Ken Burns’ Country Music In 2020 And Beyond: History Lecture Or Game Changer?

Jan 2, 2020

Joe Newberry is a modern day avatar of country music’s oldest traditions. The 62-year-old musician - a veteran of A Prairie Home Companion and other leading stages - tours and records playing a repertoire either drawn from or inspired by early 20th century old time. One day last Fall, Newberry went into his bank and something novel happened.

 

“My teller knows that I am a professional musician but had never asked me anything about it,” he says. This time, “She asked me what I played. When I told her that I played guitar and banjo, she then asked if I played clawhammer or Scruggs style. When I asked her how she knew to ask that question, she smiled and said, ‘Mr. Burns.’”

Joe Newberry

That would be Ken Burns, America’s documentarian. The bank teller had been absorbed by his epic 16-hour PBS series called Country Music, which aired in eight parts in September and which repeats nationally starting Friday night. The encounter was but one of many that have led Newberry to believe that Country Music is going to be more than a blip in a noisy media landscape or a history seminar for existing fans. “The last time I was in the bank, (my teller) said, ‘I think I’m going to have to come see you play.’ And that’s really what the Ken Burns series is doing,” Newberry told me. “It’s expanding our audience. Now in that case it’s one person at a time, but if you look overall, it’s one of those sea changes or big bangs that we have every twenty years.”

The last such boom came after the surprise success and influence of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack in the early 2000s. Before that, in the early 70s, it was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s generation-spanning triple album Will The Circle Be Unbroken. In both cases, American roots music broadly defined, including folk, old-time, bluegrass and the kind of traditional country music not heard on commercial radio, saw its stock rise. Show bookings improved, and festivals grew bigger. Some folks in the business are cautiously optimistic that Ken Burns’ Country Music will have a similar impact in 2020 and beyond.

KBCM is being celebrated as a success by PBS, which reports an average viewership of 6.8 million per episode, slightly more than for The Vietnam War, the most recent long documentary produced by the now iconic American history filmmaker. Millions more have streamed Country Music across multiple platforms. The most obvious short-term boon for the music itself came in sales and streams for classic country artists depicted in the film, from The Carter Family to Garth Brooks. But there are indications that the experience and the conversation around it are sending viewers down deeper rabbit holes, starting with institutions devoted to telling the country music story. 

“We’ve been trying to build the buzz and it really has been incredibly successful,” says Kris Truelsen, the founding producer of WBCM Radio Bristol at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum on the Virginia Tennessee border as well as a touring musician with his band Bill and the Belles. “Our foot traffic in the museum has gone up 50% in the year, and in the month of October when it initially aired, we were up 65% in foot traffic. When visitors come, we ask how they heard about us, and often it’s via Ken Burns. So it’s been really amazing.” 

 

Truelsen says those visitors, even those from far outside the region, come in with a higher baseline knowledge of key events and artists, not least how Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family debuted in the recording business in Bristol in 1927. And “the series has caused a lot of people to make the connections from the 1920s to contemporary music,” Truelsen says. “The road map is there. They’re able to connect the dots a lot easier than they were. I’ve heard numerous people talk about connecting the Carter Family to Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan. And then onward, and the floodgates open. Prior, people generally weren’t as informed about those connections.”

 

Screenwriter Dayton Duncan

The filmmakers themselves seem pretty elated, which is no small thing. “To be honest, we weren't entirely prepared for the widespread impact Country Music seems to have had; it's much bigger than we could have dreamed,” wrote Dayton Duncan, the film’s writer, reached by email. “And it's our hope that the national rebroadcast in January and February will build on that impact. I should note that, if history is any guide, local stations will be rebroadcasting the series on their own schedule for decades to come; and the educational plans that are on our PBS website (created with help from faculty at Belmont University) will be used by teachers in classrooms across the country for many years as well. We like the notion that the films we make have long lives and many ways to reach more and more people over the years.”

In keeping with the long strange trip of the country genre in the last 25 years, the national commercial format of country radio seems basically unmoved by KBCM, as it was unmoved by O Brother. The Country Music Association, which cultivates a narrow, revenue-centric model of contemporary country music for mainstream America on its award show and summer festival in Nashville, declined to comment on its interpretation of the Ken Burns effect on the music or whether it has any strategy to leverage the special down the road. 

As I see it though,  the question that matters most is not whether Jason Aldean or Lady Antebellum go from big to bigger because of a PBS program. What matters is the trajectory of a diverse and authentic genre whose torch has been carried by the Americana format since the late 1990s. Champions of America’s best country and country-related roots music will be watching for new audiences getting on the bandwagons of Tyler Childers, Kelsey Waldon, Charley Crockett, Angaleena Presley, Dale Watson, Della Mae and any number of other standouts I could mention. 

Kathy Mattea

Kathy Mattea, a former CMA Female Vocalist of the Year who’s gone full folk/Americana in the years since her radio/TV heyday and who figured prominently in KBCM, says she’s feeling the tide rising. “I’m reminded again that people in country music are kind of a tribe,” she said. “They’re proud of what they’re passionate about, and a lot of my fans were happy that the wider world was getting shown this music they love so much.” Ken Burns is a trusted national brand, an authoritative voice on core subjects. “When Ken Burns and PBS says, ‘hey listen to this, take a new look, it’s hard to ignore.” It’s not surprising that her booking agent is reporting an easier time booking shows and selling them out than before the series, but that agent also has many jazz clients and remembers the wider surge of interest in those artists in the wake of Burns’ Jazz series of 2001. 

Country Music does its viewers a service in its final episode by leaving a trail of breadcrumbs to the best new country music out there. Following a sequence about Garth Brooks that takes us up into the mid 1990s, the film critiques an industry turn toward easily digestible, narrow-cast music programmed by fewer and fewer gatekeeper/programmers, symbolized by Billy Ray Cyrus and “Achy Breaky Heart.” The Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed rapid corporate consolidation in radio, is singled out as a factor in estranging contemporary country from its roots. And the Americana chart, born that same year, is presented as a refuge for music with country soul and provenance.

One person who was extremely happy to see the camera pan up that seminal Gavin Americana chart was Jed Hilly, executive director of the Americana Music Association. He lobbied Florentine Films expressly to hold its focus through at least that fateful year. "I was thrilled with the turn of events,” he said, citing Episode eight with a wink as ‘The Dawn of Americana’. “That last half hour brought a tear to my eye. They got specific enough!”

Show writer Dayton Duncan cited a number of factors Florentine Films considered in how to close out the story. “1996 wasn't chosen simply to bring the Americana movement into our narrative embrace, but it was certainly one of the benefits,” he wrote. “Having dealt with the whole ‘what's the name of this music’ (question) from the first episode ("hillbilly") and subsequent years ("folk," then "country and western," then "country"), it made sense to keep that thread in our tapestry; likewise the thread of commerce and art, which we also traced throughout.”

Any marketer will tell you that the key to rising awareness and engagement is having a lot of brand impressions and collateral material for consumers to access, and that’s happening too. The state of Tennessee’s tourism department, a sponsor of the film, has set up a KBCM branded website and physical kiosks at visitor centers with booklets pointing to 21 key destinations across the state mentioned in the film. PBS.org has a Country Music website with multi-media extras. Spotify is hosting KBCM playlists that burrow into some deep catalog country music. Other unrelated media pieces, such as the new Dolly Parton’s America podcast, are likely having synergistic effects in the wake of a Ken Burns film.

Country music writer David Cantwell

So the groundwork has been laid to lead fans of country, longstanding and newly minted, to the roots Americana tribe, but that’s not enough, says country music critic David Cantwell, the Kansas City based author of Merle Haggard: The Running Kind. “There’s no question it’s had a positive impact, but to really change the game it has to happen at an artist level,” he says. “We have to have mainstream artists doing that advocating, the evangelizing, to the current contemporary masses. The model here is Merle Haggard, who was always educating his audience.” 

Haggard revered Jimmie Rodgers, one of the pioneers visited at length in Country Music but not an artist that Haggard’s audience of the 1970s knew anything about. “And yet he brought (Rodgers) back and was part of the beginning of the western swing revival,” says Cantwell. “Those kinds of moments when a younger artist is saying to a large fan base they’ve earned, hey, you should check this other thing out. And that’s what’s got to happen, over and over again.”

 

 

 

Country Music airs again on PBS on Fridays at 8 p.m. central from January 3 through February 21.