“Country Music” Documentary Is Latest By Ken Burns

“Country Music” Documentary Is Latest By Ken Burns

“Country Music”  Documentary Is Latest By Ken Burns

Ken Burns latest documentary “Country Music” debuted with episode one last night on PBS. The series will run for eight episodes of nearly 16 hours. I wasn’t going to watch it. I swear I wasn’t. I did. It’s not “The Civil War”, still my favorite, but it’s pretty good.

I wasn’t going to watch this latest documentary because I hate the way my people are thought of by city folk. Although I live in Knoxville, Tennessee now, my family roots are mostly in Breathitt County (“Bloody Breathitt”) and Perry County (Hazard), Kentucky. Barefoot, ignorant, backwards, Bible-thumping, sister-marrying and racist are the words I have heard used. Burns did acknowledge that the musicians of country music were not happy with the term “hill billy”, they accepted it because of the money. As Dolly Parton notes, we can call ourselves hillbillies and red necks, outsiders cannot. It is offensive.

I stayed in Hazard for a couple weeks nearly every summer growing up. My Memow (paternal grandmother) made sure that we dressed up every afternoon. Rifle was optional.

Jeff Manuel, writing in the Washington Post, has a different worry. He worried that Burns would “whitewash” “Country Music”. From the article:

But it will do more than replay the music of cherished favorites. It will also make an argument about who and what counts as country music — a process that has, until now, privileged the genre’s connection to rural Southern white culture over a more complex but more accurate history of country music’s multiracial roots in the past century.

More than other popular music genres, country music journalists, radio and fans police the genre’s boundaries in ways that keep country music stubbornly white and focused on mass market audiences. Most recently, Lil Nas X’s smash hit “Old Town Road” was removed from Billboard’s Hot Country chart because, it claimed, the song “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music.”

Now, Jeff Manuel is a white guy from Anoka, Minnesota, so his ignorance may be forgiven. Country music artists have always argued about purity. Just this past February, Much.com published an article castigating Lady Antebellum (ugh) and the “Taylor Swift” (Hale No) effect. It’s not all about race.

Manuel is also upset because Burns didn’t use historians. Burns used stars like Rosanne Cash, Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton in the first episode “The Rub”. “The Rub” comes from the fact that African music brought by slaves and Scots-Irish music from the poor, white mountain people rubbed against each other to create this genre. The fiddle in country music came from the Scots-Irish. The banjo came from Africa. The song “This Land Is Your Land” came from the song “When The World Is On Fire” which probably came through both an English past and Negro spiritual. Who knew?

Here is the trailer for “Country Music”:

I am still hesitant about this documentary. Ken Burns was on Fox & Friends this weekend. He was talking about how country music is considered conservative, but Loretta Lynn sang “Don’t Come Home A-drinkin’ With Lovin’ On Your Mind” and “The Pill”. Excuse me, Ken, but female empowerment is not a liberal thing. Thank you very much.

Peter Coyote’s narration is great. Seeing some of the old country stars like Merle Haggard and Charley Pride is great. I hope that Burns doesn’t use Garth Brooks too much. I consider Brooks the anti-Hank Williams. Yes, I am a purist, country music snob. I am hoping he covers the railroad and trucker music that my Papaw loved so much.

You can watch “Country Music” on your local PBS station or stream it on many other platforms.

Photo Credit: Pixabay.com/andreas160578/Pixabay License

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  • DC says:

    Two C&W songs that really influenced me were Red Sovine’s Phantom 309 and Patsy Cline’s I Fall to Pieces.
    Bob Wills is King though….

  • David Lentz says:

    Ken Burns has made some great films, “The Civil War” and “Baseball” and some horrid ones like “The War.” That said, I don’t see what Mr. Burns can add to story of American music.

  • I have seen many of Ken Burns ‘docu-movies’ and I cannot help but come away with the feeling that Burns consistently bashes America in every one he does. The Baseball doc is one. His one of WWII was similar. A lot of time is spent on criticizing those who perpetuated the past and more than I think is necessary and especially since we overcame these hurdles years ago.

    America has a past that is not without blemish. Even so, our greatest attribute is that we address and attempt to fix those things that are wrong. Should we spend our time reviewing history on the bad things or should we concentrate on how we fixed them. One leads to renewed anger and frustration while the other points out the virtues of America.

    I am all for in depth documentaries on our past but I do hope that the emphasis is made on how we have overcome our differences and problems and not on how wrong those were. We already know what those wrongs were and it would make sense to spend time dealing with the historical timeline and how our people have worked towards the future of our nation.

  • cheeflo says:

    I’m watching Part 3 right now. I like country/western/bluegrass music well enough, but I’m not exactly a fan — I just like music of all kinds and I have a lot of curiosity, The documentary, so far, concatenates all of the influences, circumstances, and personalities of the genre into a big-picture narrative that I’m finding fascinating. It’s respectful but also very frank.

    What strikes me most is the richness of American culture — there is something for everyone. And, you can make your own, as this documentary illustrates.

  • lee lesslie says:

    I have never been a fan of Ken Burns… I mostly don’t subscribe to his views. however, I have not heard too many negative reviews for his country music expose. I believe in the authenticity of country music (real CM) and how it represents real America. and have been skeptical of (especially) Ken Burns’ views. but I may give it a looksee.

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