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TV Review: Ken Burns’ ‘Country Music’

Variety — Caroline Framke

There may be no documentarian who’s ever taken the dictation to “show your work” more seriously than Ken Burns. The omnipresent filmmaker has made his name on deep, dense dives into American culture that provide as much context and archival material as possible without fogging up the overall narrative. It’s an impressive balancing act that has helped him direct and produce examinations on everything from the evolution of baseball, the lasting legacy of the Roosevelts, the intricate horrors of the Vietnam War, and beyond. Now, alongside producer Julie Dunfey and writer/producer Dayton Duncan, Burns has set his sights on the origins and impact of country music, a thoroughly American genre with an extremely complicated history. It’s a hugely ambitious project given just how many decades the genre has encompassed. While Burns’ “Jazz” zoomed in on about 30 years of history over the course of 4 episodes, “Country Music” tries to explain nearly a century of music; (or, for that matter, the ones it doesn’t). 

In fairness: There are so many dots, many of them as compelling as American history ever gets. As written by Duncan, “Country Music” unfolds as both an oral history and string of flattering portraits. (The vast majority of interviews are with musicians and their family members; it’s hard not to think about what the series might look like were more historians included.) Iconic figures like Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and Hank Williams providing narrative throughlines; some episodes encompass a decade, others just a few pivotal years. The passion for the subject matter shines through the grainy recovered footage and insights from country music luminaries (some of whom have since died, making their appearances here feel that much more poignant). In interviews, women like Parton, Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash, and Reba McEntire talk about their successes and ambitions, flashing bright and pointed smiles whenever they have to address the sexism that greeted them along the way. Men like Marty Stuart and Merle Haggard reminisce about their heroes and openly weep while reciting their favorite lyrics. Even the most violent drunks get sentimental sendoffs if they once managed to write a decent song. 

Every so often comes a true gem of an unscripted moment, like when Kris Kristofferson meditates on the spirituality of songwriting, or when Loretta Lynn quips about the backlash to her song about birth control (“The Pill”), “If [the pill] had been out when I was having kids, I would’ve eaten ‘em like popcorn.” (As “Country Music” makes plain, country music might have been all dirges and pitying ballads were it not for sly wits like Lynn’s.) Almost more rewarding than seeing familiar faces is how “Country Music” unearths stories about people who only diehard fans might know, like songwriters Felice and Boydleaux Bryant, whose love story (told in part here by their beaming son) fueled more hits than many watching would have known.

“Country Music” has such a palpable reverence for its material and charismatic characters, in fact, that it almost becomes preemptively defensive. As the docuseries itself describes in painstaking detail, country music was borne out of frustration, poured out of people who felt overlooked and under-appreciated. It took decades for the mainstream music industry to recognize country music’s power, and only when it was such an undeniable moneymaker that ignoring it meant losing out on potential windfalls. Country music was born with a chip on its shoulder and a stubborn adherence to “tradition,” which “Country Music” spends many of its hours explaining without getting too deep into the uglier aspects of that combination. (The series ends somewhat randomly in 1996, meaning it doesn’t have to touch such modern day complications as, say, the industry excising the Dixie Chicks when they dared counter the party line on the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.) Maybe the best example of how the series leaves such rich angles unexamined comes when it quotes a Country Music Awards official as saying that “the fans of our music elect the presidents, run the factories, grow the food, transport our goods, and in general manipulate the gears of this country every day” — and then just moves on, as if stating this huge power without examining its implications any further is enough.

“Country Music” also spends some time acknowledging that the genre was also born out of a fractured nation where many of the people who inspired its most iconic sounds were recently enslaved — a crucial detail that never quite gets as much attention as it deserves. 

The first couple episodes do detail the African origins of the banjo and the unavoidable truth of country’s popular minstrel shows, and a turning point of a middle episode shines a welcome spotlight on groundbreaking Black country singer Charley Pride. But throughout its 16 hours, the series is more likely to acknowledge a racist reality before quickly pivoting to an anecdote about someone like Pride overcoming it. A segment about how the Country Music Awards tried to get Lynn to give Pride the cold shoulder when he won Vocalist of the Year ends with her shrugging that she instead hugged him. There’s no real attempt to interrogate the systemic racism that led to the request in the first place, which seems especially confusing given how relevant this dynamic remains today. (If “Country Music” were to stretch to the present day, it would be interesting to see what it might do with Lil Nas X and his many defiant “Old Town Road” remixes.) More than a couple (white) interviewees try to say that “hillbillies” were looked down upon in a comparable way to how the country looked at black people, a ridiculous claim given enslavement and institutionalized segregation that goes unchecked. And even aside from the fact that racism in the industry and beyond should definitely have a bigger part throughout the series, it’s frustrating to watch as the series keeps sidestepping its own compelling angles for another visit to the Grand Ole Opry.

With over 90 years of history to cover, “Country Music” does what it can to draw an accurate picture of the industry and its place within American history during the time period it describes. It did its homework and respects the subject matter; it’s a true archival feat. But its overwhelmingly nostalgic lens may ultimately make the series more for preexisting country fans than curious newcomers wanting to understand its history and appeal. For as much time as “Country Music” has to tie these threads together, it leaves an awful lot of unstitched material on the table.

“Country Music” premieres Sunday, September 15 at 8 pm on PBS.

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