Ken Burns’s new documentary, “Country Music”

September 26, 2019 • 2:15 pm

Even if you’re not a fan of country music (I like some of it but not a lot of it), you will want to watch Ken Burns’s latest documentary, “Country Music” (the website is here). This was done in collaboration with two producers, Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey.

There are eight two-hour episodes, making it almost as comprehensive as Burns’s 9-episode masterpiece, “The Civil War,” which I still think is the greatest thing to ever appear on television.  The list of the new series’s episodes is here, and you can see the first one (1 hour 51 minutes) on that page.

I had no idea there even was such a documentary, and accidentally came upon it while flipping to PBS. I was mesmerized and watched for over an hour until the show was over.  I happened to catch episode 5, “Sons and Daughters of America,” which spanned 1964-1968, and featured Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Bob Dylan (in a duet with Cash), Charlie Pride, and others who knew the greats, like Roseanne Cash. There are interviews with some who have passed on (like Haggard, who died three years ago), so the show must have been in the works for a while.  The interviews are terrific, as are the clips of the music. I had no idea, for instance, that Haggard was a habitual though minor criminal in his youth, and spent time in San Quentin prison.

This is uniquely American music, in line with Burns’s overall project to document Americana.  I really recommend you start watching it. If you don’t like it, turn it off, but I’m betting you won’t. The episode schedule is here, but you may have to tweak it for your local NPR station. At any rate, unlike the BBC for us, even Brits can watch it online after the episodes appear on television.

Do you recognize these folks?

 

54 thoughts on “Ken Burns’s new documentary, “Country Music”

  1. That’s Mr. Sam Phillips’s Million Dollar Quartet from Sun Records on the bottom — The Killer, Mr. Blue Suede Shoes, the Man in Black, and The King.

  2. The Civil War documentary has not held up well, though it was incredibly compelling. The academic historians that I follow have voiced these criticisms: over-romanticization of the struggle, far too much of the Lost Cause perspective, and insufficient discussion of the brutality of the institution of slavery.

    Sent from my iPhone

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    1. There will always be criticism of a documentary that cannot cover everything for it not covering everything. But i did not mind the strong balance on the war from the Southern perspective.

      1. What balance from the Southern perspective???? The South wanted a society built on slavery. And Burns kept trotting out Shelby Foote to make you think it was not all bad.

        1. I am always amazed at those who cannot look at history without including their current personal opinion. We all kind of know slavery was bad. Shelby is a historian.

          1. What current personal opinion? The Civil War was about slavery. The South is still infecting this country with its ideology. It kept de facto slavery in place into the 1960s. Shelby Foote was not a historian. He was a southern apologist who Burns turned into a star. Straight from Foote’s mouth –
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shelby_Foote
            in a 1997 interview with Donald Faulkner and William Kennedy, Foote stated that he would have fought for the Confederacy, and “what’s more, I would fight for the Confederacy today if the circumstances were similar. There’s a great deal of misunderstanding about the Confederacy, the Confederate flag, slavery, the whole thing. The political correctness of today is no way to look at the middle of the nineteenth century. The Confederates fought for some substantially good things. States’ rights is not just a theoretical excuse for oppressing people. You have to understand that the raggedy Confederate soldier who owned no slaves and probably couldn’t even read the Constitution, let alone understand it, when he was captured by Union soldiers and asked, ‘what are you fighting for?’ replied, ‘I’m fighting because you’re down here.’ So I certainly would have fought to keep people from invading my native state.

            1. You need to go back and read your own reference. Foote is listed as a historian. He wrote books on the war. You do not have to like it but yes, he was a historian. He was also a southern with those somewhat bigoted views kind of like yours of another kind. One very good historian once said, if you are going to carry all those opinions and judgments with you, you just as well not make the trip. The trip has not been good for you.

              https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shelby_Foote

              1. Foote was a novelist and self styled historian. No true historian took him seriously. And Ken Burns made him a star. His views were bigoted – not somewhat. It is all this Lost Cause crap. Your comment about my opinions and judgment is just stupid (sorry Jerry for getting worked up about this and hurling and insult). There is nothing defensible about the Confederacy. It always was disgusting. That is a fact. It was an authoritarian police state run for the benefit of a small white aristocracy. It got poor whites to die for it. And its legacy has infected our body politic of our nation to this day. Foote was this kindly down home figure that Burns trotted out to defend it. The reality of Foote is that he was an apologist for that system.

                Go ahead and respond to this if you want. I am dropping it.

              2. How anyone with your extreme attitude and opinion could look at any period of history and come away with some knowledge of it is doubtful. Most all of our first several presidents were slave owners so I suppose we just scrape those guys into the garbage along with everyone who lived south of Mason-Dixon? And by the way, they call him historian not “self styled”.

    2. I really liked his documentary on jazz, although I know some serious jazz aficionados carped about that one, too. But, hey, what’s the point of being a serious aficionado if you can’t find something to carp about, anyway?

    3. I watched it last year on Netflix. I did not see any romanticisation at all. There was a discussion of slavery but it’s a documentary about the Civil War, not slavery. You can’t avoid talking about it, because it is the central cause of the war, but there’a lot of other stuff to get in too.

  3. What’s got 99 legs and one tooth?

    The front row of the audience at the Grand Old Opry

    The only country music joke I could come up with on short notice.

    1. Sounds more specifically about the poor of Appalachia. (Some of whom ” . . . owe my soul to the Company store [and Wall Street investors].” Re: “Sixteen Tons,” “Tennessee” Ernie Ford.)

  4. Iowa Public Television is fabulous. Locally,
    Mr Burns’ Country Music in its entirety just
    finished last night, its having aired t w i c e
    per night from 7:00 to 11:00pm Central during
    both last and this weeks’ Sunday through
    Wednesday evenings. I mean to state that
    IF one wanted to do so, one could ‘ve on one’s
    big screen languished through 32 hours’ worth
    of this glorious deal. I loved it all; but
    since I am in love with three dead men, the
    most smashing for me was Episode 8. I ‘ve
    stated it here before: no one sings A Thing
    … … NOT A Thing … … as does the one – off
    Mr Waylon Jennings.

    He said so himself: his most favored – ever recorded piece is thus: Dreamin’ My Dreams of http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZuO7eXYxDI = ” I hope I won’t be that WRONG any more … … ”

    O yeah. Me too.

    Blue

    ps By the way, Mr Burns for his “Civil War”
    series determinedly asked for, and received,
    its writer’s special permission to use INside it
    thus: Ashokan Farewell of
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kZASM8OX7s
    selected by My William, ‘fore he died
    14 April last, for his own memorial.
    His child bowed it … … there.
    Not One Dry Eye. Tears tracking down Everyone’s cheeks.

    And in Mr Burns’ Country Music, .that. is what Mr Vince Gill stated of it all: he just wanted it, ANY of it, ” to move me. It is, for me, the emotion of it. ”

    I know I may be WRONG to do so, but I shall be
    in love with both William and Mr Jennings until
    such moment as I myself no longer … … inhale.

  5. I am not a huge fan of country music (especially the contemporary versions of it) but I thoroughly enjoyed the Ken Burns series. I remember watching Johnny Cash’s TV show when I was a young’un, but I did not recall the eclectic nature of the musical guests he had on the show, in addition to his own semi-radical streak. I was most fascinated by the shows dealing with the 60s and 70s and the influences of other musical genres on country music and vice versa.

  6. Like others, I’m not a Country Western fan but I did watch Episodes 3 & 4 and found them compelling. Having just finished On the Road: The Original Scroll, I couldn’t help but connect Hank Williams with Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac. Epidosde 3 ended with his death and Episode 4 ended with Patsy Cline’s death.

  7. I also happened on this by accident and as a long time old timey music fan I’ve been thoroughly enjoying it. Hope he does something similar for Black country blues.

  8. ” “The Civil War,” which I still think is the greatest thing to ever appear on television”

    I loved that series but as Simon has pointed out, I’ve heard there were problems with it and I know a Civil War buff who was not that impressed.
    My votes for the best things to ever appear on TV

    I Claudius
    Band of Brothers
    Rick Burns series on New York
    Ken Burns ‘The War’
    …. I’m sure there are 1 or 2 more if I could think of them

  9. I’ve always liked Bluegrass but never thought of that as country music. I think I’ve always had a bit of a prejudice against country music but maybe the music I didnt like was more “country pop” and classic country is quality music.
    A movie that could leave anyone more disposed to country is “O Brother Where Art Thou” I highly recommend.

    1. Until the “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack was released, the best selling bluegrass album was Old & In The Way with Jerry Garcia (banjo, vocals), Peter Rowan (guitar, vocals), Vassar Clements (fiddle), David Grisman (mandolin, vocals), and John Kahn (string bass).

      Garcia had many interests. Sadly, RIP Robert Hunter.

    2. Bluegrass is about as Country as you can get.

      It precedes the industry in Nashville though.

      As Ed Abbey once noted: Country and Western Music [bring in the Blues Brothers reference here]: Made in a big city, in the East.

      I like the old country music and old time music.

      The mass-produced pop music out of Nashville now (add telecaster, key of G, put that twang-doodle in the vocal) is just bland pop junk.

  10. “At any rate, unlike the BBC for us, even Brits can watch it online after the episodes appear on television.”

    That may seem inequitable, and I must admit it niggles me too, but there is a very good reason for it. The BBC is (partly) funded by an annual television licence fee (currently 154 pounds ($195) a year). A TV licence is also required to use iPlayer, the BBC’s online service. The presumption is, that if you’re in Britain, you will have already paid for a TV licence so iPlayer is included in that.

    The Beeb also derives a very large slice of its income from overseas TV sales and DVD sales of popular series like Dr Who and wildlife specials. They’re not going to cut their revenue from that (or undercut the sale value to overseas broadcasters) by streaming it on the Internet.

    Obviously other channels and other countries have different funding models, usually involving adverts. But whatever you’re watching, it’s getting paid for somehow.

    cr

    1. I should add that I’m in NZ, and there are other tracks on e.g. Youtube which “The uploader has not made available in your country”, presumably for similar commercial reasons.

      cr

  11. I generally enjoy Burns’ documentaries, but I find that people who are experts in the field often find fault with them. For example, I know a great deal about the history of the National Parks and I certainly had problems with his National Park series. I am enjoying the country music shows. I did not like that he basically started the time line of the series in the 1920s. He actually could have done more to recognize the role of African American string bands that go well back into the 1800s. There were black fiddle players who were very influential. Rhiannon Giddens has studied this history and he had her on the first episode, but he could have used her expertise more.

    There has been some criticism that he is relying almost completely on country musicians and not using music scholars who have studied the genre. Not sure how valid that is. But, on the National Park episodes he did not use some of the top historians of park history and in one episode he had Nevada Barr as a talking head, and while she worked for the Park Service for a short time, she is known for being a mystery writer and not a park history expert.

    I have only watched 3 episodes. I like the early country music, but around the 1980s or so, the music changed a lot. Seems to me that now it is mostly twangy pop/rock that has really lost its roots. It is my understanding that this transition is largely the work of Chet Atkins who became one of the biggest music producers in Nashville. The other big change was moving the Grand Old Opry from the lovely Ryman Auditorium to the horrible garish Opryland.

    Just learned that there is a Carter Family music center in Hiltons, Virginia and a number of historic sites related to the Carters nearby. I am heading that way in early November and now plan to visit it.

    1. “Seems to me that now it is mostly twangy pop/rock that has really lost its roots. It is my understanding that this transition is largely the work of Chet Atkins who became one of the biggest music producers in Nashville.”

      My impression is that Chet Atkins was significantly pop/adult contemporary-oriented. He and Owen Bradley were significant players in creating “The Nashville Sound” of the 50’s/early 60’s. Country purists (of the Hank Williams vein) disliked their use of string sections. “Shocked! Shocked!” Many country singers (e.g. Jim Reeves) were backed by The Anita Kerr Quartet/Singers (influenced by The Modernaires and The Pied Pipers), who went on a European tour with Reeves and Atkins.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZsfkNQdt_ps

      I wonder if, in a later episode, one will see vocalist/pianist Charlie Rich (“The Silver Fox,” who used strings in his recordings) at the Country Music Awards tear up the envelope after he announces the song of the year. (“Country Roads,” by John Denver, IIRC).

    2. I’ve watched most of the first three episodes, and what was missing for me was commentary by music scholars on the musicianship of various country performers, what made one different from the other, what makes one style of country music different from others, why this or that musician was considered especially creative, etc.
      In the Burns documentary on jazz music, there was Wynton Marsalis offering up lively commentary on just such points. That’s what’s missing from my perspective in the new documentary.
      What I most learned was that country music was very commercial from the 1930s onward, that radio station owners had an outsize influence on the sound and look of country music, that performers were encouraged to adopt the ‘hillbilly’ and ‘cowboy’ stereotypes.
      I did enjoy the bit they had on about Minnie Pearl, who I remember watching on the Ed Sullivan show.

  12. I hope Willie Nelson gets his due. This video has 24,236,672 views. Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee”
    Haggard sings:
    “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
    .
    .
    .
    We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy”

    Cue for Willie Nelson to walk on
    https://youtu.be/n4AgZST_TG8

    1. If you like Willie, you might enjoy the documentary about the Highwaymen that was on PBS as part of the American Experience series. Just go to pbs.org and you should be able to find it easily.

      1. Unfortunately
        “We’re sorry, but this video is not available in your region due to rights restrictions.”

        I’m in the UK.

    2. Willie does, and Haggard and Okie are also featured. What I found very interesting was all of the background information about the artists; Haggard, jail; Kristofferson’s journey from Pomona to Yale to Oxford as a Rhode’s Scholar to helicopter pilot to Nashville janitor to star; etc.

  13. Bill Monroe, the father of Bluegrass, once famously observed that he never invented a tune in his life. The tunes, he asserted, are all around us in the air, and all he had to do was to find then, and then pluck them out of the air. Mozart would surely have agreed. Michelangelo had a related intuition when he said: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

  14. I have watched the whole series. I urge everyone to watch it. Some have mentioned how the music changed in the 80s. This change is discussed at length and correlated to the the economic and cultural changes that were taking place in the country at large.

    My first love in music is jazz, but I grew up with and have loved country music since childhood. I thought I was pretty well versed in the history of the music but this series continually brought out facts and connections that I never know existed. One of the best music documentaries I have ever seen! And the actual music is gorgeous(well except for Barf Brooks).

    1. Agreed, a really excellent series. I love the straightforward rawness of some of the earlier figures, such as Sarah Carter, whose plain keening is so purely emotional, a real reflection of the poverty so many country musicians experienced. Hank Williams had it, as well. Not a fan of the over-embellished Nashville Sound, although Patsy Cline is among the best pure singers ever.

  15. Thanks for the links. I recently watched the Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back, where his connection to country music is noted.

  16. There are many cultures that co exist in this country. People that grew up in urban areas are often unaware of something that much of America is totally familiar with. I am sure many watching the jazz documentary were equally unfamiliar with the artists and their work. Every country fan knows about Haggard’s troubled youth. He informed us all with his big hit ‘Mama tried.’

  17. Greatest doc ever.. Explained to me why my heart, past, and soul have loved CM since I moved from rock 50 years ago when I heard IT!!! In 1966. I was so moved that I named my daughter Loretta Lynn and saw a young Dolly on stage..
    Thanks to Burns for showing me why my feelings are just and righteous.. The music was so good that it shows why only 1 singer and 3 instruments could sound magical and touch hearts. My life began in S.. Virginia and Bristol was home but never knew it was country music central, until now. The music has abandoned it’s roots and Burns has given me hope.
    Long live this documentary FOREVER. Thank you mr.. Burns
    Long live original country music FOREVER. Thank you PBS.

  18. Little-known fact: if you play a C&W record backwards, your wife comes back to you, your crops start growing again, and your dog comes back to life.
    True, I tells ya!

  19. The best documentary I have seen in years. This thing kept me crying the whole eight shows. If you have not seen it please do if you have any concerns how about listening to country music put them on the back burner

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