Ken Burns’ Trip Through ‘Country Music’

countrymusic_1161x653-800x450In an era when history is more often doled out in digestible social media attention spans (“5 Takeaways from Such and Such”; “Top 10 War Losses”), there’s something to be said about meticulous, comprehensive and definitive documentaries. And for thoroughness, there’s nobody like Ken Burns, who spends so many years on a subject, finds so many clips, does so many interviews that it may seem tough for him to squeeze it all into a time barrier, for him, that is restrictive, but for everybody else may be dauntingly overwhelming.

That’s probably why his excellent “Vietnam” didn’t have the impact on that war’s scholarship and our attitudes toward it – hardly anybody could get through it all.

The great news about “Country Music” (PBS, 8 and 10 p.m.), his latest epic TV history, is that it’s just as enjoyable in small bites, even out of order, as it is straight through its entire 16 and a half hours (though there is a cumulative bonus in that as well).

By far his most entertaining documentary to date (if not the most important — “Civil War” was probably that), “Country Music” travels back from Nashville to Bristol, Tenn., with significant side trips to Austin and Bakersfield, to the origins of the music, going back long before it even had a name everyone could agree upon (Hillbilly? Folk? It was up to the industry, through Billboard magazine, to name it Country & Western at about the same time they made Race records Rhythm & Blues).

The biggest stars are there — Johnny Cash, Bob Wills, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard. And they’ve been working on this so long, they were able to sit Haggard down for one of his last interviews before he died in 2016. Of the 101 interviews conducted, 20 subjects have since died.

What’s great about this series compared to others is that the artists themselves are such enthusiasts for their heritage and so knowledgable and passionate about the giants that preceded them. Dwight Yoakam cries when he recites the poignancy of one Haggard lyric. Haggard recalls seeing Rose Maddox and Sister Rose. There’s only one professional music historian in the whole thing.

And there are strains of royalty that run through the workingman’s music — from the Carter Family through to Carlene Carter; Johnny to she and Rosanne Cash; Hank Williams to his granddaughter who croons his most famous song.

But the theme throughout is that this is the music of the people, of their lives, which is why Burns says it turned out much more emotional than he had thought.

Still, those who listen to what they’re calling country music on contemporary stations, the ones hailed at the CMA Awards, almost seem like they are off in a different genre — and they are certainly not represented here. Dierks Bently may be the only one to offer a comment. But largely because the series ends with the rise of Garth Brooks and the arena country singer, it leaves out just about all of contemporary country stars — the Dixie Chicks not to mention the Highwaywomen, who could nicely fill out an episode; or Lil Nas X, whose is-it-country-or-is-it-not, with its racial and sexual preference issues, could inspire several Burns episodes.

But even back in Garth’s heyday, they weren’t playing Haggard or George Jones on the radio any more. There’s a rift in country music, where the acoustic-based authenticity has largely branched off to what’s now called Americana, while the superstar, white-washed music of Taylor Swift or Maren Morris long since leaving country roots on its hard charge to generic pop.

“Country Music” happily stays largely into the establishing artists with integrity who should be remembered — a boxed set of classic that will be as cherished and indispensable decades from not as it is today.

Yes, it is long — you’ll get a little antsy at each of the eight two-hour episodes, every one of them longer than a feature film, getting you to wonder as you squirm at its commercial-free delights “How long IS this thing?” But because it seems divided into easily digestible 10 or 15 minute segments, with only the best clips, many I’ve never seen before, it’s easy to pause, return and dip back in.

Like Burns’ other epics, it tells us something about being American, how we grew and the way we think. It reflects on the issues that underly the rest of American history that remain vital and relevant – race, gender, inclusion. By reaching back to the tunes our grandfathers sung, it connects us to our own roots as well. There is a beautiful simple formula for the creation of country music as being the result of two imported instruments – the violin from Europe and the banjo from Africa. But can it really be that simple?

Burns is a master of making us think of our past, ourselves and how we live today. But none of his other docs had so much great music.

 

“Country Music” begins tonight at 8 on PBS with a look at the groundbreaking work of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Like the other episodes, it will immediately repeat at 10. The series runs Sundays through Wednesdays the next two weeks. The first four episodes are available to stream online and through the PBS app beginning today. 

Here’s a story I wrote for TV Worth Watching about the “Country Music” series from the PBS session at the TV Critics Association last month.

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