DVD Review: COUNTRY MUSIC (Ken Burns, PBS)

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by Dale Reynolds on July 28, 2020



Documentarian Ken Burns is one of the giants in his field. His many subjects (Jazz, Baseball, The Civil War, The Vietnam War) mark his maturity as an artist. His latest foray, Country Music, is planted right up there among his best work.

At sixteen hours (on eight discs), this exhaustive wrap-around of the type of music originally played and sung a hundred-or-so years ago right up to now — music that our ancestors would still recognize as their own — is explored in some depth and with telling insight.

Interviews with more than eighty individuals — singers, songwriters, singer/songwriters, critics and fans – explore how it began as homespun “mountain” songs (mainly from older Scots/Irish immigrants), than morphing into Appalachian and Southern tales of poverty, crime, and heartbreak — some silly as well as poignant, but deeply inlaid into the psyche of this American sub-culture

Burns’s series examines what has become a globally appreciated American art form, beginning with religious music, home-spun ballads and — influenced from African-Americans — the blues. Burns and Company have roped in dozens of contemporary folk such as Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Garth Brooks, Brenda Lee, and Ray Charles, among others, while delving deeply into the shortened lives of early practitioners: Jimmy Rogers, the Carter Family, Bob Wills, Hank Williams, and Patsy Cline.  All this in addition to profiling popular singers Uncle Dave Macon, Deford Bailey, and Patsy Montana, through Gene Autry, The Sons of the Pioneers, and Roy Acuff, Buck Owens, Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakum, Kris Kristofferson, Charley Pride, coupled with other current folk, thereby charting the music’s evolution.

Among others, the driving pertinent question here is “Just what is Country Music”; this requires demonstrating how it grew through radio, short-wave, television, and recordings, exploring the pioneers who created this unique 20th-century art form. Just as important, the documentary focuses as well on the lives of those who purchased it. The myriad songs here also instruct as to the influence that banjo strumming, guitar picking, and fiddle playing has had on today’s results.

In addition, the documentary contextualizes the subject matter in a history of America, especially that of Appalachia, the Deep South, and elsewhere. Watching it to its inevitable end confirms that every home should have this, along with all the public libraries, to be watched once a year for its high entertainment values, as well as its historical roots. Bless ‘em all for this wondrous fun.

The entire series was directed and produced by Ken Burns; written and produced by Dayton Duncan; and produced by Julie Dunfey.

Country Music
Ken Burns
PBS | 8 discs | 120 minutes (Episodes 1-6 and 8), 150 minutes (Episode 7)
released on September 17, 2019
available on Blu-ray and DVD at Amazon and PBS

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