What Ken Burns’ 16-Hour ‘Country Music’ Epic Leaves Out
The 16-hour, eight-episode PBS miniseries—debuting on Sept. 15—offers a dazzling primer on country music but stumbles in certain areas, including its problems with race.
Country music has been having an identity crisis since it crawled out of the cradle. Call it diffuse or call it elastic, but it has always run on two tracks: one was rough and one was slick, one rooted in tradition, the other more modern.
Think about that serendipitous August in 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee, when, two days apart, both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family auditioned for the Victor Talking Machine Company (which would ultimately become RCA Records). Ralph Peer, the record company’s producer and talent scout, immediately signed both acts. That was a big week for country music. But Rodgers’ and the Carters’ music, while similar, drew upon dissimilar traditions. Rodgers sounded slicker, more commercial, like Tin Pan Alley injected with the blues and a yodel. The Carters were more about spirituals and traditional mountain music. But both appealed to the working class white audience that record companies were just beginning to cultivate. So who was going to fuss about stylistic differences when the records were selling?
Together, over the course of a century, these two strands stitched a durable crazy quilt broad enough to accommodate Bill Monroe and Lynn Anderson, the Bakersfield sound and countrypolitan, fiddles and syrupy violins. Sometimes the two strains were at odds, and sometimes the tension between the two created works of genius. Another word for this, of course, is schizophrenic.
If you want to see this study in multiple musical personalities displayed in fascinating detail, tune in to Ken Burns’ eight-part documentary on country music that debuts tonight (Sept. 15) on your local PBS affiliate. It’s not as much trashy, surreal fun as any given performance of the Grand Ole Opry or even Hee Haw, because Burns just doesn’t do trashy, but if you need a starter course in country, this is it.
Burns covers the titans, giving deserved space to legends like Rodgers, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, and maybe a little too much space to Johnny Cash, although you can see how the doc’s creators need Cash as their through-line to connect disparate parts of their narrative: Cash not only married into the Carter family, thus becoming a de facto member of the genre’s royal family, but also reached out to bring people like Bob Dylan into country’s fold, played historic concerts in Folsom and San Quentin prisons, espoused the cause of Native Americans, and also for many years was just a big-time pill-popping badass.
And although Cash was never the musical equal of singer-songwriters like Haggard or Parton, he is at least a welcome exception to the rule that silently guides this documentary: chart success on the radio.
Sometimes that thinking seems almost knuckleheaded: if you were a hit, you were important. Let the cash register be your guide. That’s surely the impulse that has almost always driven the Nashville music establishment, but it needn’t have influenced the shape of this doc so much. But so it does, and thus the insanely popular but musically uninteresting Garth Brooks gets an embarrassing amount of screen time, while Bill Monroe, one of the orneriest but greatest geniuses of all American music, just gets the occasional respectful nod.
Another point that Burns only makes implicitly and I wish had explored in more depth: More than any other genre, country is the creation of radio and the record business. Of course, chart success determines who gets sold and promoted in any genre. But nearly every genre, from blues to jazz to rock and roll, existed as musical styles before being gobbled up by the music industry. By this I mean, jazz was going strong before it got on the radio and would have gone on being jazz whether radio and record execs paid attention or not. Country, on the other hand, did not exist as a category before radio more or less made it up. People like the Carter family played for themselves and their neighbors. It was all homemade. They weren’t professional musicians until radio and RCA said so. So the medium through which the music reached its audience has always had a disproportionate influence on what direction the music took.
An ironic footnote to all that: Chet Atkins, the music producer and record executive most responsible for making country as slickly palatable to the widest possible audience, broke into country music as an unknown guitarist supporting Mother Maybelle Carter and her three daughters.
Anyone who cares a lick about the subject already knows who most of this doc’s smartest talking heads are going to be: Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Rosanne Cash, and Emmylou Harris. But Burns has uncovered some unlikely commentators who occasionally threaten to steal the whole show. Who knew Brenda Lee was such a great talker, or Jeannie Seely, Ray Benson, Carlene Carter, or Charlie Pride? Country Music has its surprises.
But best of all is Marty Stuart, who besides being a great musician and an articulate historian of the music to which he’s devoted his life, also has a terrific backstory: when he was still a boy, he told his mom he was going to marry country star Connie Smith one day, and several decades later, he did just that.
There were more times than I could count while watching the doc where I wished that Burns had just made a film of Marty Stuart talking. His off-the-cuff remarks are every bit as insightful as anything in the voiceover script penned by Dayton Duncan and read by Peter Coyote. As Shelby Foote was to Burns’ Civil War, so is Marty Stuart to Country Music.
It falls to Stuart to mark the dichotomy noted above between Jimmie Rodgers’ blues and sophistication and the Carters’ homespun, gospel-anchored folk music. It’s Stuart who points out that Maybelle Carter pretty much singlehandedly invented country’s guitar sound.
Kicking off episode five, Stuart describes the musical melting pot that was the Grand Ole Opry stage at mid-century: “All of its children had come to the Mother Church of Country Music. It was almost like a badge of honor that you had to bring your culture with you to the table. That’s why Bob Wills and his guys brought us Western music. That’s why Hank Williams brought the South with him from honky tonks. Johnny Cash brought the black land dirt of Arkansas. Bill Monroe brought the music out of Kentucky bluegrass music. Willie Nelson brought his poetry from Texas. Patsy Cline brought her heartache from Virginia. I mean, it was the most wonderful parade of sons and daughters of America that brought their hearts and souls and their experiences, and it gave us a great era in country music.”
Episode five may be the best part of the series. Covering the years when Haggard, Parton, Buck Owens, Loretta Lynn, and George Jones and Tammy Wynette dominated radio playlists, it showcases the moment when popularity and musical genius were one and the same. After that high point, the series, like the music it covers, loses steam.
I wish I could claim credit for a friend’s observation that all modern country descends from… the Eagles. It’s just so dead-on: sure, you’ve still got your pedal steel and a fiddle here and there, but mostly the music today is serving one flavor, and that’s vanilla. You find hardly anything weird in country anymore—no recitations, no Bill Monroe psychotic falsetto, no corny humor, none of the qualities or eccentricities that made country unique, even if it alienated respectable middle-class listeners. And it is no accident that neither will you find any of the native genius that powered the songs of Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, or Dolly Parton. Aside from a few performers like Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price, most of the contemporary country stars I hear all sound like they just came from playing a frat house keg party.
I suspect Burns and his crew came to the same conclusion, because their history ends somewhere in the ’90s, right about the time Johnny Cash hooked up with producer Rick Rubin to record three stark albums that showcase a man staring eternity in the eye and never blinking. It’s a dark but appropriate moment to close with.
Or maybe they just couldn’t figure out a graceful way to say that contemporary country is just not very interesting. Because sometimes you get the feeling while watching Country Music that they were afraid of offending anyone. Nowhere is this more awkwardly obvious than on those occasions where the doc bumps into the subject of race. The elephant in this room is that country is white people’s music, and the African-American artists brought in to testify to the contrary, even when they say sensible things, sound woefully like tokens. Because no matter how many country songs Ray Charles sang and no matter how many No. 1 hits Charley Pride had, country is just white to the bone. The performers were white. And so were their audiences. Likewise, the often ugly conservative and sometimes downright racist impulses articulated by more than a few performers in the ’60s and ’70s are glossed over almost completely. We don’t hear a peep about Marty Robbins recording “Ain’t I Right,” a song mocking civil rights freedom marchers, or Guy Drake, whose “Welfare Cadillac” shot to No. 5 on the country charts in 1970.
In its zeal to nail all the BIG, IMPORTANT things about country—its lyrics deal with real grown-up problems (“The Pill,” “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”); it voices the dreams and disappointed populism of the working class; the performers and their audiences are on an equal footing, just like family—it sometimes covers ground too often trod (do we really need to hear the long, sad story of George and Tammy again?).
What gets lost in that approach is the squirrelly weirdness and crackpot sanctimony that lurk around every corner in Nashville. You won’t find much of that here, even though that stuff is locked in country’s DNA. Every time Roy Acuff pops up on screen, I can’t help but remember that Opryland, the suburban theme park that replaced the old Ryman auditorium in downtown Nashville, gave him a little house on the grounds of Opryland where he lived out his days like a tottering, audio-animatronic one-man Hall of Presidents. Country Music treats Acuff like an elder statesman, and maybe he was, but the dude lived in a theme park, and that’s batshit craziness that’s crucial to the story.
Burns never lets the vanilla go all the way to eleven though. More than once he made me laugh out loud at the talking-head testimony. There’s the moment when Bill Anderson explains how those hot, heavy, sequin-spangled Nudie suits could make you sweat off ten pounds as soon as you stepped out under those glaring stage lights. And kudos for including the story about speed freak Roger Miller: when a promoter asked Miller’s manager how long had Roger been “up” and the manager said he’d only worked with Roger for a year and a half. Before that, he didn’t know.
Burns didn’t have to let Dwight Yoakam explain how Buck Owens used the opening lyrics of songs to act as the kick-off and set the rhythm: “I’ve. Got. A. Tiger.” One. Two. Three. Four. But I’m so glad that’s in there. Glad too that we get to hear how hard Owens worked to craft his sharp, treble-y sound to make it radio-friendly, down to playing back recordings through car-radio speakers right in the studio. So that’s why those songs sound like that.
Numerous times, the documentary shines a light where it didn’t have to, where it was just plainly guided by love and affection. It might have gotten away with ignoring the Maddox Brothers and Rose, those madcap Dust Bowl migrants who turned themselves into “The World’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band,” but thank goodness someone on this project loved the Maddoxes. And Bob Wills, and Patsy Montana.
Country Music refuses to define its subject much beyond the flabby, big-tent ideas that the genre contains multitudes and you know it when you see it. Call that timid, but who can blame Burns and company? Trying to pin down country is like wrestling a fat man dipped in lard. When it comes to self-definition, country has always been in conflict with itself. It’s silly and profound, appallingly maudlin and deeply, genuinely emotional, often all in the same song. Which makes “He Stopped Loving Her Today” the perfect country song.
Written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman, produced by countrypolitan master Billy Sherrill, and sung by George Jones, this 1980 release was Jones’ first No. 1 hit in six years, which surprised no one more than him, since he hated what he called “that morbid son of a bitch” that “nobody’s going to buy.”
Basically, it’s a gimmick song with a twist: you find out in the chorus that he stopped loving her because he’s dead. It’s got soaring, syrupy violins, a harmonica, and a steel guitar in the background, along with woo-woo lady back-up vocals, a recitation verse somewhere in the middle, and somehow George Jones’ voice ties this over-the-top mess together, because, well, because he’s George Jones and he can sing anything and sound like he absolutely believes every word and therefore so do you. There’s no good explanation for why he can sing like no one before him or why no one since has ever managed to copy his style.
“He Stopped Loving Her Today” dares you not to take it seriously, and double-dares you to call it campy. It’s slick but yet honest, so openly sentimental—in its weirdly poker-faced way—and it pulls so earnestly at your heartstrings that it defies criticism. It’s one of those perfect works of art that sounds like it’s been around forever, like it just existed in the ether, waiting for someone to come along and find it.
There’s no explaining a song like that, or the genre that it so shimmeringly exemplifies. How can something so corny and baldly manipulative be so beautiful? Answer that and you’ve unriddled the allure of country. But if you’re like the rest of us, you’ll die trying.