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Ken Burns' Country Music Series is Thought-Provoking, Joyful

In RogerEbert.com’s list of the best TV shows of 2017, managing editor Brian Tallerico asked: “Have we started to take Ken Burns for granted?” That was written in regard to “The Vietnam War,” one of Burns’s finest films to date, a predictably sprawling, yet sharp and deliberate, look at a political quagmire that was also a personal tragedy for millions. That’s the kind of thing you can do when you commit to years of research, hundreds of hours of interviews, and a final product that’s 16.5 hours long. It would be a mistake to look at the title of the follow-up to “The Vietnam War” from Burns and his team and assume the results will be less substantial, illuminating, and engrossing—first, because Ken Burns doesn’t do fluff, and second, because as always, Burns and team (notably writer Dayton Duncan) find the threads that connect their subject to the broader world, the future still to come, and dare I say, the things that define humanity. Like the songs that weave through nearly every moment of its runtime, the grace, simplicity, and sincerity of “Country Music” have a way of heightening its epic underpinnings. 

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That’s not to say that the documentary is inherently somber. Oh, there’s darkness, to be sure—the deaths of the artists, enduring injustice, senseless loss, the cost of addiction, tragedy on a national and global scale—but the joy of making music seeps through. It’s there in the images Burns moves across with his familiar pan and zoom, and in the recordings themselves (just try watching a young Dolly Parton belt and yodel her way through Jimmie Rodgers’s “Mule Skinner Blues” without smiling.) But what makes “Country Music” most affecting is its interviewees, each a historian of the form, though only one proper historian appears on screen. It’s not necessary to have any more, when Marty Stuart, Willie Nelson, Rosanne Cash, Vince Gill, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Charley Pride, Parton herself, and many others—each an absolute expert on the tradition and history of the music they live and breathe—are there to tell its story. Better still: Sometimes, right there in the interview room, they sing. 

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In eight episodes (another 16.5 hours), “Country Music” follows the songs, the artists, and the world that was then called “hillbilly music”—folk songs from Europe, hymns, spirituals, the blues—through 1996, ending with the towering success of Garth Brooks, the rise of the New Traditionalists, and Johnny Cash’s collaborations with Rick Rubin. So, no, there’s no segment of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” But what Burns makes clear in his film is that country music’s two great stories are both linked and contradictory: One, it will always go back to its roots; Two, it will never cease to change. The tension between those two stories runs throughout the series, not just in terms of what the music should sound like and how it should be played, but who should be allowed to play it, where it should happen, and what it should sound like.

That means that “Old Town Road” does, in a way, get an airing. Burns and Duncan don’t gloss over the racism and misogyny present throughout country music’s history—something that would be unavoidable, as both are a major part of American history as well. Nor do they brush over the complexities and contradictions found throughout. In the first episode, we’re introduced to virtuosic harmonica player DeFord Bailey, one of the inaugural members of the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. Burns and Duncan return to his story from time to time—his struggle to tour, thanks to the Jim Crow laws; the support of his fellow artists; his unceremonious and even cruel dismissal when the Opry had no more use for him—one of several stories that acknowledge the industry’s willingness to embrace and respect talent from wherever it comes, while also acknowledging the racism and hostility projected by insiders and outsiders alike. It also explores the tradition of passing songs along from person to person, while subtly raising the question of when tradition becomes theft and appropriation. It’s complex, subtle, thought-provoking stuff, resistant to easy answers (except of course for the easiest answers, such as whether or not racism and misogyny are bad for humanity.) 

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While issues of gender and race, the latter in particular, are treated by Duncan and Burns with particular thought and care, the pair are equally as unwilling to go the easy route when tracing the lives of the genre’s biggest stars. Their approach is kind, but unsparing, a balance achieved by telling the stories of these people honestly, warts and all, from a place of compassion. Addiction in particular is addressed with a kind of gentle honesty, whether addressing the chaotic spending of the innovative Jimmie Rodgers, the tragic story of Hank Williams, or Cash’s well-documented struggles with drug use prior to his marriage to June Carter. Nor do those stories get wrapped up in a pretty bow. Instead, “Country Music” shows how those days ripple forward throughout time; years after Cash got sober and hours and hours after the series began, Rosanne Cash recounts a day when the anger and wounds of her childhood nearly kept her adult self from joining her father on stage to sing a song.

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It’s like that throughout the series: If Burns adds a thread to the tapestry, you can be sure to see it resurface later, one of many strands tugged carefully through. And with nothing is that more true than the music. The purest illustration of what Burns and Duncan assert—that country music is an art form built from tradition and with innovation, both cyclical and progressive—can be found in the way that songs return, again and again. Sometimes it’s the same version, sometimes a new artist steps up; Would anyone argue that hearing multiple versions of “Crazy” and “I’ll Fly Away” is a bad thing? 

Yet as invaluable as those recordings are, it’s the odd moments of an interview subject singing live that most define “Country Music.” Early in the first episode, singer Betty Johnson breaks into “I’ll Fly Away” with a sort of casual energy—she’s just illustrating a point, skates over some lyrics, no big deal. Then she gets to the chorus and her arms shoot out, as though the song burst through her torso into every part of her body. She throws her head band and sings, sings, her joy evident in just the working of her throat. Then it ends, and instantly, she’s back to explaining the power and beauty of the song with unbridled enthusiasm. She acts as though such an explanation is needed after watching that chorus come tearing out of her. “Country Music” has many strengths, but it is the obvious love and respect the filmmakers feel for the music and those who bring it into the world that most distinguishes the series. There’s a lot of ground to cover, but they can always spare a few moments for Betty Johnson singing with her whole body. Perhaps they recognize there is no clearer way of supporting the most famous attempt at defining country music that’s ever been made: They just have to capture three chords and the truth.

Complete series screened for review.

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