Think you don't like country music? Ken Burns' new PBS opus will play your heart like a fiddle

Via:  john-russell  •  8 months ago  •  21 comments

Think you don't like country music? Ken Burns' new PBS opus will play your heart like a fiddle
Even so, hearing experts describing white men “borrowing” songs from poor black musician s and profiting from adapting black music to suit white audiences is disconcerting, implying that somehow the favor was returned on a massive scale.

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T

Think you don't like country music? Ken Burns' new PBS opus will play your heart like a fiddle

Burns' latest epic documentary may not go deep as some would like. But it feels welcoming to the country-averse

SEPTEMBER 13, 2019 11:00PM (UTC)

Amusic documentary’s success is not reliant on its ability to persuade or convert those unfamiliar with a subject into followers, or even to necessarily appease a genre’s detail-obsessed experts. Ken Burns’ “Country Music” shows that real win lies in a work’s ability to win the respect and understanding of skeptics and the uninitiated or, even better, overcome one’s deep seated aversion to an entire genre.

I say this as someone who for most of her life described her musical tastes as liking every kind of music but country and, nine times out of 10, receiving a nod of understanding in return.

That statement isn’t totally born out of urban snobbery and to be clear, pop culture stalwarts like Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline have long had a place in my heart.  And   the record breaking success of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,”   which recently ended its 19-week run at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, outlasting any other song in that position on the chart by three weeks, is   a vigorous acknowledgment of country’s black cultural roots .

But as a kid whose family took a lot of road trips, places where country music played on the radio were generally places where other people of color were scarce. The music was clearest when we’d walk into restaurants in unfamiliar towns, and the conversational din would suddenly drop away as our presence was noticed. I used to joke that country music was the soundtrack to me running for my life.

This is why Ken Burns’ epic film isn’t just historically illuminating. It’s a comfort. It melts barriers. Aficionados will notice its imperfections and would be right to call Burns on the series’ general light touch on incredibly discomfiting chapters in country music’s history, and America’s. But never before in my life would I have predicted I’d tear up while watching Dwight Yoakam describes the crushing poetry in the lyric of a song I might not have otherwise stopped to consider.

A portion of that must be attributed to Burns’ and screenwriter Dayton Duncan’s cinematic spell-weaving of melodic visuals and script, an established signature and a killer combo designed to play the heartstrings like the fiddles this sweeping special celebrates.

And what a broad sweep it is: “Country Music” airs in two-hour segments beginning Sunday at 8 p.m. on PBS member stations and airs at the same time through Wednesday, September 18. The second half of the series starts on Sunday, September 22 at 8 p.m. and concludes the following Wednesday in the same time slot.

As is standard for Burns, Duncan and fellow collaborator Julie Dunfey, the eight-part, 16-hour work is the product of eight years of research and production, and includes interviews with more than 100 people, including 17 who have since died, such as Merle Haggard.

The greats who are still alive — Parton, Nelson, and Yoakam, along with Marty Stewart, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Reba McEntire, Naomi and Wynonna Judd, Vince Gill, Charley Pride and others — share stories and bestow observations about the country’s unique magic that hit the ear and strike the heart with the sparkle of precious gems.

Like when Haggard describes the music he loves as being “about those things that we believe in, but we can’t see. Like dreams and songs and souls. They’re hanging around here, and different songwriters reach up at get ‘em.” Elegant simplicity, prose as poetry.

Not long afterward we’re treated to Parton singing a song from her childhood, a cappella, and for a fragment of space, time slows down.

These captured moments of magic, woven in with more than 3,200 photos, over 600 music cues and a wealth of archival footage, combine into varied quilt that comes alive in a way that invites everyone to lay hands on this distinctly American artform, especially those who historically were left with the impression that we were excluded from it.

That said, compared to Burns’ past works, this is not the fathoms-deep dive into the music’s history which devoted fans may be wanting. On the other hand, this may make “Country Music” more accessible to viewers like me who have little historical or emotional connection to this sector of popular culture. Sometimes the way into the museum is to skim the catalogue.

Burns’ lifelong chronicling of the American experience requires him to confront race and class divisions, and he’s been unafraid to place such explorations at forefront of past pieces such as 1994’s “Baseball,” 2005’s “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” or 2001’s “Jazz,” or 2017’s “The Vietnam War.”

He hasn’t always handled the topic flawlessly, such as when he featured the white veteran experience as the main voice of 2007’s “The War,” appending testimony from veterans of color at the end of each episode in response to criticisms pre-airing.

His approach in “Country Music” falls somewhere in between, and depending on what a person expects from Burns on that front, the film’s relative soft-shoe through the minstrel and black-face era in American music feels disconcerting.

Yet it’s also plain to see that the work’s intent is to call attention to the black roots of a music form Kris Kristofferson characterizes as white man’s soul music as a means of calling attention to the music as an example of the American ideal of blending merging art forms into unifying harmonies. Time and again, artists and experts refer to it as the music of poor folks, not white folks.

And as jazz luminary Wynton Marsalis points out in the series, the talents of black musicians like DeFord Bailey (the first musician to play on the Grand Ole Opry radio show), Ray Charles and Charley Pride (who is prominently featured in episode 5) were so undeniable that audiences accepted them in country music circles even when the country itself did not.

“There’s a truth in the music, and it’s too bad that we as a culture have not been able to address that truth,” Marsalis observes. “That’s the shame of it. The art tells more of the tale of us coming together.”

Over and over again the film traces the roots of a song from European folk music, black spirituals, and church musical arrangements to provide examples of how our blend of traditions make us great. And time and again, Burns and his collaborators cite moments when agenda-driven men have conspired to draw lines between poor whites and poor blacks, using music as a tool of cultural stratification.

Even so, hearing experts describing white men “borrowing” songs from poor black musician s and profiting from adapting black music to suit white audiences is disconcerting, implying that somehow the favor was returned on a massive scale.

Burns doesn’t explicitly call attention to that irony, although narrator Peter Coyote’s descriptions of the ostentatious displays of wealth by early country musicians like Jimmie Rodgers is its own commentary; there are no equivalently wealthy musicians of color cited as Rodgers’ contemporaries.

And yet it's not hard to be won over by enthusiastic characterizations from musicians such as Rhiannon Giddens, Darius Rucker and others of the form’s beginning in, as Giddens says, “this beautiful sort of American boiling pot.”

This is an idealized view of what might otherwise be called, angrily, cultural appropriation. Which it is. On the other hand, as Giddens and others who hold country music close to their hearts tell it, there’s a share of grace in realizing that, for example, a black church song called “When the World’s on Fire,” can travel out into the wider world by way of the Carter family writing secular lyrics around the melody and giving it new life as “Little Darling, Pal of Mine.”

This in turn, would be transformed by folk artist Woody Guthrie into the widely known folk anthem, “This Land is Your Land.”

“That’s America!” Giddens effuses, giving everyone permission to claim a piece of the music.


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1  seeder  JohnRussell    8 months ago

Although I have the show on right now and intend to watch some of the 16 hours, I really seeded this more to talk about the review of the show that is the seed. 

I am going to surprise some of you, but I am really annoyed by this article, which is a review of Ken Burns new documentary epic on country music.  The reviewer spends far too much of the space suggesting that more attention should have been given to black country music artists by Burns. 

Ken Burns does not give short shrift to blacks in his PBS series. Of course, the Civil War. Lot about slavery in that show. Then the series Baseball. That one had quite a bit on the Negro Leagues and black major league players. Then there was Jazz, a series that implied that whites dont even play jazz very well. 

I think a show on country music should mention african american artists according to their importance to the genre over 100 years, no more no less. As far as I can see country music is almost all white. If thats what it is , thats what it is. Dont complain about it . If you dont like that then watch something else. 

1.1  cjcold  replied to  JohnRussell @1    8 months ago

Grew up playing Western tunes in bands before C&W and rock came about. Still sit in with bands that can play Cool Water or the Streets of Laredo.

Don't get me wrong. Played in a few rock power trios in my day.

1.1.1  seeder  JohnRussell  replied to  cjcold @1.1    8 months ago


1.2  Tacos!  replied to  JohnRussell @1    8 months ago

Yeah, I think that's fair. It seems like this reviewer is looking for a little sensitivity cred. This, for example, 

hearing experts describing white men “borrowing” songs from poor black musicians and profiting from adapting black music to suit white audiences is disconcerting

That's an idea that just doesn't hold up under scrutiny. I'm not sure if he's trying to suggest some level of cultural appropriation or straight up copyright violation, but neither idea is applicable.

Anyone who studies music history or tries to write something themselves understands that we get influences from all over. White musicians get ideas from black musicians, and - like it or not - they got ideas from white musicians themselves. This still goes on.

As for profit, in the early days, hardly anyone was actually making much of a living as a country musician. It's not like white early country musicians were taking bread from black tables. And any market - even a music market - requires both producers and consumers. If you're talking country music, you can't help it. You're going to be hitting largely white artists and audiences.

Even though we are a great melting pot/salad bowl, the country has been mostly white for most of its history. That's evolving obviously, but for now, in a study of most types of American history, you're going to run into a bunch of white people.

Burns has done a very good job in the past discussing African American history where it was appropriate to do so. Certainly some mention will be warranted here with country music, but it has largely been a white cultural phenomenon. 

2  seeder  JohnRussell    8 months ago

The younger generations of my extended family , my nieces and nephews and their children (the older of which are teenagers now) all like country music. This is a little unusual because they live in Chicago and are all urban Irish. But they play country on their devices all the time and on Alexa and go to Kenny Chesney and Miranda Lambert and Keith Urban shows. 

I have thought about this and I think I know why young white people in Chicago go for country music. 

In 2019 (and for some years now) pop music sucks.  The melodies suck, the lyrics suck, and it is Arrianna Grande etc.  Not exactly Brian Wilson or Paul McCartney. 

Country music has melody and singalong lyrics. It has replaced pop music which has gone to rap and dance vibes and away from melody. 

2.1  sandy-2021492  replied to  JohnRussell @2    8 months ago

As far as the urban Irish thing, I think you can often hear some Gaelic influence in country music, not so much in modern country music, but in traditional music.  So if they've been exposed to a lot of Irish folk music, country music might feel like home.

And country music tells a story, which is something folk music also does, and which pop music today has forgotten.

2.1.1  seeder  JohnRussell  replied to  sandy-2021492 @2.1    8 months ago

When Irish singers come to work in the United States they often add country music songs to their repertoire. 

3  seeder  JohnRussell    8 months ago

One of my favorite country songs

Buzz of the Orient
4  Buzz of the Orient    8 months ago

I read the seed and your critique of it, and I guess I agree with you on your comments.  I don't expect to have the opportunity to view the series.   Although the music that played the biggest part of my life was folk music, I feel it did lean somewhat towards country music as being a kind of typical American folk music itself. 

By the way, what song did you post as one of your favourites - I might be able to find it here.

What I really want to thank you for is your posting a documentary by Ken Burns.  By doing some searching of the sites here I found ones on the civil war, and especially baseball that are going to give me many many hours of enjoyable watching.

4.1  seeder  JohnRussell  replied to  Buzz of the Orient @4    8 months ago

The Wonder Of You by Elvis Presley . Some might not see it as a country song, but it is and was on the country music charts for many weeks. 

Another country ballad 

There's Always Me -Ray Price

5  seeder  JohnRussell    8 months ago

Usually considered one of the greatest country songs

I WALK THE LINE - Johnny Cash

5.1  sandy-2021492  replied to  JohnRussell @5    8 months ago

I've heard Jason Aldean call himself "The Man in Black", and all I can think is "sit down and shut up.  You ain't no Johhny Cash."

Buzz of the Orient
6  Buzz of the Orient    8 months ago

Okay, the Presley song I've got here, but although lots of songs by Ray Price, I don't have "There's Always Me".  Lots of Johnny Cash including I Walk the Line.

6.1  seeder  JohnRussell  replied to  Buzz of the Orient @6    8 months ago

" There's Always Me " is a 1961 song by  Elvis Presley  originally on the album  Something for Everybody . The song was also released as a single in 1967.

Country music  icons  Jim Reeves Eddy Arnold , and  Ray Price  have covered the song.

[5]   Dickie Rock  and  The Miami Showband , who reached no. 1 on the Irish charts in 1963 [6

6.2  seeder  JohnRussell  replied to  Buzz of the Orient @6    8 months ago
but although lots of songs by Ray Price, I don't have "There's Always Me". 

I'll see if I can put it on a Newstalkers audio

6.3  seeder  JohnRussell  replied to  Buzz of the Orient @6    8 months ago

Buzz of the Orient
6.3.1  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  JohnRussell @6.3    8 months ago

That worked fine, thanks John.

7  MrFrost    8 months ago
Think You Don't Like Country Music?

I don't think I don't like country music, I KNOW I don't like country music. The only country music I will listen to is Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn...and even that in small doses. 

Raven Wing
8  Raven Wing    8 months ago

I like country music. Older songs as well as the newer songs.

My very favorite is "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd

Raven....shaking her booty all around the room.......

9  Kathleen    8 months ago

I have never been a big fan of country music. My parents never cared for it either. My dad played in a band and did play some Johnny Cash songs. I remember them playing I Walk the Line. He liked Dixieland.   The only country that I have ever listened to rarely is Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and a little instrumental bluegrass. When they start singing, I shut it off. When I was growing up, it was rock, classical, Dixieland, jazz and movie soundtracks.  Hardly any country. On the other hand, my in-laws listened to country. My husband hates it except for the ones I listen to.


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