Ken Burns’ Country Music series, which begins airing on PBS Sunday night (Sept. 15), is the most thorough and entertaining presentation of the genre ever made. It’s not encyclopedic, but it is Olympian.
Spanning country music from the Big Bang of Ralph Peer’s Bristol recordings in 1927 to the triumphal advent of Garth Brooks and others in the 1990s, it weaves story after story into an eight-episode, 16-hour tapestry that cloaks the music and its creators in a majesty unachievable through piecemeal accounts, no matter how scholarly.
Burns, writer/producer Dayton Duncan, and producer Julie Dunfey wisely refrain from using mere prominence on the Billboard charts as the backbone of their narrative, electing instead to present their account through towering figures and iconic songs, among which they discover almost mystical connections. The layout is basically chronological but the story floats back and forth across time.
With its wealth of rare films, photos and insiders’ reminiscences, it’s almost like being there when everything important in the music happened. Nashville, Bakersfield, Austin and Memphis all get their due.
The tent poles of the story tend to be presented in pairs — Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Not to worry, though. There’s ample time devoted to such essential folk as Minnie Pearl, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, Eddy Arnold, Charley Pride, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, The Maddox Brothers and Rose, Wanda Jackson, Ray Price, Roger Miller, Faron Young, Ricky Skaggs, Dwight Yoakam, etc., etc.
Songwriters are dealt with lovingly — Felice and Boudleaux Bryant (who launched the Everly Brothers), Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Bobby Braddock. Producers. Studio musicians. They all take their bows on Burns’ stage. Spotlighted as well is the great significance of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken sessions of 1971.
Many of the best anecdotes come from people no longer with us: Mel Tillis talking about tiny Brenda Lee standing behind him and telling him jokes as he’s driving a car full of entertainers through the night to the next gig; Billy Sherrill admitting how wrong he was in thinking Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger album sounded so much like “a bad demo” that it was sure to flop; Fred Foster recalling how he wept when he overheard the news that Hank Williams had died; CMT alum Hazel Smith recounting what a zoo Tompall Glaser’s Hillbilly Central recording studio was when it birthed the Outlaw movement that she named; Merle Haggard telling how Johnny Cash convinced him to reveal rather than hide the fact that he’d been in prison.
Marty Stuart dazzles with his recollections and observations, bringing to them a historian’s eye, a poet’s heart and an elephant’s memory. Vince Gill, Ralph Emery, Bill Anderson, Tom T. Hall, Eddie Stubbs, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Kathy Mattea, historian Bill C. Malone, Jeannie Seely, and former Opry manager Bud Wendell all render up precious memories.
Peter Coyote’s narration is firm, knowing and dispassionate, always deferring to Duncan’s well-selected words to convey the drama and humor. There’s not a single note of condescension in the whole project.
Don’t be surprised if this series does for country music what the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack did for bluegrass.