Ken Burns does ‘Country Music’ without historians on camera

This post is more or less copied from a thread I tweeted a few days ago.  But hey—it’s not plagiarism if you’re stealing from yourself, right?

I’ve caught a couple episodes of the new Ken Burns documentary Country Music.  It’s as absorbing as all his films.  But one thing irks me, and it’s the same thing I disliked about his Vietnam series: Historians are conspicuous in their absence, at least on camera.  The talking heads aren’t people who specialize in studying the history of music or popular culture.  Instead, they’re participants in that history, and their descendants.

Don’t get me wrong.  When a filmmaker’s subject matter is the stuff of living memory, they’d be crazy not to put the people who lived it on camera.  And the firsthand testimonies and anecdotes in Country Music have been fantastic.

But the sort of perspective and critical distance that historians can offer is important, too, and I think Country Music would be stronger for it.  That’s especially true of the early episodes.  This is where historians’ input would be most beneficial, and where commentary from the singers and songwriters who followed in the subjects’ footsteps is at its weakest.

For one thing, a lot of these practitioners are discussing people and events of which they have little firsthand knowledge.  It’s one thing to hear Jimmy Dickens tell how Hank Williams wrote “Hey, Good Lookin'” when Dickens was there to see it.  It’s another thing to hear a singer or songwriter talk about Roy Acuff’s music when their only firsthand experience of that music was listening to it on the radio.

In the early episodes, the singers and songwriters who appear on camera are talking about the titans of their own profession, the founding fathers and mothers of the genre.  And when you’re talking about your idols, it’s easy to extol rather than explain.  That’s what much of their commentary ultimately boils down to.

I don’t mean that the subjects come off as infallible.  Far from it.  We get extended treatments of their personal foibles and failures—Williams’s drinking, Johnny Cash’s troubled marriage, Bill Monroe’s longstanding grudge against Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt.  When it comes to these figures’ musical contributions, however, the on-air commentators don’t really try to make sense of their greatness. They just stand in awe of it.  You get the sense from the interviews that the talent of someone like Hank Williams defies explanation.  That’s problematic for a historical documentary, because one of the tasks of the historian is to, you know, explain things.

Maybe it’s an inevitable by-product of the way Burns is telling the story.  It’s a very people-driven approach. The series is ultimately about the individuals who gave birth to the music rather than the context out of which it developed.  But people and music are partly the products of their historical circumstances.  Some additional input by historians could shed more light on those circumstances, and perhaps help viewers get our heads around the figures who brought it to life.

Grand Ole Opry performers in 1944, from Billboard's 1944 Music Yearbook via Wikimedia Commons

The Grand Ole Opry in 1944, from Billboard via Wikimedia Commons

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