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Review of Ken Burns “Country Music” Film

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My "troubadour take" on the Sept. 2019 public television mini-series.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I just finished watching all eight episodes of the Public Television premiere of the latest Ken Burns documentary titled “Country Music.” It was glorious and very entertaining, and a feast for the eyes and ears. The information, photographs, interviews and previously unseen footage were a joy to watch, as any of you who saw it can attest. I guess I am one of those people who can find complexity anywhere, and as I turn the 16 ½ hours of the spectacle over in my mind, some questions and issues emerge that I suspect will not be part of the normal shallow public discussions. I have little quarrel with the scholarship or quality of what was in the film, and nearly all of my complaints are about what was missing, which is much harder to notice. I suspect there will be plenty of raving, so I’ll address in some detail what I see as the shortcomings of an otherwise wonderful and welcome film. [FYI: I grew up listening to classic country on WDON radio in Laurel, Maryland, delivered by legendary Hall of Fame deejay Tom "The Old Tomcat" Reeder. Both my wife and I lived in Nashville for a time (separately), and we also have an alter-ego classic country party band here in Southern Maine called "Hank & Dixie & the Knotty Pine Boys"– so I'm not completely unqualified to comment on country music.]

First off, it was great to see and hear the trove of rare footage, and from the artist/commentators, especially the more thoughtful ones like Marty Stuart, Tom T. Hall, Willie Nelson, Rodney Crowell, Kathy Mattea, John McEuen, Jan Howard, Ricky Skaggs, Doug Green, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Hank Williams Jr., EmmyLou Harris, Brenda Lee, Rhiannon Giddens, Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard. They all contributed much more than just recounting the events, and Hank Williams' granddaughter Holly was an unexpectedly refreshing and observant voice in the show. Burns would have benefitted from some comparably thoughtful interview clips from the past, from some of the departed but important participants. Since he is a wizard at finding such things I guess they might not exist– which makes what he did capture all the more valuable.

It's also too bad there were almost entirely participants talking, with almost no insightful writers/observers other than country music historian Bill Malone, who was a constant and steadying presence in the film. Malone repeatedly reminded us that country music has always been nostalgic, even for things that never were. He was also the only one who hinted at the ongoing puzzle of authenticity, which is a tricky but vital issue. There must be other savvy writers like Peter Guralnick, Nick Tosches or Tony Russell who could have weighed in, now that heavyweights like Richard Peterson, Bob Pinson and Charles Wolfe are deceased. Eddie Stubbs tried, but he was a bluegrass musician and now works for WSM radio, and still qualifies as an insider, as does historian/musician "Ranger" Doug Green. Some kind of added outside input would have been a good addition, as would have been perspectives from insider/outsiders like Norman Blake, Joan Baez or Byron Berline. Understandably, there isn’t a big pool out there of country music scholars or think-tank thinkers you can interview to help tell the story more objectively, and most of what we learned came from true believers and winners. I can imagine a dark documentary that interviewed people who failed in Nashville or who reject the whole schtick and pageantry of the country music world, and no doubt there is a script that could be written that portrayed the financial success of country music as a usurping or distorting of something home-made and beautiful. But that's not who Ken Burns is, public television wouldn't like it, and like it or not, real or not, the "Country Music" story is feel-good, reinforcing and told by participants rather than observers. Even with 16 1/2 hours of dense footage and storytelling, there was no room for cynicism or giving equal time to the dark side of the country music street.

I do understand that Burns is not a divider, and wants us all to marvel at and enjoy our colorful history, and he wanted a feel-good finished product, not one full of shadows and portraits of damaged people. His repeated and prominent attempts to give airtime and historical significance to the music of women and African-Americans were laudable and healing in our endlessly-divided country, but unrealistic, since the overwhelming majority of country music has always been made and sold by white men. DeFord Bailey was made out to be a hero and a pioneer, but his life story was not happy and triumphant. Women are making slow but steady progress, though the controversy with “Old Town Road” this year shows how bumpy the road may be before we get more racial integration. That said, let’s look under the hood of the film some more.

“The Business of Country Music”

The film might have been better titled “The Business of Country Music,” since it began with the story of the first successful monetizing of hillbilly music, and throughout the film mostly dealt with the sales, marketing and the success stories. This created the impression that whatever sold the most or the fastest must have been the best, which might be comparable to focusing on the McDonald’s hamburger as being the best and most important burger because it has sold the most. There is in the Nashville story an eternal built-in unspoken capitalist/marketing verification mechanism, though you could argue that symphonies and ballet companies who need to sell tickets similarly compromise their supposed grounding in “genuine art” for money, though they avoid saying so publicly. This is the underlying paradox of any form of commercial art, but it’s not easy to talk about, and Burns didn’t. He almost addressed the swinging pendulum of “authenticity” vs. “commercialism” that has always been part of the story of many kinds of music, especially country, and could have given deeper-thinking viewers something to chew on if he had discussed this. 

Much of the subject matter of any kind of film like this revolves around trying to answer the question “What is country music?”, but it was implied but never quite said bluntly that the answer is: “Whatever sells.” Far more total airtime was given to talk of business than what the artists or listeners felt inside themselves, and the music was portrayed as a commodity first and foremost. There certainly wasn't talk of people making the art for its own sake and not caring about selling it, or of the joy of doing it by yourself. As soon as something “took off” and sold well, it was taken to be a sign that it was right, and artists talked a lot about trying to get hits and pursuing popularity more than their craft itself. Burns seemed to steer away from trying to penetrate the subject matter of country songs, and what messages or verifications the audiences and listeners were receiving from the music. And maybe that was fine. Maybe country music really is just a commodity, but if so, maybe Burns should have said so and explained why he took that position or asked others why they did.

Country music emerged as essentially a monetization and commodification of American peasant music, sparked by the new recording and broadcasting technology in the 1920s, and coming mostly from the white underclass. Though this underlying reality was never explicitly stated, it is intertwined with every aspect of the evolution of the country music business that was at the center of the film. People were playing various kinds of home-made music in America when the recording industry began, and when some of it began to sell really well in the 1920s it sparked a gold rush, since both the singers and the record companies couldn’t believe they could make money that way. A critical step in the development of the music business was the realization, especially by Ralph Peer, that the easiest and most desirable money was to be made from songs, not singers. Singers get drunk, die and have to travel and contracts expire, shows are canceled, records have to be pressed, inventoried, shipped and warehoused-- but copyrights and publishing rights are like oil wells that keep pumping money even when you're asleep, sometimes for an entire century.

What I see as a profoundly significant development that didn’t warrant even a explanatory sentence in the film was how the raw material that Nashville craved increasingly became the singer-songwriter and not the band, the sound, style or just the singer. This shift has been extremely helpful in enriching and encouraging singing troubadours to climb to the highest rungs of the business ladders, while delivering their personal musical energy to listeners, all of which I think is good. Unless I missed or forgot one, the 8 episodes of the film showed us only three of the hundreds of featured artists who were not accompanying themselves on a stringed instrument: Bob Wills, Roy Acuff and Patsy Cline. Wills and Acuff were both fiddlers, and they were both shown fiddling, but I just found out today that Patsy played piano, though I cannot find any audio or video footage of her doing it. Which makes me wonder why country artists are so rarely shown playing the piano and singing, even when they have all the right credentials and are wearing cowboy hats & boots, have Southern accents and go to church every Sunday. I guess it looks wrong somehow. We’ll return to Patsy…

Those Pesky Mega-Stars

Burns couldn’t avoid noticing the gag reaction that the country music community periodically had when they realized how far they had swung away from their humble and rural roots in their zeal to sell, and therefore needed less shiny & slick and more down-home. Garth Brooks obviously got the formula just right in balancing the aw-shucks with on-stage pyrotechnics and mega-business. Kenny Rogers, Glen Campbell and John Denver were all wildly successful singers (all raised in the South) who topped the country charts and crossed over into pop music, sold boatloads of records and tickets and filled arenas, but Burns largely ignored them, as well as Shania Twain, who sold as many records in the country genre as anyone, most of which landed after 1996. Rogers and Twain are the only ones of those four still alive, and should have been featured and interviewed, though Twain was a Canadian (born Eilleen Edwards) and quite "pop," with zero obvious connections to the rural Southern roots myth, and it was understood that Rogers probably belonged in Vegas more than Nashville, though he seemed to be the King of Music City for a while and might have made the best-selling country album of all time.

John Denver had three #1 albums, eleven in the Top 10, 36 songs on the charts, and won the CMA Entertainer of the Year and Favorite Male Artist, and was possibly the top-selling artist of the 1970s of any genre, yet he got about 10 seconds in the film, mostly showing drunk CMA awards host Charlie Rich setting fire to the envelope with Denver’s name at the awards show, while Denver watched slack-jawed on satellite feed while on tour in Australia. (It probably never occurred to him or his management that he would win and should have been there.) Burns made a big point of talking about how anxious Nashville was to expand its markets and constantly sell more music, but the year before the Denver Incident there was an almost equal amount of outrage when Olivia Newton-John won CMA Female Vocalist of the Year. Under-discussed were those darker things– country music’s soul-searching looks in the mirror, its deep rivalries, divisions and insular factions in the Nashville business establishment, together with the ongoing efforts to keep local control of the money as the market grew.

Since so much of the film was about money-making, some of the questions I have about it are whether or not there was money involved in deciding what songs to feature. How much of what Burns does is affected by the need to pay his bills, since there has to be a business aspect to documentary-making? Did Burns pay the song owners and owners of the video clips or did they pay him for the publicity? Were there songs or artists he would have liked to feature but couldn’t afford or get permission to use? I’d like to watch a documentary or 'behind-the-scenes' about the making of this documentary, and find out who was too prickly to talk to or what failed to materialize. There were an impressive group of contributors and commentators, though virtually all of them had a personal financial stake in the subject matter.

Other Observations & Comments

Burns is all about visuals, and he gave a chunk of camera time to the massively commercially successful Gene Autry in earlier episodes, but didn’t really talk about how Autry and his era pioneered the shiny, slick, pimped-out cowboy packaging that permeated country stardom for almost fifty more years, eternally dueling with its alter-ego, the overalls/hay bales/cornfield imagery of Hee Haw and hayseed country. It was a long time before country artists could wear jeans and a flannel shirt on stage and leave their garish fringe jackets and Nudie suits in the closet. Especially in the 1960s and early 70s, when rock musicians looked scruffy and wore T shirts, the Nashville stars looked like they got out of an alien spaceship in their freaky and outlandish outfits and bulletproof hairdos, even as they were singing about divorce, jealousy and farms to their beer-drinking, blue-collar audiences who mostly were scruffy and wore T shirts. (The eternal presence of cowboy boots on country artists might have been mentioned, though before the singing cowboy arrived in the 1930s the early country artists like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family seem to have just worn leather shoes.)

Burns subtly showed his personal favoritism toward the “down-home” and “authentic” parts of country music in several ways, including giving a lot of airtime and attention to bluegrass artists, even though their economic and cultural impact has been miniscule as compared to the Nashville juggernaut. Between about 1949 and the 1996 end-date for the film, they were not at all part of the same art form or tribe as the ones with electrified instruments and drums, and the two groups swam in different ponds altogether, yet the film bounced back and forth between the historical threads as though they were part of the same thing. That might have been brilliant, and it might have been naive, since one was a thousand times bigger than the other. Burns never acknowledged the existence of "old-time" music, the other branch of the tree that brought us "country" and "bluegrass," and that today is surprisingly healthy. Old-time music is not really evolving, and might not need to, and it retains a kind of permanent authenticity that is very appealing, especially to younger musicians.

The film could have worked to weaken stereotypes instead of wallowing in and reinforcing so many of them. The depictions of shacks, empty rural valleys and poor barefoot children were everywhere, and the most-repeated hackneyed story was told over and over again: dirt-poor Southerner heads to Nashville with music in their heart, tries to get noticed, knocks on doors and does menial work, until a white male finally agrees to take a chance on them and the result sells like crazy and therefore is forever awesome. The film oscillated between the three most timeworn stories in music journalism, that were never far from reach: the ongoing mythologies of 1) being “born into it” and being part of some musical family 2) rags to riches/ failure to success 3) tragedy cutting a legendary career short. Kris Kristofferson studied romantic poetry at Oxford; Gram Parsons (born Ingram Cecil Connor III) was a Harvard folkie-preppie and trust-fund party animal who was heir to a large Florida citrus fortune. Plenty of stars and important figures didn’t always come from appropriate musical backgrounds, farms or extreme poverty, just as is the case in other forms of music, but myths endure because that what myths are good at. 

What Else Was Missing?

An easy criticism of the film is to note the absence of some great and important artists that Burns neglected to mention, or with the immense amount of time he spent on Johnny Cash and the Carter Family, who he returned to over and over again. It’s debatable, not historical fact, just how important Cash really was in the big picture, and discussions of that would be very interesting and helpful, since Burns portrayed him as a titan looming over the whole landscape of country music. This certainly feeds our endless need for heroes and towering figures, and reinforces the usual patriarchal slant we find everywhere on everything. Country music began as the music of the many, of the people (the poor white ones, who initially learned and shared a lot with the poor black ones), and its story has become the story of the few and the financially successful.

I’m a big fan of Vern Gosdin, for example, who wrote a lot of superb songs, and sang them amazingly on some great-sounding recordings. Vern didn’t even get a single mention or a photo in the film, though with short-lived Keith Whitley he is probably George Jones’ only real competition in deeply soulful male country singing. Vern had a long career, first in bluegrass and then in Nashville, and he was almost as much of a drunk and even more of a tragic figure than George. He also didn't get along with the Nashville establishment, which probably doomed his chances at being a legend. Though he only had one hit, “Chiseled in Stone” in 1988, Gosdin left an impressive body of work. Bobbie Gentry also only had one hit, but she got some screen time in the film, but left no significant legacy of songs or recordings other than "Ode to Billie Joe." (Listen to "Chiseled", "Baby That's Cold" or "This Ain't My First Rodeo" if you don't know Vern's work at all.) Ray Price didn’t get attention either, which seems like a glaring oversight, since every country band in the world has borrowed his shuffle beat. Nor did Don Williams, Melba Montgomery, the Delmore Brothers, Carl Smith, Eddie Arnold, the Statler Brothers, Ernie Ford, Oak Ridge Boys, John Prine, Tex Ritter, Kinky Friedman, Bradley Kincaid, Homer & Jethro or the brother duet phenomenon itself. For the most part, though, Burns hit most of the important targets quite well; he exaggerated the importance of some artists and diminished others in ways that may not have reflected reality or all of our tastes, but that sort of thing is to be expected in any retrospective of anything. A mention would have been welcome of the alt-country wave with musicians like Gillian Welch, Robbie Fulks and Tim O'Brien that came roaring in just at the end of the time period Burns chose to end his film.

I would have voted for at least 30 seconds of footage of Merle Travis ripping on his revolutionary fingerpicking on “Cannonball Rag” or “Sheik of Araby,” and maybe some cameos of the hidden virtuosos of country picking like Joe Maphis, Hank Garland, Buddy Emmons or their colleagues, instead of just the endless parade of singer-songwriters. It was extremely unfortunate Burns couldn’t find a few minutes to talk about the influence of Hawaiian guitar on country music or the development of the steel guitar, which was prominently featured in sound and visuals, and Lloyd Green was the only steel player mentioned. For that matter, Burns could have spent a few minutes less on Johnny Cash or skipped the ridiculous Fellini movie scene with Kris Kristofferson or most of the Bob Dylan footage and found a way to get dobro visionary Jerry Douglas into more than a single one-second frame of a photo. Douglas revolutionized and revitalized an incredibly interesting and distinctively American musical instrument, with a fascinating story that came very close to being lost in the dustbin of history. For close to 30 years only Josh Graves and “Bashful Brother Oswald” Kirby were playing them on stage, and there is hardly a more iconic sound threading through both acoustic and electrified country music than the dobro and its related but different forms of swing, country, blues and rock slide guitar. (Douglas’ dominance of and impact on this instrument would be analogous to Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan being the same athlete.)

The tangled Polynesian and African-American roots of slide guitar would have made good video and history fodder, especially because Burns worked so hard to show us how it wasn’t just white people’s music. So would more talk about important or good players of the various instruments, or even a ten-second explanation of what the autoharp was, since he featured it a few times and in the final frame, but never said a word about its interesting origins. There are certainly more country instrumental pioneers than Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe worth talking about. A mention of pianist Floyd Cramer would have been appropriate, though I was very happy to see some focus on sideman extraordinaire Charlie McCoy. The significant voice of the electric guitar in country music, especially the twangin’ Telecaster, was basically never mentioned, nor were any of its great players like James Burton, Roy Buchanan, Brent Mason, John Jorgensen, Albert Lee, Jimmy Bryant and others. Don Rich at least earned a few seconds singing harmony and playing with Buck Owens.

The Missing Patsy Cline Story

Patsy Cline’s triply-tragic story breaks our hearts in several ways, and is an example of something Burns could have ventured into in some depth, though admittedly historians are not supposed to speculate about what might have been, or pass judgement on what wasn’t really done right but sold well anyway. Burns didn’t linger much on her, and just showed some cool old footage, duly logged her place in the timeline of financial successes, had people talk about how nice she was, her awful death and then moved on. Her story is typical of what bugs me most about Nashville, this film and the “conventional wisdom” country music history it tells. Cline was as iconic, both visually and sonically, as any artist anywhere, and her presence in the list of beloved singers in American history is under-appreciated, and sadly could have been much better than it was. She has inspired a huge number of other singers of many genres over a long period, and was one of the first female headliners and chart-toppers in country music, which should have caused Burns to spend more time on her than Loretta Lynn, for example. Cline's story was dark and complex, so he gravitated to Lynn, opting for the simpler and happier.

Patsy was the first so-called “country” singer to cross over into pop, and hers is high on the list of voices we know instantly, like Otis Redding, Elvis or Janis Joplin. By that measure, she is way ahead of even Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Linda Ronstadt, Celine Dion or any number of well-known singers you can name. Looking at the list of best-selling albums of all time, her “Greatest Hits” record, released four years after her death, shows up staggeringly high, with some estimates pushing 50 million records sold. She and Shania Twain are the only female country artists on the Diamond Album sales list (>10 million), with only Garth Brooks in the male version of that category. Cline was the first female singer inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and “Greatest Hits” made the Guinness World Book of Records in 2005 for being the longest time any album by any female artist has spent on any record chart.

People of all ages, regions and eras have responded to Cline’s voice like few singers in history, yet to my ears it is too often embedded in the lonely and disembodied sounds made by dice-rolling white businessmen with mostly financial agendas attempting to commodify her music, which in a sense is the history of country music in general. Cline had little if any say in what songs she sang, what instrumentation they were to receive, and her catalog of music does not sound so much like the work of an artist, but instead a series of laboratory experiments where several record companies sent several producers to put a country girl named Virginia Hensley from Winchester, Virginia into various studios with various fiddles, steel guitars, electric guitars, strings, drumbeats, and backup vocals to see what might stick to what wall and make them money. After she died in a plane crash at age 30 as a consequence of the need for artists to tour incessantly, they went to find another grove of old-growth trees to turn into lumber. “Tra Le La La Love Triangle” is a good example of her being given an awful song to sing, and it’s unfair that whoever wrote that lousy song is making steady money from it as a result, maybe more than Patsy’s heirs. (It’s not unlike some of the abysmal material Elvis recorded during the same era of history.) Her version of Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms” sounds like a high-school kid experimenting with adding rhythms, strings and random sounds on top of her vocal. “Life’s Railway to Heaven” is typical– she sang a really beautiful vocal of an old gospel song that is completely hijacked by two waves of first the Jordanaires and then the Anita Kerr Singers dripping all over the performance, similar to what they did on “Always.” On one of her masterpieces, “Sweet Dreams,” there are no Jordanaires, but the Kerr singers’ vapidness is eclipsed by awful strings that are about as good an example as can be found anywhere of how to ruin a nice vocal.

Listening to Patsy Cline recordings is largely a job of trying to not listen to the other sounds they surrounded her with, and that is fundamentally unfair to her and to history. She deserved better, but really didn’t get it. Her career was probably before the era of ubiquitous multi-tracking, which means we will likely never be able to remix the master tapes and hear her without all the melted cheese. Her recorded legacy is far less twangy and “authentic” sounding than almost any other artists except Jim Reeves, a popular male contemporary of hers who wasn't mentioned in the film and also died in a small plane crash, and whose vocals got the same treatment in the studio from his record producers. It’s possible Burns was turned off by the un-country sound, though his reaction was contradictory, since he seemed to celebrate both the growth and broadening appeal of country music, but not high-profile artists who didn’t sound “down-home” enough. 

Some live recordings of Cline are now showing up that give some tantalizing looks at what else she could have been or used to be, though most of them came after her big successes and they follow the templates of what was on the hit records. (I like the “Live at the Grand Ole Opry” the best, where she had a strong country band that I think featured Don Helms on steel guitar.) There are some early things like “In Care of the Blues,” “I Don’t Wanta,” or “Honky Tonk Merry Go Round” where she sports a very different sound than the one we are used to, from her first recordings in California on Four Star Records that you can hear on her “Original Sessions” albums. I can’t help thinking of how different she might have been and sounded like if she had been born even twenty years later, a time when more empowered and savvier artists like EmmyLou Harris began to choose their own backup musicians, producers and songs and to shape their own sound.

Maybe Patsy could have been rockabilly, or a countrified Norah Jones or a Diana Krall type singer-pianist, and maybe she had songs she was writing or could have been encouraged to write. She was a 9th grade dropout who worked at a soda fountain and in a factory butchering and plucking chickens. She sang duets with her mother at church, and maybe those two could have been an earlier version of the mother-daughter Judds if the deck had shuffled differently. Her mother was 16 when Patsy was born, and Patsy confided later to a friend that her father, who left in her teenage years, sexually abused her. Her biographical information hardly paints a scenario where she might become a career-managing woman like Dolly Parton who could stand up to producers and agents and chart the course of her own art. This all adds another level of tragedy to her story, since as writer, publisher or producer she or her children might have had a meaningful stake in the intellectual property, and received more than a pittance of the insane amounts of money her recordings have generated and paid to the owners of the copyrights of the songs she sang.

Sorry to drone on about Patsy, but Ken Burns didn’t and probably should have. Thank you Mr. Burns, for all your hard work and dedication on this and all your films. Don’t be afraid to shine your camera on shadows or controversy now and then. We all know that history celebrates some and trivializes or ignores others, and it doesn’t hurt to be up front and candid about such things. I hope the “Country Music” movie shows up on Netflix or Amazon Prime, or on DVD for a reasonable amount of money, because I’d like to see it again and share it with friends who missed it on TV.

This is another posting where I'm trying to raise issues, questions and awareness in the world of modern troubadours... You deserve a reward or a door prize for making it to the end. Please check back to look for new posts as I get them done. I plan to cover a wide range of issues and topics.  I don't have a way for you to comment here, but I welcome your emails with your reactions. Feel free to cheer me on, or to disagree...

Chordally yours,