Filmmaker Ken Burns Goes Wide, But Not Deep, In His Chronicle Of 'Country Music' | Nashville Public Radio

Filmmaker Ken Burns Goes Wide, But Not Deep, In His Chronicle Of 'Country Music'

Sep 12, 2019
Originally published on September 12, 2019 2:15 pm

Ken Burns is our great explainer, television's finest illustrator. He's a filmmaker who gives us what we know from fresh angles, so that we can learn more and appreciate topics on a deeper level. Whether his subject is the Civil War or baseball, Burns has made an art of divining what most Americans know about a subject and then putting an arm around our collective shoulder and murmuring, "Yes, but have you seen this?"

Burns' latest subject of excavation and examination is the idiosyncratic world of country music. You'd think it would be a relatively straightforward project: Beyond the common wisdom that Hank Williams was country music's first great songwriter, there's a lot the average citizen doesn't know about this music's history — and getting footage of performers singing is easier than, say, sourcing film of Ty Cobb spiking a third baseman. Indeed, there are many entertaining moments in Burns' Country Music, including a clip in which Dolly Parton explains how her 1974 hit "I Will Always Love You" was inspired by her break with Porter Wagoner, the singing partner who launched her career.

Burns' Country Music begins in the 1920s, with pioneering engineer-producer Ralph Peer recording country artists for the first time, and continues on, in eight two-hour episodes, up through the 1990s. (Burns seems to have thrown up his hands before entering the 21st century, allowing him to avoid having to explain "bro country" or the rise of Taylor Swift.) The production, narrated by Peter Coyote, is also full to bursting with interviews of country music stars who speak on their own careers and lavish praise on each other. Pretty soon, all the back-scratching becomes tiresome.

Some 18 years ago, Burns gave us the history of jazz with the help of on-camera perspective by critics such as Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch and Gary Giddins. But Burns doesn't seem to think country music holds up to such scrutiny: How else to explain the presence of only one country music scholar, Bill C. Malone? To be sure, some performers — most notably Marty Stuart and Rosanne Cash — are eloquent in their grasp of country music's complexity. But where is context and commentary from critics and historians like, say, Jewly Hight or Holly Gleason, whose books have done so much to rewrite country history to include essential female voices? In place of scholarship, we are given gush.

There are also times when some of Burns' best notions aren't well-executed. The film's second hour has a promising section about the comedian Minnie Pearl, a woman too often neglected in surveys such as this. Yet, after establishing that this marvelous humorist was a college-educated wit whose cornpone stage image was a carefully crafted persona, the documentary then fails to show us any footage of her at work. Pearl was one of the most frequent and energetic guest stars on TV variety shows stretching from the 1950s through the 1980s, yet she is tucked away here with a miserable bit of audio. I was dumbfounded. In general, Burns and his writer, Dayton Duncan, present what used to be called the "Great Man" theory of history: The biggest stars and the most obvious ideas are the ones deemed most worthy.

Two years ago, in his series The Vietnam War, Burns deepened our knowledge of that country's history, giving Americans a new perspective from which to view the war. But in Country Music, Burns goes wide, not deep; it's rare for any musical excerpt to last more than 20 seconds, making it impossible for a singer to make an impression on a viewer unfamiliar with his or her work.

This time around, Burns has traveled down Hank Williams' "Lost Highway" with a busted GPS.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Filmmaker Ken Burns has found a new subject for one of his long-form documentaries. The man who has explored everything from the Vietnam War to the Central Park Five now gives us 16 hours about the history of country music. It will air in eight parts on PBS starting Sunday. Rock critic Ken Tucker has some thoughts about this massive project. Let's start with this clip in which Rosanne Cash explains the source of one of her father, Johnny Cash's, biggest hits, "I Walk The Line."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WALK THE LINE")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) As sure as night is dark and day is light, I keep you on my mind both day and night.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "COUNTRY MUSIC")

ROSANNE CASH: The song came from my mother's fear. You know, you're going out on the road, and these girls are coming up to you. And he wrote "I Walk The Line." I'm going to stay true to you.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Ken Burns is our great explainer, television's finest illustrator, a filmmaker who gives us what we know from fresh angles so that we can learn more, appreciate on a deeper level. Whether his subject is the Civil War or baseball, Burns has made an art of divining what most Americans know about a subject and then putting an arm around our collective shoulder and murmuring, yes, but have you seen this? Burns' new subject is "Country Music."

You'd think it would be a relatively easy challenge. Beyond the common wisdom that Hank Williams was country music's first great songwriter, there's a lot the average citizen doesn't know about the music's history, and getting footage of performers singing is more readily available than, say, film of Ty Cobb spiking a third baseman.

And, indeed, there are many entertaining moments in Ken Burns "Country Music," such as this one when Dolly Parton describes leaving the singing partner who launched her career, Porter Wagoner, in 1974 and the source of one of her biggest hits.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "COUNTRY MUSIC")

DOLLY PARTON: When I was trying to leave the show, I had told Porter I'd stay five years. It had been five, then it was six, then it was seven. He was just having a real hard time because it was going to mess up his show. We were very bound and tied together in so many emotional ways, and he just would not hear of it.

And so he was going to sue me. He was going to do this. He was going to do that. And so I went home. I thought he's not going to listen to me because I've said it over and over. And so I thought, do what you do best. Just write a song.

So I wrote the song, took it back in the next day and I said, Porter, sit down. I got something I have to sing to you. So I sang it. And he was sitting at his desk, and he was crying. He said, that's the best thing you ever wrote. OK, you can go but only if I can produce that record. And he did, and the rest is history.

PETER COYOTE: Released a few months after she left, it would go on to become Dolly Parton's best-selling song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU")

PARTON: (Singing) If I should stay, I would only be in your way. So I'll go, but I know I'll think of you each step of the way. And I will always love you. I will always love you.

TUCKER: Ken Burns' "Country Music" begins in the 1920s with engineer-producer Ralph Peer recording country artists for the first time and continues on in eight two-hour episodes up through the 1990s, at which point Burns seems to throw up his hands and quit before entering the 21st century and being obliged to explain Taylor Swift.

This production, narrated by Peter Coyote, is also full to bursting with interviews with country music stars. They talk about themselves and lavish praise on each other. Pretty soon, all the back-scratching becomes tiresome.

Eighteen years ago, Burns gave us the history of jazz with the help of on-camera perspective by critics such as Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch and Gary Giddins. Ken Burns doesn't seem to think country music holds up to such scrutiny. How else to explain the presence of only one country music scholar, Bill C. Malone?

To be sure, some performers, notably Marty Stuart and Rosanne Cash, are eloquent in their grasp of country music complexity, but where is context and commentary from critics and historians like, say, Jewly Hight or Holly Gleason, whose books have done so much to rewrite country history to include essential female voices? In place of scholarship here, there is gush, and compliments don't get much more inarticulate than Kris Kristofferson on Waylon Jennings.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE BEEN A LONG TIME LEAVIN'")

WAYLON JENNINGS: (Singing) I've been a fool. I've been a fool forgiving you each time that you've done me wrong. I've been a long time leaving, but it'll be a long time gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "COUNTRY MUSIC")

KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: He sang as good as Hank Williams, and he's really a good songwriter. His voice was what tore me up. He just had - I don't know. It's just like the way Hank Williams tore me up. He's - he could sing songs that I can't.

TUCKER: There are also times when some of Burns's best notions aren't well-executed. The second hour has a promising section about the comedian Minnie Pearl, a woman too often neglected in surveys such as this. Yet after establishing that this marvelous humorist was a college-educated wit whose cornpone stage image was a carefully crafted persona, the documentary then fails to show us any video example of her at work.

She was one of the most frequent and energetic guest stars on TV variety shows stretching from the 1950s through the 1980s, yet she's tucked away here with only a miserable bit of audio. I was dumbfounded. In general, Burns and his writer Dayton Duncan present what used to be called the great man theory of history. The biggest stars and the most obvious ideas are the ones deemed most worthy.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "COUNTRY MUSIC")

COYOTE: Country music is a complicated chorus of American voices joining together to tell a complicated American story. It has been handed down from generation to generation, moving from farm fields and churches and family porches into every corner of the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN")

NITTY GRITTY DIRT BAND: (Singing) I said to the undertaker, undertaker, please drive slow for this lady you are carrying - Lord, I hate to see her go.

COYOTE: It has changed and grown at every turn, tethered to its past but always reaching toward its future.

TUCKER: Two years ago, in his series "The Vietnam War," Ken Burns deepened our knowledge of that country's history, giving Americans a new perspective from which to view the war. But in "Country Music," Burns goes wide, not deep. It's rare for any musical excerpt to last more than 20 seconds, making it impossible for a singer to make an impression on a viewer unfamiliar with the work. This time around, Ken Burns has traveled down Hank Williams' lost highway with a busted GPS.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed the new Ken Burns PBS series on country music, which begins this Sunday. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interviews this week with New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey about breaking the Harvey Weinstein story or with Stephen Kinzer about the CIA's secret experiments with LSD in the 1960s, you'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST HIGHWAY")

HANK WILLIAMS: (Singing) I'm a rolling stone all alone and lost. For a life of sin I have paid the cost. When I pass by, all the people say, just another guy on the lost highway. Just a deck of cards and a jug of wine... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.