherished from his boyhood and wanted me to love as well. But the radio stations were more interested in country stars who could cross over to pop, like Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson. It wasn’t until I began building my own record collection in my 20s that I discovered some of country’s greatest performers: Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Merle Haggard, Jimmie Rodgers, and the first family of country, the Carters. As it turns out, all of these personalities, and many more, get their due from Burns and longtime collaborator Dayton Duncan, the writer of Country Music.

    Unlike other films, Burns avoids scholarly talking heads and for the most part let the musicians tell the story. It works because so many country artists are amateur historians and folklorists of their music, including Haggard, singer-songwriter Marty Stuart, and Rhiannon Giddens. You will never have a more complete or enjoyable course in music appreciation than Country Music.

    But Burns is also interested in creating a revisionist account of the racial and populist influences on the form originally sold to the public as “hillbilly music.” Country actually evolved out of white and black folk traditions — “blacks imitating whites imitating blacks imitating whites,” as one of them puts it. As radios and record players begin to show up in American homes, a man named Ralph Peer from Independence, Missouri, makes himself the biggest music producer of his time by signing both black singers like Mamie Smith for his “race records” label marketed to black buyers, and “hillbilly” singers like Fiddlin’ John Carson for his white customers. Soon it becomes clear, the two races are sampling each other's music, and would do so going forward, regardless of what Jim Crow thought.

    Singer Charley Pride tells Burns that his record label initially sent his music out without photos in attempt to hide that he is black. (Photo: Country Music/ PBS)

    Burns has driven these roads many times in the past, and is not afraid to sample material from his previous films, which makes Country Music  something of a greatest-hits collection from the director as well. His 1991 film on radio featured Dr. John Brinkley — the notorious “goat gland” doctor, who hawked his dubious remedies to millions over the airwaves — who turns out to have played a pivotal role in popularizing country music. Wynton Marsalis, last seen stirring the pot in Jazz, returns to make some pointed points about music and race. A painting by Thomas Hart Benton, whom Burns once did a whole film on, opens Country Music. Clips from his more recent works on the Roosevelts and Prohibition reappear here. I heard at least three old folk tunes that were on the soundtrack of Mark Twain.

    In his more recent works, Burns has used his subjects to weigh in on current hot-button discussions. The Dust Bowl (2012) sounded a warning about climate change and the unsustainable uses of land. The National Parks (2011) made the case for what Americans could do when they put the common good ahead of corporate interests. The Vietnam War (2017) was a reminder to a war-weary country that honoring the service of veterans does not require unquestioning fealty to the generals in Washington.

    In Country Music, Burns seems to be delivering a message to the affluent PBS viewers who have sustained his 40-year career in filmmaking: Here is the history of the white people you disdain. Country music fans today are typecast by urban elites as blindly patriotic, racially insensitive, and disturbingly Republican. Burns offers a different take. Country music “spoke for a lot of people who were forgotten, or felt they were being forgotten,” asserts historian Bill C. Malone, an opinion echoed minutes later by Rhiannon Giddens, whose Carolina Chocolate Drops have done much to reassert the interdependence of black and white folk music forms. “Country music is the music of the working class of people who don’t have a lot of power,” says Giddens.

    Ken Burns interviews Billy Sherrill for Country Music. (Photo: Craig Mellish/Florentine Films)

    Burns tells of the plight of poor whites who kept country music alive through the Depression, and at one point shows a picture of Franklin D. Roosevelt in his limousine visiting Okies. The folks standing around FDR clearly adore this New York aristocrat. Country Music is a full-throated celebration of the music that these poor and working-class white people built from the ground up. The 20th century's most popular and powerful president couldn’t have been more unlike them. But the important thing is he saw them.

    The second week of Country Music, which I did not screen for this review, takes the story from 1964 to 1996 and includes profiles of other artists who changed country, including Charley Pride, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Rosanne Cash, Dolly Parton, the Judds, Garth Brooks, and the great one, Merle Haggard, one of 17 interviewees who did not live to see the broadcast of this film.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Country Music, PBS, Ken Burns, Documentaries