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Ken Burns' Country Music - Critiquing the Critics

It is no surprise that Hank Williams is a central figure in the Ken Burns' documentary series Country Music.

Television series documenting the history of country music date back decades and some of the best – Bringing it all Back Home & Lost Highway – have their origins far away from Nashville. But when the American master of documentary making, Mr Ken Burns, turns his attention to the task, then the U.S. music journos suddenly stand to attention.

It helps that the eight-part, 16-hour Country Music – A Film by Ken Burns, which made its debut on American public broadcaster PBS on September 15, is accompanied by a 5-CD soundtrack as epic as the series itself.

So what did the so called “know-alls” of the music industry make of Burns’ efforts of nearly a decade in the making with more than 100 interviews?

It is fair to say that so far the critics range from effusive to, well downright cautious.

The headline by Online magazine Pitchfork best reflected the cautionary tone: “Ken Burns’ New Documentary Is in Love With Country’s Myths, Not Its Music.”

Beneath this sharp heading, contributor Stephen Thomas Erlewine noted: “Telling a story that runs the better part of 100 years necessitates some tough editorial decisions, but Burns seems singularly disinterested in all the gaudy elements that define a good portion of the country music business; he moves through novelty records, tacky outfits, and sticky sentimentality with the speed of lighting.”

As Burns enters the latter half of the 20th century, Erlewine doesn’t hold back: “Major acts are treated, if at all, with a glancing nod – a flaw that grows glaring as the doc moves into the 1960s and ‘70s, when country musicians were figuring out how to utilize elements of rock. With (Johnny) Cash’s story providing the narrative thrust, Glen Campbell is dismissed as a mere TV host, when in actuality he was one of the biggest stars of the era, broadening the genre’s palette with his lush, softly trippy collaborations with Jimmy Webb.”

Erlewine didn’t finish with defending Campbell’s contribution: “ Ray Price helped usher in modern Texan country with a band that featured at various points Willie Nelson, Roger Miller and Johnny Paycheck, but he’s treated as a footnote (which is better than Paycheck, the ornery honky-tonker who helped form outlaw country, who doesn’t register at all).”

So where’s the effusive stuff?

How about this from The Washington Post: " ... Burns delivers an enlightening, educational and often emotionally stirring account of country’s essential evolution (still in progress), from traditional immigrant and church songs heard in the misty mountain hollers to a powerful, Nashville-centric industry that grew to favor predictable hits over authentic origins. I cried three times while making my way through it, moved by the music but also by the common thread of suffering that travels through those who create it."

NPR takes the “television is shallow” route: "... 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 travelled down Hank Williams' 'Lost Highway' with a busted GPS."

As might be expected, Rolling Stone Country devoted a great deal of copy to the documentary, with a multi-layering story approach prefaced by a comprehensive overview: "… it’s most definitely a Ken Burns’ production in every way, shape and form, right down to the slow-zooms into sepia-toned photographs and soup-to-nuts testimonials; you have not lived until you’ve heard the filmmaker’s go-to narrator Peter Coyote utter the phrase 'quant and quirky backwoods hayseeds' in his weathered baritone.”

In an interesting aside, Nashville’s principal daily newspaper The Tennessean invited Bob Fisher the president of Belmont University to be a guest columnist on its opinion page. The private Nashville liberal arts university was a sponsor of the music documentary. And of course the Belmont alumni include many country music stars and industry stalwarts.

“For these reasons and more, we had to step up to help bring Country Music to fruition,” wrote Fisher. “But this series will impact far more than our campus, city and state. This genre traces its roots to pockets all across the country, from Southern Appalachia and the Arkansas Ozarks to west Texas and California honky-tonks. Country music’s meaning and value extends to the entire nation. This music connects with so many, because it represents our stories, our lives.”

Hard to challenge Mr Fisher!


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