I had a tear in my beer as I watched the conclusion of the Country Music documentary series on PBS last week. My Achy-breaky heart really went out to the creator and director of the series because it was just so hard to bear. I experienced a moment of profound empathy, and thought “damn, it must really suck to be Ken Burns.” But the moment was fleeting, and then it was gone. Burns will be back next year, or the year after, with another overblown, blockbuster documentary series that will make big bank for him and PBS.
Yet, I can’t help but think of Burns as a tragic figure, forever trying to recapture that moment of triumph almost 30 years ago, when he was a 37-year-old wunderkind, and his nine-part series The Civil War redefined the television documentary genre, consolidated PBS as an institution of national importance, and made Burns a household name. Think of it: how many full-time documentarians can you actually name?
The Civil War was groundbreaking television when it aired in 1990. It attracted 39 million viewers, making it PBS’s most-viewed-series-ever, and won two Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, Producer of the Year Award from the Producers Guild of America, a People’s Choice Award, the Peabody Award, and whole trophy-case of other prizes. It touched off a vogue for all things Blue-and-Grey in the 1990s, from the endless Civil War programming on the History Channel and A&E, to a litany of blockbuster films, from Gettysburg in 1993, and Ride with the Devil in 1999, to Gods and Generals and Cold Mountain in 2003.
The series set a high technical standard for historical documentary television, and either introduced or refined innovative techniques that brought dynamism to static photographs and used the dramatic reading of historical accounts by actors to such great effect that its has now become standard practice in the genre. The voice of Sam Waterston, who had also played the lead in the 1988 NBC miniseries Lincoln, has become so indelibly the voice of the great president that you can hear Daniel Day Lewis in the movie Lincoln, and Benjamin Walker in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, both from 2012, modeling their performances on its cadences.
Most importantly it gave Burns, who up to that point had directed some mildly-interesting single-episode documentaries for American Experience, a winning formula for lavish, long-form, historical television. Indeed, every Burns-directed series for PBS is instantly recognizable, from the title graphics, to liberal use of pan-and-zoom effects on photographs, to Peter Coyote’s voice (he has narrated virtually all of Burns’ productions since The Civil War), to the pacing – stately in The Civil War, and ponderous in virtually everything else since.
Burns takes complex, sweeping historical narratives, polishes, and simplifies them to tell straighforward, rigidly chronological feel-good stories that celebrate American exceptionalism. He avoids unpleasantness at all costs, even when the unpleasantness is, indeed, the very substance of his story. The Civil War infamously made a star of novelist and popular historian Shelby Foote, whose honeyed southern cadences smoothed out the horror of slavery, exculpated brutal racists like Nathan Bedford Forrest and, more than any commentator since the 1950s, lent a veneer of historical legitimacy to the myth of “the Lost Cause.” In Burns’ telling, Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, and the rest were just genteel, honorable men fighting for what they believed in, and not racist terrorists.
The motto of virtually every Burns historical epic, after all, is “hey, we’re all Americans here!”
And he manages to get away with it because it does feel good. By focusing on individuals and their personal stories, rather that processes, social and cultural structures, and regimes of power, Burns is able to tell inspiring stories of how Americans overcame obstacles without having to discuss how those obstacles got there in the first place. Near the end of The Vietnam War, the former US Army intelligence officer Stuart Herrington, speaking for a generation of American men, muses “was it worth it?” Burns leaves the question open, as the final episode concludes to the strains of The Beatles’ “Let it Be,” but only because the suffering and deaths of millions of Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers and civilians, men, women, and children don’t really enter into his analysis.
Burns knows what he likes, and this, more than anything, frames his version of history. He loves America. He prefers stories of personal triumph to discussions of collective responsibility. He worships the kind of good, old-fashioned, simple, honest, authenticity celebrated by Frank Capra in films like Meet John Doe and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Like Capra, he mistrusts sophistication – thus, the last episode of Jazz, featuring bebop, modern jazz, and free jazz, raced through 40 years of musical history after Burns devoted five episodes to the career of Louis Armstrong. Superficially, country music would seem to be perfect for the Burns treatment.
Indeed, as slow moving as it is – and it is glacial at some points – Country Music is actually pretty good television. To be honest, it would be hard for a series featuring the music of Jimmie Rogers, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, and Merle Haggard to be anything but good television; even those Time Life Classic Country infomercials from the 1990s featuring 15-second clips of Johnny Cash and the Carter Family made for pretty decent television.
The series has its moments – many, in fact, given its almost 15-hour running time – and it is full of the kind of details about both the famous and the obscure that 21st century celebrity culture thrives upon. We learn of Sara and A.P. Carter’s attenuated marriage, quiet divorce, and her love for Coy Bayes; we learn that it was songwriter Roger Miller who found the wreckage of the crash that killed Patsy Cline, Hankshaw Hawkins, and two others in March 1963.
The problem is that, while Country Music is mostly entertaining, it is plagued by all of the flaws of the Ken Burns formula. It claims, for example, to be a definitive televisual history of one of America’s essential musical genres, yet it fails at actually being history. As in The War, Baseball, and Jazz, Burns’ approach is celebratory, rather than analytical. Two years ago, Burns and his collaborator Lynn Novick said that they wanted The Vietnam War to promote healing in America, and that kind of spirit is evident throughout Country Music.
This is a series about what “brings Americans together” that largely chooses to ignore the centrifugal forces which have been pulling it apart from the very beginning. It calls upon a vast array of voices, from country veterans like Jean Sheppard, Charley Pride, and Marty Stuart, to Rhiannon Giddens and, somewhat inexplicably, Wynton Marsalis, to produce a narrative of how country music is a kind of melting pot of all of the musical traditions of a diverse American community. It does this, however, by minimizing the very real, and often cruel divisions of American history.
For example, Burns manages to nod somberly at the centrality of racism and segregation to the white, southern culture in which country music is embedded without ever really addressing it. This is, after all, a narrative of personalities and particularities, not of processes and systemic discrimination and oppression. So Burns counterbalances the incidents of bigotry with the assertion that country music owes a great deal to the blues, that Johnny Cash was an advocate for indigenous rights, and that the African American harmonica star DeFord Bailey toured the south with his friend Bill Monroe.
The closest that Burns ever gets to addressing systemic racism comes when he discusses Pride’s unexpected rise to Nashville celebrity in the 1960s and 1970s, and Bailey’s tragic dismissal from the Grand Ole Opry in 1941. Country Music notes that Bailey was a victim of a licensing war between ASCAP and BMI, but never mentions why the only casualty was also the only Black performer at the Grand Ole Opry. Moreover, Burns shows little interest in exploring what emotional price Bailey paid to be the only African American on stage with hundreds of white performers in the segregated south at a time of widespread lynchings and cross-burnings.
That is the kind of thing that a historian would do, of course, but Burns is no historian, and Country Music is not history. Rather, he is a filmmaker, an entertainer who wants to gather in all of the characters and personalities who make up the country music, from Nashville to Bakersfield – the fiddlers and torch singers, the promoters and the fans – and give them all a warm, American hug. The racism, the exploited labor, the misogyny, drug abuse and violence is noted in passing and then forgotten, all in order to tell a story of how Americans can come together – and come together again – to create something great and unique. Everything else is a footnote.
Country Music is good, diverting television, but after eight nights, it felt like a missed opportunity. There have been some fine studies that have used rural American music as a door to explore something deep and subterranean in American culture. Greil Marcus’ The Old Weird America confronted the uncanny and Pamela Grundy’s work on the “Crazy Barn Dance” on WBT in Charlotte, NC, excavated the complex intersections of country music, capitalism, celebrity, and respectability in the Great Depression-era south.
Burns, however, is not interested in this kind of complexity. He is, at heart a liberal patriot eager to paper-over the darker elements of American history in order to present a slick, comforting, and eminently entertaining myth that resonates deeply with his viewers. And that emotional resonance virtually guarantees Country Music’s traction in American culture. Like the hagiography of The Civil War before it, Country Music will have the last word, sealing off possibilities of future explorations, and becoming a kind of “official history.” And that is the biggest tragedy of all.