Of all the broad subjects that master documentarian Ken Burns has taken on in the past four decades, none of them seem harder to get one’s arms completely around than “Country Music,” the filmmaker’s eight-part, 16-hour paean to an art form so American that it resists (and sometimes resents) attempts to label it, classify it or scrutinize both its triumphs and shortcomings.
The intricacies of baseball, the enormity of World War II, the secrets of the Roosevelt family — by comparison, these were all easier and better-behaved subjects. For that matter, “Jazz,” a similar 10-episode effort by Burns in 2001 to let history tell the story of the ineffable, fit more neatly into his disciplined format. And 2017’s “The Vietnam War” took a touchy subject and conquered it with the sheer power of facts — wrestled down and beautifully arranged, then clarified with firsthand accounts. The work speaks for itself.
But country, with its many styles and pedigrees, is as wily and clever as its reputation. Here, the music must speak for itself, amid a history full of boasts and betrayals and an array of patron saints who are often revered for their sins.
There’s also a deep insecurity at the root of it — the prideful notion that country music is by and for people who were and still are judged and looked down upon as lower-class folk, rednecks and so on. Burns struggles to both address and ignore the chips on country’s shoulders, the bitterness that stoked the genre’s outlier creativity and inspired its rebellious streak.
Working with writer-producer Dayton Duncan and producer Julie Dunfey, 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.
“Country Music” (premiering Sunday and continuing through Sept. 25) is proof that Burns’s technique can eventually and accurately convey the basic truth about any subject. Fans of the music as well as newbies will learn quite a bit in the first couple of hours, as the film, which spans from the late 19th century to the mid-1990s, sorts through the origins of an elemental sound, which went by many names: “hillbilly songs,” “race records,” “old-time songs,” “folk music” and more.
“Those songs were captured, rather than written,” Rosanne Cash observes about the music’s earliest recordings. “They were in the hills like the rock formations.”
From such bedrock comes a commingling of cultures and an unevenly shared experience.
This involved both the embrace and exclusion of African American music and traditions by white musicians, and it’s here that “Country Music” makes the first of its occasional, cursory attempts to reckon with the genre’s racial divide — a fact as shameful and plain as the minstrelsy performed in country’s early radio shows, and then all the way up to the industry’s rejection this summer of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” It’s the hit single of 2019, a song from a black rap artist that sought to broaden the genre, yet was shunned by country radio’s ruling order.
As a historical work, “Country Music” doesn’t get as far as “Old Town Road,” but it follows those old roads back a century to briefly describe the friction between white and black experiences of the music, along with the appropriation and morphing of certain styles. Such blending and borrowing is broadly dubbed here as “the rub,” amplified by the dawn of AM radio transmissions, which brought the nation’s first wave of popular hits.
Then and now, country music relies on its most lasting and familiar themes — that love often leads to heartbreak, cheatin’ and other drunken regrets; that Saturday night’s transgressions wind up in Sunday morning’s church pews. Along with redemption, country has a healthy yet depressing obsession with grief, loss and loneliness, drawing its strength from the power of family and the promise of an afterlife. (“Three chords and the truth,” still a prevailing description for country, is attributed to the late singer-songwriter Harlan Howard, who wrote or co-wrote many hits, including Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces.”)
With great care and reverence, “Country Music” recounts the establishment of country’s institutions, such as the rise of Nashville’s “Grand Ole Opry” show and other live broadcasts. The yodeling greatness of Jimmie Rodgers, whose oft-covered “Mule Skinner Blues” (first dubbed “Blue Yodel #8” when it was recorded in 1930) serves as one of “Country Music’s” two key refrains, the other being the Carter family’s hauntingly epochal “Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By),” their 1935 rework of the 1907 church hymn.
Further episodes attempt to weave country’s presence alongside American history as well as the country music community’s ability to remain apolitical and even decidedly insular, rejected by the cultural upper crust as a little too common, poor or unrefined. By the early 1970s, country music fans began to identify with President Richard Nixon’s concept of the “silent majority” — conservative, God-fearing Americans who are astonished and even repulsed by . . . well, fill in the blanks: diversity, hippies, sissies, communists, elitism and other big-city stuff.
We also watch as country survives all-comers — jazz, swing, big bands, rock-and-roll, the Beatles. Billboard magazine settled on a name for the genre (“country & western”) in 1949, which gave the industry a motive to refine itself for a mass market and gain some distance from folk and bluegrass.
“Country Music” will, for some viewers, serve as both introduction and image rehab; there is no way to watch it and not gain a finer regard for its poetic artistry and its role in the American story.
It’s also a wonder that anyone can agree what country music really is, given such a complex tangle of sounds. The more “Country Music’s” experts and practitioners talk about it, the more personal it becomes.
Throughout, the profiles of country's innumerable influencers range from the routine mention to the epic portrayal. Hank Williams's tragic presence looms next to Jesus ("I wish [Hank Williams] had lived to be as old as I am," 83-year-old Kris Kristofferson says, "because I know there's a lot of great songs in there"), but there are also revealing portraits of Gene Autry, Cline, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and George Jones.
Because Burns is such a meticulous organizer, the casual country listener can finally get a sense of the genre’s progression, and learn to distinguish hillbilly from honky-tonk, then reckon with the lushly orchestrated and hyper-produced “Nashville Sound” that rose in the 1950s and ’60s. Just when country music settles into a popular style, another comes along to reorder both the fans’ and the artists’ understanding of what the genre is.
Coming in for a long windup, “Country Music” travels from the syndicated TV success of “Hee Haw” (filled with hillbilly stereotypes, yet remarkably effective at sharing country with untapped audiences) to the countrypolitan “Urban Cowboy” years of crossover pop in the early 1980s. The film ends, more or less, in an era of sold-out concert arenas and Garth Brooks’s multimillion record sales.
There’s a slight bit of foreshadowing of country’s 21st-century future, as corporate consolidation would shape and restrict the music. (Sorry — there’s no breakdown of the Dixie Chicks controversy, bro-country, line dancing, red Solo cups or “Jesus, Take the Wheel.”) Also given short shrift is how country seemed to corner the cultural market on patriotism in the decades between the Reagan Revolution and the September 2001 terrorist attacks — unless I missed it, there’s no mention of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” (a.k.a. “Proud to Be an American”), which for many became as sacred as the national anthem.
Burns’s resolute, objective path through country’s history is somewhat hindered by a lack of analysis. For all its gorgeous sounds, rare footage and tearful reminiscences, “Country Music” needs a deeper probe, one that would pursue both psychological and sociological angles. Filled to bursting with mutual praise and admiration for the artistry and entrepreneurial prowess of Nashville, it could use a few more critics and even a contrarian or two.
“Country Music” mostly glides past the industry’s lousy inability to produce more than one legend who is also a person of color (Charley Pride is here with his pile of No. 1 hits, a miraculous exception, then Freddy Fender and then . . . precious few). But it is far better on the equally fraught subject of gender, celebrating the women of country who succeeded despite the barriers that would hold them back. A particularly sharp moment comes as a supercut compilation of Porter Wagoner and other famous male hosts, singers and producers, who condescendingly refer to female singers — grown women, some of them already chart-topping successes — as “pretty little girls,” “this little gal,” “purdy little lady” and “little bitty girl . . . with a big ol’ voice.”
“ ‘C’mon and put your hands together and make her feel welcome,’ ” singer and “Grand Ole Opry” star Jeannie Seely recalls, mimicking those patronizing introductions. “The connotation being she isn’t welcome — just make her feel that way.”
And while “Country Music” makes a strong case for the genre’s place as an American institution, it fails to account for why — despite its enormous success and sonic ubiquity — it still isn’t regarded as the predominant music of its time.
Think about it this way: When someone makes a movie or TV show about a certain era in modern American history, they still pull from the rock and pop playlist — or big-band and jazz, if earlier — unless the story is specifically about regional, country people. Otherwise, when we seek to evoke and reference the American sound, country remains on the fringe.
Might this have something to do with country’s consistent inability to celebrate and promote diversity? Shouldn’t a 16-hour documentary of its history either refute that premise or make it more clear? Shouldn’t we come away with a better sense of how country divided us as much as it might have united us?
Where "Country Music" works best, of course, is on the emotional level. As daunting as it may seem to watch all 16 hours, the music is more than enough to carry a viewer enthusiastically along — and worth the time to do so. It will break you down and lift you up. The artistry will astonish and surprise you. When Rosanne Cash at last forgives her father, Johnny, for his failings, there is a remarkable sense of release.
On that note, hardly an episode of “Country Music” passed where I did not find myself thinking of my late father. One hallmark of his midlife crisis in the early ’80s (besides, as Tammy Wynette once sang it, the D-I-V-O-R-C-E) included his resolute return to his country-boy, Oklahoma roots — especially as conveyed by what was playing on the FM radio in his truck, where he found a powerful relatability in what Nashville was serving: the cheatin’ hearts, the carousin’ with Waylon and Willie and the boys; the outlaw sensibility, the high-lonesome independent streak.
As a teenager trying to wrest the dial back to the rock and new-wave stations, it was my great failing to hear the twang but not the solace. I hear it now, of course, in bits and pieces, and regrettably too late. It’s a feeling that’s sort of like a country song itself, with the circle unbroken and no storyteller ever so lost as to fall beyond redemption.
Country Music (eight episodes, about 16 hours) begins Sunday at 8 p.m. on WETA and MPT. Continues Sept. 16-18 and Sept. 22-25.