Ken Burns’ “Country Music”
For the last couple of weeks, my wife and I have been watching Ken Burns’ new Country Music documentaries on PBS. Restraining our urge to jump forward, we began with the first episode, which covered the Depression-era roots in early radio shows, and have enjoyed both learning and reminiscing as we’ve worked our way through subsequent episodes. We just watched the next-to-last one, “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? 1973 – 1983” last weekend. There’s one more to go.
My wife and I have completely different experiences with country music. Hers centers on a childhood that had this music as its soundtrack, with a father who loved George Jones and Ray Charles. She is less concerned with artist names or esoteric anecdotes than with enjoying a good song and having fond memories of a few in particular. By contrast, mine began with a childhood awareness that came mainly from crossover hits, and my teenage attitude was that country music was terrible. I didn’t really “discover” country music – real country music – until I was in college, and only then through acts like Bob Dylan and The Byrds.
Even as a latecomer to country, I see that Burns’ documentary series has real strengths and weaknesses (if I may be so bold). Understanding that it would take hundreds of episodes to do a more thorough job, these seven cover a lot but also leave gaping holes. They focus on the big guys – Jimmie Rogers, Hank, Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, Flatt, Scruggs, Loretta, Merle, Dolly, Willie, Waylon – and tell of the major producers whose names we may not know, but some folks get more attention than seems necessary. While I respect Marty Stuart’s role in modern country music, I question his ubiquity in this series, especially considering how the sixth episode hardly mentions hit machines like Kenny Rogers and Alabama. Thankfully, Burns gives real time and attention to Armadillo World Headquarters and to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken, but also gives quite a bit to Tom T. Hall and Jeannie Sealey, two names many modern fans wouldn’t recognize. I’ll give Burns props for handling Charlie Pride’s story tactfully, a task that Pride himself helps along. Personally, I don’t enjoy the “Nashville Sound,” so the limited emphasis on singers like Eddy Arnold didn’t bother me, but the absence of the Allman Brothers Band did. (“Ramblin’ Man” is a great country song.) Moreover, there wasn’t the scantest whisper of the name David Allan Coe, whose 1975 “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” is, after all, the “the perfect country and western song.”
Documentaries like these are, more than anything, fodder for arguments among over-educated self-appointed critics like me, the kind of people who’ve read Frye Gaillard’s Watermelon Wine in reprint and watched Heartworn Highways on a streaming service. Having come to country music through my own volition, not through my natural habitat, I’ve got a more intellectual approach to “three chords and the truth” than a fan whose roots lie in smoky honkytonks and gas-station cassette tapes. However, one great thing about country music is: those good ol’ boys and people like my wife will never let high-minded interlopers like me and Ken Burns ruin it for them. No matter what happens, the integrity of sharing the stories and perspectives of common people will remain at the core. And speaking of integrity . . . I’m already looking forward to the passage of the “bro country” phase, and hopefully, a couple-dozen years from now, the next generation’s Ken Burns will gloss over them, too.