Ken Burns’s ‘Country Music’ Traces the Genre’s Victories, and Reveals Its Blind Spots

Ken Burns’s ‘Country Music’ Traces the Genre’s Victories, and Reveals Its Blind Spots

Critic’s Notebook

The eight-part, 16-hour documentary tells the genre’s story, from Appalachia to arenas.

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CreditCreditLes Leverett Collections

Tell a lie long enough and it begins to smell like the truth. Tell it even longer and it becomes part of history.

Throughout “Country Music,” the new omnibus genre documentary from Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan, there are moments of tension between the stories Nashville likes to tell about itself — some true, some less so — and the way things actually were.

And while from a distance, this doggedly thorough eight-part, 16-hour series — which begins Sunday on PBS — hews to the genre’s party line, viewed up close it reveals the ruptures laid out in plain sight.

Anxiety about race has been a country music constant for decades, right up through this year’s Lil Nas X kerfuffle. In positioning country music as, essentially, the music of the white rural working class, Nashville streamlined — make that steamrollered — the genre’s roots, and the ways it has always been engaged in wide-ranging cultural dialogue.

But right at the beginning of “Country Music” is an acknowledgment that slave songs formed part of early country’s raw material. And then a reminder that the banjo has its roots in West African stringed gourd instruments. The series covers how A.P. Carter, a founder of the Carter Family, traveled with Lesley Riddle, a black man, to find and write down songs throughout Appalachia. And it explores how Hank Williams’s mentor was Rufus Payne, a black blues musician.

It goes on and on, tracing an inconvenient history for a genre that has generally been inhospitable to black performers, regardless of the successes of Charley Pride, Darius Rucker or DeFord Bailey, the first black performer on the Grand Ole Opry. Over and again, “Country Music” lays bare what is too often overlooked: that country music never evolved in isolation.

Each episode of this documentary tackles a different time period, from the first Fiddlin’ John Carson recordings in the 1920s up through the pop ascent of Garth Brooks in the 1990s. Burns has used this multi-episode approach on other American institutions and turning-point historical events: “The Civil War,” “The Vietnam War” and “Jazz.” These are subjects that merit rigor and also patience — hence the films’ length. But country music, especially, demands an approach that blends reverence and skepticism, because so often its story is one in which those in control try to squelch counternarratives while never breaking a warm smile.

“Country Music” rolls its eyes at the tension between the genre imagining itself as an unvarnished platform for America’s rural storytelling and being an extremely marketable racket where people from all parts of the country, from all class levels, do a bit of cosplay.

Minnie Pearl, from “Hee Haw,” came from a wealthy family and lived in a stately home next to the governor’s mansion. Nudie Cohn, the tailor whose vividly embroidered suits became country superstar must-haves in the 1960s and beyond, was born Nuta Kotlyarenko in Kiev, and worked out of a shop in Hollywood. The number of life insurance advertisements sprinkled throughout the photos in the early episodes serve as a reminder of just how contingent the spread of country music was on its sponsors. One salesman recalled determining which homes were tuning in to the Grand Ole Opry on the weekend, and then going to try to sell them insurance on Monday morning.

The only constant in this film is Nashville’s repeated efforts to fend off new ideas like a body rejecting an organ transplant. Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Charlie Pride, Hank Williams Jr. — they’re all genre icons who first met resistance because of their desire to make music different from the norm of their day, then ended up establishing new norms.

Those moments pockmark an otherwise straightforward and oft-told story about country music’s birth and growth: The 1927 Bristol Sessions, in which Ralph Peer first recorded the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and several others; the rapid climb and accelerated demise of Hank Williams; the feminist potency of Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton; the roller coaster life of Johnny Cash; the importance of bluegrass, countrypolitan, outlaw country, Southern rock and pop country.

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CreditCarter Family Museum, Rita Forrester/PBS

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CreditAmy Kurland

It’s a taut narrative, and by design incomplete — 16 hours is enough time to tell a long story, but not always a deep one. But given that this history is being painted with broad strokes, it’s especially crucial that attention is drawn to the inventions and elisions that hover over each era of the music.

Throughout the film are reminders that in Nashville, institutional memory is almost comically short. Concern about the Olivia Newton-John invasion of country music in the mid-1970s discussed in the film felt eerily reminiscent of the anxiety induced by the almost yearlong run at the top of the Billboard hot country songs chart by the pop singer Bebe Rexha, for her collaboration with Florida Georgia Line. The current battle for women performers to be heard and promoted is echoed around once per decade in the documentary. And time and again, those who appear to be rebels — Waylon Jennings, Haggard, Buck Owens — are in fact the ones most interested in the genre’s traditions, agitating against a company town that specializes in smoothing out rough edges, a phenomenon that echoes the recent frictions felt by artists like Kacey Musgraves and Sturgill Simpson.

“Country Music” moves with the signature even-keel tempo of other Burns documentaries, which makes the handful of disruptive moments — some lighthearted, some sad — all the more striking: Mel Tillis describing the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the 1960s by wisecracking, “You could churn butter on that damn thing”; anything that comes out of the mouth of the journalist and gadfly Hazel Smith, who, when she was the office manager for the Hillbilly Central studio where Jennings and others recorded, coined the phrase “outlaw music.”

At one poignant moment, Dwight Yoakam attempts to sing Haggard’s “Holding Things Together,” about a father raising his children after his wife has left him. Yoakam makes it through the first line, then gathers himself for a full 12 seconds before managing to get out the next one.

The raw pulse of songs like that — blissfully, there is ample music in this documentary — is grounding, a nod to the triumph of a genre that often steps on its own foot on the path to clarity. But rather than simply celebrate those creative peaks, “Country Music” makes it plain that the story of the genre is merely a pocket version of the story of the American musical experiment writ large: Everyone trying on poses and costumes, borrowing wildly at every turn, pointing fingers at others trying similar things, and, as soon as things become complacent, agitating for something new.

Jon Caramanica is a pop music critic for The Times and the host of the Popcast. He also writes the men’s Critical Shopper column for Styles. He previously worked for Vibe magazine, and has written for the Village Voice, Spin, XXL and more. @joncaramanica

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