The Poems Of The People, As Told By Ken Burns, In PBS's 'Country Music'

Sep 15, 2019

In 1996, I sat transfixed through a six-hour docu-series on TBS called America's Music: The Roots Of Country. I'd become a fan of country and bluegrass, but my knowledge was spotty. I'd never seen the story laid out as a cohesive narrative, connecting eras and influences, so that film was a slow-motion epiphany and a life-changing experience. With 16 hours of run time and the intellectual and artistic firepower of Ken Burns behind it, Country Music, premiering Sunday on PBS, is poised to be an even more dazzling and comprehensive revelation for millions of people.

For those already in the music's thrall, it is a joyride through rarely or never-seen footage and new insights into cherished heroes and heroines. For the less initiated, it's the best imaginable onramp to an entertaining and ennobling realm of American ingenuity. Country Music is gently musicological but mostly it's moving and magisterial, a human-scale epic about how a dynamic, diverse nation processed and shared its emotions, beliefs and everyday concerns in song across an unprecedented century.

We the people badly need to be re-introduced to our old companion country music. In the years after that TBS documentary (the same year that radio chain ownership was deregulated) country was largely torn from its roots by an entertainment industry catering to narrow demographics and short attention spans. Country radio, which is after all where most Americans could reasonably have expected to get a picture of country music, changed profoundly. It chased sizzle and hotness, winning a new audience for whom history and continuity were less meaningful. The creative brilliance of Nashville's songwriters and session musicians was subordinated. A great American genre was supplanted, at least on the important medium of radio, by a suburban format. Millions of Americans under 40 have scarcely had access to the country music story unless they dug for it themselves, and that's where surveys like this are so valuable.

The original Carter Family
Credit PBS

A survey has to sweep across and zoom in selectively, music like the famous Ken Burns pan-and-scan treatment of still photos. Some episodes are mandatory - the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers at the Bristol Sessions in 1927, the life and death of Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn challenging gender roles in the 60s with down-home brass, Charley Pride's roll-out as the only African American country singer of his segregated time. But what sets a great documentary apart are the zoom-ins that reveal the humanity and vulnerability of subjects who've been idolized and institutionalized.

When the original Carter Family sign on to a super-powered Mexico-based radio station, Sara Carter, estranged from her bandmate/husband A.P. and pining for her lost love Coy Bayes, reaches out to him via the airwaves by singing "I'm Thinking Tonight Of My Blues Eyes." It's a long shot into the ether, but he hears her dedication 1,600 miles away in California and travels to reunite with her. The story is already in the history books, but here it lifts off the page and takes corporeal, tear-jerking form.

Love and envy animate other episodes in Country Music, just as they do so often with country songs. The breakdown of Johnny Cash's first marriage to the private and long-suffering Vivian Liberto, as well as his descent into drug abuse, is documented in scorching photographs. A more upbeat sequence features time-tested stars Marty Stuart and Connie Smith. I knew that Stuart (one of the most silver-tongued subjects in the series) had idolized Smith when she first emerged in the 1960s. I knew he'd gone to see her perform in 1970 when he was 12 and vowed (to his mother) that he'd marry her one day - and that he did so, in 1997. I did not know that he took a big flashbulb photo of her that night that shows Smith, about to leave the venue, looking out from behind the wheel of her car. Her dazzling smile, connecting past and present, made my heart skip the same way it does when I hear Marty and Connie sing country gospel together.

Johnny Cash
Credit PBS

Yes, the photographs. Ken Burns is to archival stills as Kris Kristofferson is to the English language. We've known that since The Civil War came to our TV screens in 1990, and the Florentine Films approach, timeless like a vintage instrument, has never been remodeled or updated, beyond improved resolution and restoration. It's not just the astonishing images of Loretta, Willie and Merle in their youth, of which there are many. The storytelling leans on images of America itself - of farmers, miners, trains, work camps, migrants, highways, churches, marches and honky tonks. The documentary's 3,200 photos are juxtaposed against more than 100 interviews and almost 600 music cues with masterful timing. Peter Coyote, veteran narrator of Burns films such as The West and The Vietnam War, is assured and familiar. It may lack flash, but the sturdiness and humility of the Burns style puts all the emphasis on the subject.

Burns worked on Country Music for about eight years, and one of his team's first priorities was interviewing important figures who were of uncertain health and advanced age. As a result, we get to visit with some beloved and recently deceased icons, including Mac Wiseman, Little Jimmy Dickens, Cowboy Jack Clement, Merle Haggard and Jean Shepard. The only historian interviewed in the film is Bill C. Malone, who in the 1960s was the first author to tackle the music as a grand American narrative in his seminal book Country Music USA. Yet there's no lack of expertise, because authentic country artists tend to know their stuff. Marty Stuart offers insights global and specific with eloquence. Brenda Lee talks about Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn as if the 1960s were a few weeks ago. Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine show is only about 40 years old, but his deep study of old time and early blues puts him in position to make the 1920s and 30s come alive in Episode One. Dwight Yoakam recounts some precious lines from his hero Merle Haggard and chokes up, which is not the Dwight Yoakam we expect.

Because country music is by definition in constant dialogue with the national spirit and zeitgeist, context really matters, and the PBS series doesn't mis-step here either. We feel surrounded by American life as it evolves from the Great Depression through WWII, the Civil Rights Movement and the digital dawn. And we're given enough background on the music business itself to illuminate the ways country came to the marketplace. That includes the formation of BMI, the performing rights organization that gave hillbilly and blues songs access to royalty streams from radio. And it includes the studio system of Music Row and the versatility and mastery of the session musicians. It includes the entrepreneurial zeal - of Edwin Craig at WSM, Fred Rose in the early days of song publishing, Owen Bradley on Music Row - without which the music would have remained regional and obscure.

The film premieres just as the 20th conference of the Americana Music Association comes to a conclusion. This format is less specifically built around country music than it was at its inception when it was a dissident breakaway from an overly-corporate major label/radio conglomerate system. But it is where followers of the lineage find support and freedom and where fans need to look if they want poetry, vivid individuality and the blues. I haven't reached the end of the 16 hours yet, and its epilogue will be interesting. Will the film tell its viewers that country music has become a semantic problem in the 21st century? Will the surge of interest in country music that's bound to follow this broadcast and companion book accrue to Tyler Childers, Angaleena Presley, Kelsey Waldon and their history respecting peers? Will it jostle Music Row and unnerve its decision makers? I'll be watching that as eagerly as I will the documentary itself a second and third time, as I did with Jazz. There's a lot to absorb.

In most cultures across history, folk musicians transmit collected stories through a collective act, a group sing, often ritualized and shared in real space and real time. America's radical individualism can be problematic, but it did cultivate the idea of the solo story singer as artist and hero. Country music and the blues are where that model, of the singing, songwriting troubadour, took shape. It's free speech set to music, and when the emotions are genuine and the tune is good, there's no more powerful or relatable expression of humanity. Country music validates the idea that we all, whether coal miners or young mothers, sharecroppers or Rhodes scholars, have a say. Burns reminds us of one of our best qualities, that when we hear somebody singing our truth more beautifully than we can, we are inclined to stop and listen.

From PBS: Country Music premieres Sunday, September 15 through Wednesday, September 18, and Sunday, September 22 through Wednesday, September 25 at 7:00-9:00 p.m. CT. The series will stream on station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org and PBS apps. The series will be available on Blu-ray and DVD in September 2019 from PBS Distribution at shopPBS.org. The DVD and Blu-ray extras include a preview program, a behind-the-scenes look at how the film was made and material gleaned from the hours of interviews. The series will also be available for digital download.