'Country Music': TV Review

Courtesy of Jared Ames/PBS
Good, but inevitably both incomplete and exhausting.
9/15/2019

Ken Burns tries to get to the heart of country music in this eight-part, 16-hour documentary for PBS.

Depending on how you feel about the subject matter, a Ken Burns documentary falls — unfortunately for too many people — between "it was too short and he never told the full story!" and "it's way too long and who cares!" Those are the extremes, of course, but you do hear them quite a bit. The truth is that making documentaries is hard. Many are embarrassingly shallow and shouldn't be called documentaries; others are firmly in the personal P.O.V. category. Jumping into enormously complicated topics with depth and intelligence like Burns does — The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, The Vietnam War, etc., puts him in an unenviable, unwinnable position.

Country Music, which is eight parts and 16 hours, indeed manages to simultaneously be way, way too short and also too long in parts; it's the right of any artist to spend more time on particular subjects he or she loves. But there's no way around a few things: Country Music could not possibly cover all of country music, and it does not. Starting in the early 1900s but with a very distinct nod to the fact that elements of it really began in Africa, England, Scotland and Ireland decades before, the first two hours manage to hem and haw about influences and starting points.

But the fact is established that what we think of as rural white American music didn't really start there. What Country Music eventually gets at is that, like all forms of music, the genre borrowed from others to create something unique in a certain place, and that was definitively the American South, and even more definitively the poorer parts of it. 

Eventually Burns gets Country Music to 1996, of all places, and the last 50 minutes or so seem like an Olympic dash to some finish line that is well short of where we should be ending up — especially since arguably the biggest story in country music right now is Little Nas X and "Old Town Road." But of course that overlooks the fact that A) You have to end somewhere; B) "Old Town Road" probably came out when Country Music was being edited; and, well, C) Maybe Burns is going to reveal that he's got Country Music: Part II 1996-2020 coming out soon?

The point is that Country Music is too short, even at 16 hours, and in the end it feels slightly arbitrary in how it concludes, and it's going to be criticized for focusing for too long on well-documented legends, particularly Johnny Cash. That becomes kind of hilariously mind-bending when you also consider that, even with perhaps too much lavish Cash attention, Country Music maybe should have spent more time on Cash's legendary comeback with producer Rick Rubin, which it touches on but does not properly contextualize.

It's here where a close-up of Burns pulling his hair out would be appropriate. But of course he would never — Burns has been doing this long enough to know that his intricately researched, lovingly produced documentaries can do a lot of things but satisfy 100 percent of the audience is not one of them. 

That's a good mindset to take into Country Music. It might also help certain potential viewers to know that pretty much any music documentary immediately locks out people who don't like the genre. The trick, then, is to be able to make the whole of it interesting to those who are tuning in because they like some part of the music — certain variations on it, the interpretations of different artists or bands, etc. As a fan of, say, maybe 40 percent of country music (if I were forced to put a number on it), I definitely found that Country Music is simultaneously interesting and flagging. While I like some "classic" country and believe there are historical bits that someone like Burns can examine in a way that is fascinating — and he does — my own version of "classic" country is more along the lines of Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Wanda Jackson and Dolly Parton, rather than The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers and a series of deeply rural, deeply white ancestral artists. I wanted more Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris than I got, for example.

And once you get into the 1980s you've lost me for the most part, unless there is going to be some kind of magnetic exploration of alt-country, which there isn't here. (And no, I do not count Dwight Yoakam as a suitable replacement.) I was hoping that I'd see something on Wilco or Jimmie Dale Gilmore or Lyle Lovett or how the boundaries of country could bend into and include First Aid Kit, Drive-By Truckers/Jason Isbell, etc.

Nope.

Again, you have to end somewhere, and "modern" country isn't the ending point for Burns (though he does a fine job rolling through the less tolerable "big hat" phase of country and mercilessly getting us to 1996 still barely breathing for the effort).

In the early going, Burns' greatest achievement is not sticking to the historical country music narrative that it was all born in the white rural patches of America. He effectively illustrates that "hillbilly music" has not only European and African DNA, but wide swathes were essentially the product of a systematic whitewashing of black music, often shamelessly so.

That said, Country Music still feels a little more comfortable with the "it's all a mix of things" route, which certainly isn't untrue — artists talk about "the rub" of white and black music influencing each other in the early part of the 1900s and it's the nature of the convoluted streams in all musical styles that there are no definitive answers about this.

And Country Music also succeeds in letting the, uh, country music establishment self-lacerate by pointing out how its consistent emphasis on not evolving has always come back to bite it in the ass, both commercially and culturally. 

I kept thinking that it was a thankless, Herculean task for Burns to even consider doing this documentary. I appreciated loving the parts I wasn't expecting to and often tempered my disappointment in it not getting to the "alt-country" artists I most wanted to see by realizing that Country Music is simply not that kind of niche (or definitive) documentary. It's mostly a brave effort to place it in context with an impressive timeline. 

Country Music is a wide subject that Burns painstakingly brushes through. But there's not enough paint for that picture. You're going to see the canvas and the blotches. If you know that going in, it helps.

Production companies: Florentine Films, WETA
Director: Ken Burns
Premieres: Sunday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (PBS)