Epic Endeavor: Ken Burns Tackles Country Music

Feb 4, 2020

If you’d have asked me at the beginning of September to rank my knowledge of country music on a scale of 1-10, I doubt I’d have gone much higher than an average 5. I was certainly familiar with the major stars, but having never spent any considerable time with the genre—and working in public radio, where country music isn’t typically broadcast, I’d not consider myself an expert by any means.

Ken Burns’ latest documentary mini-series, Country Music, broadcast in mid-September on PBS (and streaming at pbs.org) confirmed that I did actually know quite a bit more than I had thought (thanks, mom?), and helped fill in the few blind spots that existed. I’d still rate my knowledge nowhere close to a ten (I know some of those folks, and it’s impressive), but I’d say I’m a solid 7 at this point.

This is not the first time Ken Burns has tackled an American musical genre. Nearly twenty years ago (2001), he tackled jazz—a genre I’ve spent much more time with—as a musician, a student, and as a radio host. In Jazz, Burns demonstrated tremendous research and adept storytelling, and all in all I was entertained throughout. But, (note: foreshadowing!) after exhaustive episodes on each decade and period through jazz history, he glossed over the last 20+ years as if nothing meaningful had happened, only devoting any meaningful time to Wynton Marsalis. Having spent years studying, listening, emulating, and in some cases interviewing musicians who’ve all risen to the top of the jazz world since the 1980s, I can tell you with a degree of certainly that another episode was warranted to properly encapsulate more modern times.

Which brings me back to Country Music. I’ll admit up front that I really enjoyed the series. After the first episode, which I’d only decided to watch during a channel-surfing exercise, I carved out 14 additional hours over the next two weeks to watch every minute as they were broadcast. It was reported that Ken Burns conducted 175 hours of interviews with over 100 musicians and other personalities for the series. That said, it’s a monumental task to be definitively comprehensive in a television program that works within time constraints, and Country Music, like Jazz, occasionally missed the target—sometimes via omission, other times by what my more educated friends and colleagues have described as “creative historical recollection.” As a good read, Savingcountrymusic.com has a great article on the most egregious omissions—Glenn Campbell, Conway Twitty, and others.

In comparison, Country Music’s hits were amazing. The rare interviews with Merle Haggard (who, along with many other featured subjects has since died) were fantastic. Burns was also able to get Willie Nelson to open up and share vivid memories of his time in Nashville and why that world was such a poorly fitted suit. And throughout the entire program, the virtuosic mandolinist Marty Stuart provided a unique through line of knowledge and professional experience that stretches from today almost all the way back to the very beginning. (An aside: Seeing John McEwen and Rosanne Cash featured so prominently in the documentary so soon after they’d been guests on JPR Live Sessions was a real thrill!)

All-in-all, the series followed a very familiar Burns trajectory: Awe-inducing historical black and white photos slow panned to perfection, rare and sometimes recently discovered video clips, and loads of evocative and emotional storytelling. Most of the “expert” guests were fantastic, but some (what in the world is Wynton Marsalis doing in there?) were real head-scratchers.

The biggest disappointment for me was that, like Baseball, Burns prematurely wrapped up the show in the era of the mid-1990s. That was 25 years ago! It was akin to a “nothing more to see here, move along” proclamation. There was no mention of the resurgence of old-time, bluegrass, and country music that followed the massively popular Coen Brothers film O, Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), no mention of Alison Krauss (27 Grammy Awards—most ever for a female artist!, from 42 Nominations!!) & Union Station, and the rise of Americana as an important genre separate from what mainstream country music has become in was barely mentioned. That’s hard to fathom.

That all said, it’s still a fantastic introduction to country music for those uneducated, and it contains a compendium of video clips sure to please any devotee. I hold out hope that future years will see Burns, just like in Baseball, revisiting Country Music to add new episodes as an afterward.

Eric Teel is JPR’s Director of FM Network Programming and Music Director.