Country Music by Ken Burns – a belated review

Ken Burns, yesterday

I’ve not written about this documentary series, which has come and gone by now, but I do have Thoughts, have had Thoughts for a while, so I ought to Set Them Down.

First of all, boo to PBS for only releasing the cut down version to other markets. These episodes were originally around two hours long, but viewers of BBC4 got the dumbed down shortened version. For example, the first episode on PBS is 111 minutes, but the BBC version was just 50 minutes. Good luck, by the way, finding it on the iPlayer (when it was on), because the BBC’s search algorithm is a shitshow.

Second of all, what is it called? Country Music by Ken Burns? Ken Burns’ Country Music? Country Music – Ken Burns? Or just Country Music? Who knows. I suspect marketing monkeys would seek to avoid the use of the apostrophe as PEOPLE ARE INSECURE ABOUT USING THOSE AND SO PRETEND THEY DON’T MATTER. Note: on PBS, it’s Country Music – a Film by Ken Burns.

Thirdly, I won’t be the first to complain that while the history of country music up to about 1983 is fairly comprehensively covered, the time dedicated to the last 40 years is desultory at best, with just one episode to cover the period from 1984 to 1996, where the story arbitrarily stops.

My enjoyment of the programme was always tempered by this imbalance. Sure, I’m shallow and only really care about contemporary stuff, but quite apart from that, I’m not sure why (personal bugbear) Johnny Cash gets so much airtime while, I dunno, someone with actual talent like Vince Gill or Mary Chapin Carpenter or Alan Jackson is completely ignored.

In fact, the show kind of circles around its contributors in a way that I think distorts the picture. So we’re hearing from Marty Stewart, Rosanne Cash, and Carlene Carter which is fair enough, but then not hearing from Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw, Patty Loveless, Or any number of artists from the last three decades. It’s as if the show is saying that Marty Stewart is more authentic and has more integrity than the excluded people.

I’ve a long held belief that Johnny Cash is not only overrated but also pissed away any talent he actually had. Burns’ documentary presents him as if his record company acted in bad faith to drop him when he was a hopeless alcoholic who didn’t sell; and that his “comeback” sequence of rock covers recorded by Rick Rubin was somehow marvellous. People will romanticise hopeless addicts, I guess, as if they are not the complete nightmares they must be to their friends and families.

Just to give you some context here, Johnny Cash, as “legendary” as he was, and as much attention has he garnered as a result of his legend, not to mention his TV show, scored 13 number one singles out of his 170 releases. That’s a hit rate of around 7½%. Alan Jackson, meanwhile, has had 26 number ones out of his 66 releases,  which is a hit rate of just below 40%. All of which is just to say that someone both more popular and more talented and more successful and very much less of a drug casualty than Johnny Cash was featured for 0 minutes, while the documentary spent what seemed like many hours talking about Johnny fucking Cash.

Fine, it’s a better story because of its tragedy and broken families and unhappy neglected children. But what I want from Ken Burns is something more like the truth. This is not a shitty tabloid newspaper. They don’t have to “print the legend”. That they choose to seems to be a sign that they’re on the lookout for “something to make this shit interesting”. 

In much the same way, they seem to spend the best part of an episode circling around Dolly Parton’s song “I Will Always Love You”, as if there’s something more deeply significant about it, just because it was in that movie. It’s like they thought, oh, people have heard about this so they’ll want to hear about it again. And people have heard about Johnny Cash so they’ll want to hear about him again. And Chris Kristofferson? The programme spends an inordinate amount of time on him, apparently because he wrote one of Johnny Cash’s 7½%.

So while the first two or three episodes set out the story in a fascinating way, the series seemed to dwell upon the sordid and tragic stories of Jimmy Rodgers, Hank Williams, Cash, George Jones and Tammy Wynette. It too quickly turns into a soap opera and turns its back on the less soapy aspects of the genre. And, I repeat, there’s really nothing after 1996, as if to say, Ken Burns in his Beatles wig just didn’t know any music from after then and couldn’t be bothered. And while the show underlined the contribution made by women to the genre since its beginning, it completely fails to tackle the irrational sexism that has overtaken some corners of the genre (radio) in the last decade or so. There was an opportunity to put the spotlight on the corporations responsible for this and be an important ally to the women who are trying to fight this misogyny. People like Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Ashley McBryde, Brandy Clark, Maren Morris, Ashley Monroe, Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, and Carrie Underwood, who are all struggling to be more than just the one female artist in thirty on country radio playlists. All ignored by Ken Burns in favour of untalented men who have have a 1/12th of an octave vocal range.

Overall, this was disappointing, managing to dive from a vibrant and exciting opening to the crushing disappointment of the final episode faster than a rolling banjo riff.

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