Ken Burns' 'Country Music' Answers, Raises Questions About The Genre It Celebrates
Ken Burns is to contemporary television what baseball is to contemporary sports: a vestige that remains relevant, no matter that there are gadgets and gizmos galore competing for our attention. Just as families once flocked to the box on Sunday nights to see Ed Sullivan introduce the most exciting entertainers of the day or others gathered around the tube to witness historic programs such as Roots, so too do we find occasion to hunker down and dig into a new Burns series every now and again and learn something more about America's cultural heritage.
Burns' latest PBS project, Country Music, begins in the early years of the last century with tales of rural Americans beating back loneliness with stories of family, faith and hardship and ends with corporations dictating an increasingly narrow view of what began as a truly populist artform.
Across eight episodes, Burns weaves a spell upon his audience, captivating one and all with country music's origins. The sound would, of course, be known by several designations before the business end of the music business settled upon country, hillbilly and folk. The sounds came largely from America's Southern states and held close ties to gospel, but incorporated immigrant stories too. The banjo arrived on this continent with slaves, the fiddle with Acadians and the Scots, Irish.
Country's folk origins are writ large: Early players were often working people who discovered that their artistic inclinations could bring them extra personal and financial rewards. The broad reach of AM radio spread the musical gospel and performers were often eager to share their wares on the airwaves with some of them finding an early semblance of stardom.
The origin stories of many key figures, whether Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams or Loretta Lynn are heroic in nature. Poverty, fame, then riches and influence. Each of the aforementioned seemed to never rise much above those beginnings in terms of temperament. Williams was known to leave generous tips, Cash became a champion of social causes, Parton is a noted philanthropist.
But music, as Pete Townshend once sang, must change and country morphed with the times. In the 1960s, it became as much a voice of social consciousness as did rock ‘n' roll, whether Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee" or Loretta Lynn's "The Pill." With a war raging in Vietnam, country was at once a battering ram for conservative ideals and also a way to quiet concerns about a widening generation gap.
California's Nitty Gritty Dirt Band joined the hands of the hippies and hillbillies together with the album, Will The Circle Be Unbroken, on which the former teen stars backed legends such as Doc Watson, Merle Travis and Roy Acuff. It may stand as the greatest document of a divided America rising above those fissures to celebrate its common language and heritage.
By the ‘70s, the music was changing and country, once housed almost solely in Nashville, moved to disparate locales. Willie Nelson returned to his native Texas and made Austin a focal point of the national scene. A few years before he began playing his annual picnic concerts, he'd thrown himself down in the middle of a Nashville road, hoping that he wouldn't wake up. By the end of the decade, he and friends such as Waylon Jennings were the new faces of a genre that some predicted would die off in the age of rock ‘n' roll.
But success didn't sooth all old wounds: Hank Williams, Jr. reminds us that scars received in youth may take a lifetime to heal; George Jones could never fully rid himself of the ghosts that being raised by an alcoholic father summoned. Even Cash, a most affable figure, struggled to hold onto his family and sobriety.
By the time Country Music ends in the 1990s, the genre has been fully transformed from a rural to urban concern, from one where performers were making thousands of dollars to one where record companies made billions. As is often the case with Burns, the final hours feel less nuanced and the viewer finds themselves wondering if a second installment is in order while also appreciating that the filmmaker is really only asking questions: What is this? Where has it been? Where is it going? What more do you want?
Country Music answers those questions, then asks them of its audience. In that way, it's a perfect example of Modernism, another specter of our past: finished but incomplete.
This story is part of the KMUW series "Gravel Roads and Lost Highways," which is made possible in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. KMUW is partnering with PBS to promote the Ken Burns documentary "Country Music."