2019, TV

Country Music (2019)

This is an engrossing, thorough, occasionally moving and, for its first six episodes, authoritative history of country music. It follows the usual rhythms of a Ken Burns’ documentary, which is something I thoroughly enjoy, and has the usual strengths and weaknesses of his approach to storytelling.

For the most part, it’s an authoritative history, especially up through the 1970s. It does a decent – though not necessarily good – job of covering the origins of country and an excellent job on its early history. (More could be made of the importance of black music in the origins, I think, but they do try.) The coverage of the early decades is the real highlight of the series, especially for someone like me who has meant to look into this but hasn’t made it there yet.

Burns does his usual mythologizing, but that’s par for the course at this point. (Burns is more of a storyteller than a historian, I think it’s safe to say.) The important thing is that this version is more benign than earlier versions which excluded the roles of people of colour and women in this music. Besides, this is a celebration.

No program will cover everything and I think it’s safe to assume that any version of this story would offend somebody by who it leaves out. But I do think that this version of the story of country music is flawed in terms of who it includes and excludes, and I say this as someone who doesn’t know much about the genre. I had the same problem with Jazz, but I know a lot more about jazz than I do about country. Still, it was pretty clear to me that things were missing. To wit:

  • It officially ends at 1996, which seems preposterously early for a documentary airing in 2019, and which seems perhaps designed to avoid controversy (or, perhaps, to only cover country Burns feels should be covered). There are exceptions for funerals and there is the usual montage of photos of more recent acts.
  • The last two episodes rush through a period of 20+ years, and give really short shrift to some major country acts it feels like Burns and co. (my guess is Marty Stuart) don’t like or don’t care much about. Much like with my review of Jazz someone could write a long list of those not given their fair due. They needed at least one more episode even if they were determined to end at 1996.
  • As Jenn noted, they barely even acknowledge what Neo-Traditional country was reacting against. They assume we know. Well, Jenn and I know, because of when we grew up. But younger people don’t.
  • Though I was very pleased to see how much attention they gave country rock they don’t even mention the other areas in which country expanded its reach in the last few decades, whether Cow Punk or Alt Country. Mentioning this would, for me, do a better job of conveying the power of the music than just merely reciting record sales. (I mean, people looking for “real” music in the ’70s and ’80s found country! What does that say?)
  • But the biggest issue for me, as a non fan, were the artists chosen as through lines. To the extent that I know the biography of a country artist, that artist is Johnny Cash. And that’s likely true for more people than not, especially anyone who saw Walk the Line. But Cash is chosen as the primary character from the ’50s to the 21st century, succeeding the Carters because he married into the family. And he (and, eventually, Roseanne) are used to tell the story. But I know Johnny Cash’s story. I’m watching this to learn the story of country. And the same is true of Emmylou Harris, who I’m a fan of, who gets an awful lot of attention that feels perhaps out of proportion.

All that being said, I still thoroughly enjoyed the series and would highly recommend it to anyone who doesn’t know anything about the music. And I found myself moved by the final episode even while I was finding things to criticize.

It is, like all of Ken Burns’ projects, well told and very enjoyable to watch.


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