Wide Angle

Ken Burns’ Soft-Focus Look at Country Music

The filmmaker’s latest documentary has more than three chords, not enough of the truth.

Side-by-side photo illustration of Charley Pride, Johnny Cash, and Dwight Yoakam
Charley Pride, Johnny Cash, and Dwight Yoakam Photo illustration by Slate Photos by Craig Mellish, Jared Ames, and PBS.

As a much less accomplished worker in the pastures of nonfiction, I have to credit producer-director Ken Burns for his range and output across the past four decades through documentary films and series that convey elusive American histories to broad audiences. His signature style, including its “Ken Burns effect” of zooming and panning across still photographs, has become laughably overfamiliar, but it remains an effective time machine. And sometimes, his team can be truly innovative: for instance, when 2017’s Vietnam War series afforded serious screen time to veterans from the Vietnamese forces along with American vets and antiwar activists.

But Burns’ sepia-toned tastes and buttery baritone voice-overs are symptoms of his weakness for fuzzy nostalgia, and his compulsion to transform conflict and difficulty into visions of reconciliation and unity is vintage white baby boomer liberalism. Historians have criticized Burns’ landmark 1990 Civil War series as misleading and reductive on that level. As a music critic, I vividly remember the furor that his 2001 Jazz series stirred up for its blues-and-swing-centrism, to the detriment of the noisier, more experimental, and more current side of the music. In retrospect, the series is worth more than the sum of its faults, but its denouncers weren’t wrong either.

On many levels, Burns does better with his new documentary, Country Music, which launched Sunday night on PBS and continues with seven more two-hour episodes over the next couple of weeks. For one thing, country is arguably still more in need of Burns’ public-broadcasting respectability bump than jazz was. And if there’s anything those 16 hours get across, it’s that country answers to no monolithic description—its lineage teems with variety, from old-time front-porch folk to scrappy barroom honky-tonk to jazzy Western swing to glitzy rhinestoned power ballads. The series is bursting with stories, sights, and sounds. Belatedly coming around to country in my late 20s, it took me more than a decade to learn as much as these eight programs provide. Burns himself enters, as he did with Jazz, as an admitted neophyte, a rock ’n’ roll fan on expedition. That gives the series a kind of curiosity and freshness. It also makes for unexamined—or strategic?—blind spots.

As a generalist, Burns is prone to swallowing whole the perspectives of the participants and experts he’s taken with. In Jazz, that was Wynton Marsalis and the small brain trust of musicians and thinkers around him at the then-new Jazz at Lincoln Center. In Country Music, it’s the more progressive end of the Nashville establishment (plus, benignly but absurdly, more Marsalis). The commentators and storytellers here are nearly all famous musicians. That’s often a delight: Who wouldn’t want to hear Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, the late Merle Haggard, and many others recount their own tales? Several also speak to the genre as a whole—singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash (daughter of Johnny) and mandolin virtuoso Marty Stuart (former child prodigy) could moonlight as music historians. But they’re all, by definition, industry insiders. There are barely any scholars or critics offering more distanced analysis, the way they might in a Burns war doc. The 85-year-old music historian Bill C. Malone is a welcome presence, and it helps to have the black banjo player Rhiannon Giddens, who has worked to reclaim that instrument’s African American roots, but they ought to have more varied company. Plus, as a side note, couldn’t Burns have turned up a slightly more country-sounding narrator than his standby, the stentorian Peter Coyote?

Country Music’s force is in its thousands of pictures and clips and details, but narratively it serves up only a slightly more thoughtful retread of the standard Nashville party line: that country musicians and fans are like one big family—and yet country is also open to everyone, and it’s regrettable if anyone ever gave you a contrary impression. That country music comes from the working people and is ultimately about simple sincere storytelling, or in songwriter Harlan Howard’s well-worn phrase, “three chords and the truth” (“even,” adds Rodney Crowell, “when it’s a big fat lie”). Unless it’s about making bank: Half the yarns here feature artists being nearly laughed out of Nashville till they land a hit and everyone is their oldest, bestest friend. They’ll allow that occasionally the music drifts too far in one direction or another, but it always cycles back around. And that it’s strictly apolitical, except that sometimes it bravely raises ground-level social issues you won’t hear anywhere else, and well, yes, sometimes a producer or exec or artist is “opinionated” (read: “a raging bigot”), but that shakes out over time.

These refrains are all accurate in some way. What they leave unstated is that country music has a terrible image problem, caricatured as corny backward music for rubes and rednecks and racists. As a result, Nashville is reflexively on the defensive, caught between earned resentment of the class and regional biases those charges represent and the reality that a portion of country fandom—especially in the former Confederacy—likes the idea that it’s for rubes and rednecks and maybe even racists (or “accidental racists,” at least). Except in rare moments, Burns boot-scoots around that particular rat’s nest.

It’s rightly foundational to the series that country, like any other major American music, is born of the “rub” between black and white cultures, not to mention Mexican and Eastern European sounds, among others. Country, as Ketch Secor of the revivalist band Old Crow Medicine Show puts it, is the music that follows “the path of the fiddle and the banjo,” the European violin encountering the twangy African import. It’s Scots-Irish balladry mixing with the blues, and black gospel intermingling with white gospel, and Virginia meeting Texas meeting the Mississippi Delta and Hollywood cowboys (plus the occasional Jewish songwriter or Hollywood cowboy). Black and white string bands in the early 20th century played a lot of the same repertoire, and it was partly pure marketing that fostered the segregation between “hillbilly” and “race” music, the early recording industry’s terms for country and blues. But Burns feels compelled to stress that connectedness and downplay the persistence of that separation.

The relation between country and the banjo-pickin’ heritage of blackfaced minstrelsy is acknowledged but soft-pedaled. Burns dealt with minstrel shows for a few minutes more in the first episode of Jazz, but the subject should be more significant here, given that country founders such as Emmett Miller blacked up. Burns dwells on the fact that pioneers such as A.P. and Mother Maybelle Carter (the latter finally getting her due as a guitar hero), Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and others all had back-home black musical influences and mentors. But none of those associates shared in the stars’ fame and fortune or were otherwise credited for their contributions by country listeners. Burns takes note of the historic occasion in 1930 when Rodgers and a young Louis Armstrong recorded together—which Johnny Cash and Armstrong stirringly revisited four decades later on Cash’s frequently boundary-defying network TV show. Such moments make for great doc footage. They’re also rarities in the music’s mainstream history.

Burns pays appropriate homage to the pivotal role of Ray Charles’ 1962 cover album of Nashville hits, Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, while omitting that it was mostly barred from country radio. When Charley Pride finally comes along in the mid-1960s civil rights era—the first black country star since the harmonica player DeFord Bailey was brutally ejected from the Grand Ole Opry two decades before—Burns and Pride himself tell the story well: that his race was kept secret at first and that he wasn’t permitted to record “Green, Green Grass of Home,” for instance, because the lyrics referred to the love interest’s “hair of gold,” suggesting forbidden interracial relations. Pride went on to have an astonishing 30 No. 1 country hits.

But it’s not as cockles-warming as Burns makes out that the “outspoken,” racist honky-tonk singer Faron Young made an exception to bond with Pride: It’s the essence of “some of my best friends are black.” Nor does Burns make it clear that after Pride, there wouldn’t be another black singer at the top of the country charts until Darius Rucker, formerly of Hootie and the Blowfish, crossed over in 2008. (Today he’s been joined by Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen, and Blanco Brown, but will that last?) Likewise, when early 1970s Latino country singers Freddy Fender and Johnny Rodriguez were embraced as stars, it turned out to be an aberration more than a breakthrough. You don’t hear that from Burns.

His compulsion to wrap every bramble in velvet makes the series duller than it ought to be.
Who is the target audience? I’m sure Burns would like country fans to watch, but if he really cared, there would be more 21st-century stars among the talking heads. (Dierks Bentley, for instance, appeared in the linked PBS concert special last week but doesn’t get a chance to weigh in here.) Committed country skeptics are also unlikely to give it a chance since the film tries to pretend they don’t exist. Primarily, its constituency is Ken Burns fans, who are expected to hop aboard the PBS hayride and find their anti-country prejudices purged gently along the way.

If you don’t start off with anti-country prejudices, it’s a letdown that it’s so gingerly. For headier doses of country scandal and dirt, try the Cocaine and Rhinestones podcast by Tyler Mahan Coe, son of the foulmouthed 1970s country star David Allan Coe (who’s never mentioned by Burns), as well as the first season of Mike Judge’s animated Cinemax series Tales From the Tour Bus. For more socially and politically attuned examinations, you could track this past spring and summer’s debate about the black country legacy and whether Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” counts as country after Billboard ruled it didn’t. Or the ongoing discussion about country radio’s discrimination against women artists for much of the past decade—a pattern that, for instance, female country supergroups like the Pistol Annies and, more recently, the Highwomen have banded together in part to resist. It makes the series’ virtues and failings starker that it happens to have debuted in such a contentious year in country.

And don’t get me wrong: There are virtues to spare. Burns handles nearly all of the stories of artists’ origins and fates with an adept narrative hand, and conveys a clear sense of the industry’s evolutionary stages: for instance, the gradual build of country radio, including a kind of arms race over which weekend “barn dance” show would claim the most powerful transmitter (the Grand Ole Opry won). And in places he also does match the material’s social complexity, as in the segment about the rise—in the face of industry sexism and harassment—of assertive country women like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, feminists who would never answer to that name.

Most often, it comes when he’s made an earlier, related film about the topic. He’s excellent, for example, on the Dust Bowl migration of farmers from Oklahoma and other midwestern states to California, many of them by hopping freight cars, the incredible hostility that greeted these “Okie” exiles, and the consequences for country music. That background shaped the likes of Buck Owens’ hard-edged Bakersfield sound, and especially Merle Haggard, who outgrew juvenile delinquency and incarceration—he was in the crowd for an early Johnny Cash prison show—to become Nashville’s “poet of the common man.” Haggard concealed his San Quentin past for years until he confessed to Cash what that concert had meant to him, and Cash offered to share the story on his TV show so Haggard could stop fearing the gossip magazines. There’s also an interview in which Dwight Yoakam, the tight-Wrangler’d 1980s “neo-traditionalist” heir to the Bakersfield sound, is trying to recite the heartbreaking lyrics of Haggard’s “Holding Things Together”* and ends up falling apart. When he regains composure, he shrugs helplessly, “Merle’s good.” It’s kind of worth the whole 16 hours.

Inevitably, Burns gets the closest to dealing with country’s awkward social status when he reaches the Vietnam period, when country fans and music-makers were mobilized less by support for the war than by a visceral distaste for its opponents. There’s a shocking moment when singer Jan Howard—who lost her eldest son in the war, leading to a younger son’s suicide—relates how organizers, knowing of her bereavement, knocked on her door to ask if she would be interested in attending a protest. She threatened to blow their heads off with a shotgun. Haggard, despite his generally progressive attitudes, wrote the anti-anti-establishment anthem “Okie From Muskogee” (“We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee/ We don’t take our trips on LSD … ”). No one, including him, seems sure he was even serious, and yet it became his biggest hit. And country kept giving aid and comfort to Richard Nixon right into the Watergate era: Welcome hardly anywhere else, he was still the toast of Nashville. This is when country and the left really became estranged, though paradoxically (as Burns leaves aside) it was also the peak of country-rock.

But then there are the histories Burns missed altogether, like the ones in historian Peter La Chapelle’s new book, I’d Fight the World: A Political History of Old-Time, Hillbilly, and Country Music. You’d think it would be a Ken Burns question to ask how country and politics intersected in the progressive populist era of the early 20th century, or during the enactment of Jim Crow laws, or in the Cold War (aside from, as Burns does mention, distancing itself from Woody Guthrie). According to La Chapelle, contrary to Nashville’s boilerplate claims, in the 19th and 20th centuries country was the most politicized music of all, with artists “campaigning for more than a dozen major-party governors, several congressmen, at least seven U.S. senators, a Senate minority and a Senate majority leader, as well as major third-party candidates.” And not always on the side you might think. Couldn’t we have seen slow-motion pans across some of those old photographs?

There are subtler biases here as well, not all of them pernicious. As a baby-boom liberal, Burns pays bluegrass more heed throughout the series than many country histories might, since during the late 1960s and early 1970s, it went out of fashion in the country mainstream and was taken up by the back-to-the-land counterculture. As a rock fan, he treats the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s crossover record Will the Circle Be Unbroken as a major event, and lavishes more attention on Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris than one might expect, as well as Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. (Frankly, I was surprised to make it out of the documentary without a Bruce Springsteen interview.) The 1970s Outlaw movement—Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, et al.—is fittingly prominent. Disappointingly but not unexpectedly, Burns is less fair to the same period’s pop-country crossovers and “countrypolitan” production, as well as country-disco and the Urban Cowboy phenomenon, collectively dismissed via a clip of a drunken Charlie Rich setting fire to a “the winner is” card naming John Denver on a country awards show. On the other hand, Burns is surprisingly respectful to Garth Brooks in the 1990s—though he’s a lot less forthcoming about what he makes of Shania Twain.

Country Music doesn’t overemphasize any particular figures the way that Jazz kept defaulting to Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Aside from Williams, whose tragic tale is the most canonized in country history, Johnny Cash emerges as the series’ platonic country ideal—with undeniable roots, but restless, rebellious, unprejudiced, and in search of social justice for prisoners and Native Americans, among others. That all renders him a predictable choice for Burns, but the fascination of Cash’s arc is hard to deny. It does seem a tad odd, however, for the series to close (aside from a quick montage of later stars like Blake Shelton and Taylor Swift) on Cash’s late-life comeback with the American Recordings albums, which saw him forced to depart country’s precincts to secure his own legacy. (Like Lil Nas X, he drew on a Nine Inch Nails track.) What’s Burns saying there about country’s past or future? I think he’s just counting on Cash’s demise for a surefire tear-jerking ending.

Personally, I wish he’d continued his narrative a few years further, to profile the Dixie Chicks and their 2003 blacklisting from country radio for criticizing the Iraq war. It was a hinge point for country at the time, and it would be a way to raise questions about the fate of the genre—and the country that spawned it—in the digitized, polarized, overheating 21st century. To show that the story is never over till it’s over. But then, of course, viewers, not to mention some of Burns’ new Nashville cronies, might have been left uncomfortable and forced to reckon with their own conclusions. And that is simply not the Ken Burns effect.

Correction, Sept. 17, 2019: This article originally misidentified the title of Merle Haggard’s “Holding Things Together” as “Holding It Together.”