At 16 Hours, Ken Burns’ Country Music Ain’t Nearly Long Enough
There’s a moment three episodes into Ken Burns’ new eight-episode/16-hour binge-doc Country Music when I had to hit pause. Ernest Tubb, an up-and-coming country crooner who loves to sing but hates his voice, visits the widow of his hero, Jimmie Rodgers, popularly known as the Singing Brakeman and generally considered the first superstar in country music. She loans him her late husband’s signature guitar, which is already iconic, with his name spelled out in iridescent mother-of-pearl along the neck. Together, the three of them embark on a tour of theaters and honkytonks, although it’s not quite clear who’s getting top billing: the widow, the acolyte, or the instrument. One show poster reads, “Ernest Tubb singing and playing ‘Jimmies famous $1500.00 guitar,'” and the second half of that announcement gets a lot more space on the page than the first part.
Country Music doesn’t dwell on this incident, although I wish it had. There’s a lot to unpack in country’s first modernist moment, when certain ideas about the past, about authenticity, about humility in this conventionally humble genre are cemented in place. There’s no doubt that the very earnest Tubb is a fan of Rodgers, nor is there any doubt that the tour is an unbelievably savvy move that legitimizes the young star by his association with the old hero; the torch was being passed. This isn’t the first act of nostalgia in country music — its first wave of popular performers were harking back to the antebellum South — but it may be the first time an artist used the past to legitimize himself, to project and market his own authenticity. It’s proven a popular tactic ever since, whether it’s Waylon Jennings asking if Hank done it this way or Blake Shelton trying to convince us that young men are still listening to Hank Jr.
Country Music understands there is some importance to this event, especially considering it set Tubb up for his biggest hit (“Walking The Floor Over You”) and a career long enough that the next generation was citing him as an influence. But before he can probe any deeper or even just offer one of his talking heads a chance to comment, the documentary speeds along to the next segment. And this is the rub with Burns and especially this series: He knows how to tell a good story, how to introduce intriguing ideas, even how to present massive shifts in pop culture through an individual’s perspective, but he’s not always good at sussing out the deeper implications.
Partly this is a problem of scope, and partly it’s a problem of approach. Sixteen hours may sound like a lot of time, especially considering Burns cuts the story off around 1996, but it’s actually just a blip. Country Music cannot hope to contain all the wildness and weirdness, all the beauty and ugliness of its subject in such a short time, although I suspect he’d have similar problems if he expanded it to 50 hours. So he can’t give everyone their due. He elides some artists, glosses over others. Ray Price, a mighty crossover artist, gets about a minute of screentime, the Louvin Brothers even less. It may be Burns’ most binge-able project to date, but some of his segments feel obligatory, as though he needs to shoehorn in as many acts as possible.
Rooted in the Great Man school of popular history, Burns is much more interested in the larger figures and their longer stories. It’s hard to argue that Hank Williams is an important figure who demands a lot of attention in this series. Same with Johnny Cash. But Country Music doesn’t uncover anything new about these titans of the genre, nor does it give us any new angles from which to view their careers and catalogs. Rather, it’s just summing up what we already know about them, reaffirming certain epic storylines about country music. Especially considering it comes at the expense of equally important artists (like Loretta Lynn) or artists who are currently being reconsidered by a new generation of listeners and historians (like Bobbie Gentry), this tack can be extremely frustrating. Of course every country fan will have different concerns and personal favorites, but do we really need that much about the birth of rock ‘n’ roll? Did he really need to devote so much time to the Vietnam War and especially Jan Howard, a minor figure included here likely because it dovetails with Burns’ previous project?
Country Music excels when it gently punctures some of the myths that country music tells itself, when it challenges the perceptions of insiders and outsiders alike. Never an especially subversive filmmaker, Burns makes this the focus of early episodes, which detail the foundational contributions by women and artists of color. Maybelle Carter gets her due as a deeply influential guitar player and inventor of the innovative Carter Scratch technique. And DeFord Bailey was not merely an inventive harmonica player but a charter member of the Grand Ole Opry. As Burns tells it, country music was not initially identified with white artists and audiences, but a conglomeration of sounds and styles from various sources. However, Bailey’s ouster from country’s biggest stage — allegedly for not expanding his repertoire but mainly because he was black and therefore, in the words of Opry founder and announcer George D. Hay, “lazy” — is one ugly step in that whitewashing.
Burns, a documentary auteur who has done large-scale series on the Civil War, jazz, baseball, and the Vietnam War, is more a pop historian than a hardcore academic, and that makes him better suited rather than ill-equipped to tackle such monolithic enterprises. For one thing, he has always understood the need to make archival material — blurry photographs, grainy filmstrips, scrawled letters, worn concert posters, Marty Stuart’s graying, gravity-defying coif — visually striking. While Burns’ technique is easy to satirize, few documentarians can wring as much visual information and narrative energy from a black-and-white photograph. He’s a deft and patient storyteller, and country music gives him so many great stories to tell.
Even as I grew weary of his fawning coverage of Johnny Cash, I admit I got a little weepy in the final episode, when Rosanne Cash sings “I Still Miss Someone” at her father’s memorial service. In fact, there were so many points in this documentary when I found myself moved almost to tears: when Rodgers works himself to death, when Hank Williams drinks himself to his grave, when Sarah Carter is reunited with her lost lover (how is this not a movie yet?), when Patsy Cline’s plane crashes. Almost since its first notes were etched into the shellac of a 78 record, country music has been haunted by death and despair, either the product of or the inspiration for so many songs about longing and loss. Even when they’re well-known, these tragedies come across as freshly affecting.
Ultimately, Burns is just as enamored as Ernest Tubb was with Jimmie Rodgers’ guitar. Country Music is constantly distracted by how artists use their forebears and inspirations to justify themselves, to define themselves, to authenticate themselves. If that sounds like a criticism, it’s not. It’s not bug of the series, but a feature: an organizing principle that lends much-needed gravity to the final episode, which is tasked with covering more than thirty years of country trends and movements. It’s one thing to talk about the neo-traditionalist movement in the 1980s, another thing entirely to illustrate it with clips of Dwight Yoakam singing with his hero Buck Owens and Ricky Skaggs casting bluegrass legend Bill Monroe in a video for his #1 hit “Country Boy.” In fact, one of the best moments in this long series comes near the end, when Emmylou Harris books a show at the Ryman, which by the late 1980s was in serious disrepair. In front of 200 people gathered near the stage to give the appearance of a large crowd, she runs through a set comprised of rock and country songs old and new, and Burns focuses on the moment when she brings out Monroe — not to play or sing, but to dance. Together the two of them cut a rug on that famous stage, and for a moment Burns presents a joyous and beautiful view of country music as a force for collapsing the past into the present, for uniting the young and the old, for giving you an infectious beat to scoot your boots to.
It’s impossible to cram 100 years of country music history into a mere sixteen hours, so of course Burns and his team had to make some very hard decisions about what to include and what to omit, what to emphasize and what to ignore. Country Music is full of great stories, but here are a few they left out:
The questionable legacy of Roy Acuff
Acuff was an Opry mainstay whose keening, emotional style of singing made him a superstar. In fact, he was so popular that Japanese soldiers would taunt Americans by yelling, “To hell with Babe Ruth! To hell with Roy Acuff!” Yet, he has a more complicated legacy than Country Music lets on. First, he was a notoriously conservative artist who criticized subsequent generations for loose morals while ignoring his own history making smut records like “Doin’ It The Old-Fashioned Way” and “When Lulu’s Gone” (“Bang away my Lulu, bang away good and strong/ What you gonna do for banging when Lulu’s gone?”). Worse, after campaigning for the Grand Ole Opry to move to a new location in the late 1960s, he worked just as tirelessly to have the Ryman Auditorium demolished. “I never want another note of music played in that building,” he stated in 1971. Fortunately, he was not successful.
The pedal steel and the “Hawaiian Craze”
The pedal steel guitar has become synonymous with country music, its smeary sound used to evoke tears or two-steps, but its origins are complicated. Long before Hawaii became the 50th state, it exported the pedal steel to the American mainland, first in a Broadway production called Bird Of Paradise in 1912 and later through a radio program called Hawaii Calls. It proved so popular that journalists referred to it as the Hawaiian Craze and called it the biggest pop music craze of the young century. Gradually it was incorporated into hillbilly music, first as a novelty and later as a central element in honkytonk. Burns does well tracing the eclectic roots of country music, but his omission of the pedal steel seems like a significant oversight.
The Rhinestone Cowboy gets a brief mention, but it’s short and focuses on his short-lived variety show rather than his immense contributions to country music. He entered the genre not from Nashville or Texas or even Bakersfield, but from the Los Angeles pop factory. He was a sharp guitarist who cut his teeth playing alongside the Wrecking Crew on sessions for the Beach Boys, Nancy Sinatra, and the Monkees, among many others. As a solo artist, however, he enjoyed a remarkable run of crossover hits like “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston,” achieving the kind of success on pop and country charts that many of his peers never enjoyed. In fact, for years he was arguably the most successful crossover artist in any format — definitely not the footnote to which Country Music relegates him.
In the 1980s and especially the early 1990s, a generation of young punks discovered the Carter Family and Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb and started making their own supercharged songs with frantic twang and populist lyrics. The genre even took its nickname from the Carter Family’s song “No Depression” (also the first album by mainstays Uncle Tupelo), and it’s the breeding ground for acts like the Mekons, the Jayhawks, Wilco, Ryan Adams, Joe Henry, and many others who reassessed and reinterpreted country conventions toward new ends. Country Music makes a point to talk about the birth of the Americana movement in the mid 1990s, but even before old-school stars showed up on Gavin magazine’s new Americana chart, they had been adopted by alt-country fans. And while some of that music hasn’t aged particularly well, it nevertheless represents a very particular and important aspect of country music history.
One story that gets told repeatedly throughout these 16 hours is that of the artist who just wants to be themselves on record and must fight the label or casting director who tells them they’re too country. And the outcome is always the same: The artist prevails, the audience responds, the industry adapts. That’s what happened with Dwight Yoakam, who stood his ground when his label tried to remove a line about “hillbilly music,” and that’s what happened to Garth Brooks, who was passed over by nearly every label in Nashville before becoming the biggest star on the planet. Lucinda Williams has a very different story: After two fairly obscure acoustic blues albums on Smithsonian Folkways, she spent nearly a decade writing and recording her self-titled third album, which was rejected by every suit in Nashville before the English punk label Rough Trade picked it. Unlike Yoakam or Brooks, she did not become a sensation and Lucinda Williams did not change country music. But it did give Mary Chapin Carpenter her biggest hit (“Passionate Kisses”) and does survive today as a classic of fringe country, one that’s regularly cited as one of the finest albums in the genre. It’s a different kind of success, which means it’s a different kind of success story.
The Flatlanders. Or Linda Martell. Or Crystal Gayle. Or Highway 101. Or KT Oslin. Or Whoever Your Favorite Country Singer Is
In the final episode of Country Music, Burns recounts the story of Garth Brooks showing up unannounced at a fan fair in 1996 and signed autographs for 23 hours straight. It shows just how close country audiences can get to their favorite artists, whether it’s the billion-selling Brooks or anyone whose songs connect with you. There’s no way Burns could get everybody’s favorites in here, of course, so I’ll give him a pass for not mentioning one of my own favorite country songs, “Color Him Father,” by the first African American woman to play the Opry, Linda Martell.
Pretty much everything after 1996…
Country Music ends with a quick montage of some major figures from the 21st century, including Kenny Chesney, Alison Krauss & Union Station, and Chris Stapleton. It feels like a bad punt, as Burns forfeits the opportunity to consider how 21st century country music addressed 9/11, how it veered violently to the right during the war in Iraq, how it banished the Dixie Chicks for shaming Bush. There’s no mention of O Brother Where Art Thou? or any of the reality TV competitions (which gave us Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, among others), nothing about the bro country takeover of mainstream radio, nothing about Tomato-gate and the horrible treatment of women artists, nothing about how many of those women artists are making some of the most visionary music coming out of Nashville, nothing about the new wave of outlaws like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell, and not a damn thing about “Old Town Road,” arguably the biggest country hit of all time and a phenomenon that throws everything we know about country — its color, its sound, its orientation, its means of distribution, its star-making machinery, and its audience — into glorious disarray. Hopefully, as he did with Baseball, Burns will do an encore episode covering some of these developments.
Ken Burns’ Country Music premieres Sunday, 9/15 on PBS.