The MVP of Ken Burns: Country Music thus far—such that an eight-part, 16-plus-hour, 101-interview PBS documentary behemoth can be said to have a single MVP—is Merle Haggard, who died in 2016 and will live forever, here and everywhere. Specifically, it’s the radiant and goofy smile that blazes across Haggard’s face at regular intervals. Bonus points if he sings on camera, too, which will for sure transfer that radiant and goofy smile to your face too and cause you to momentarily forget all about the whole 16-plus-hour thing.
“It’s just good!” Haggard declares, after crooning a scrap of the 1930 Jimmie Rodgers classic “Mule Skinner Blues,” capping it with a boisterous laugh. “I think that’s the best she ever sung!” he likewise enthuses several hours later, after belting out Loretta Lynn’s 1960 debut single “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl.” (The notion of Loretta Lynn peaking with her first single, when the Hag expresses it, somehow doesn’t sound like a neg.) He recounts, as you figure he will, his memory of Johnny Cash’s famous show at San Quentin State Prison on New Year’s Day 1959, which Haggard infamously enjoyed in person, as an inmate. But he’s even more ferocious in his praise for pre- and post-WWII Western swing titans Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys: “If somebody don’t like Wills, he’s immediately under suspicion with me.” Big smile. The biggest. He’s the best.
One time, at 10 or 11 years old, Haggard snuck out of his house and biked five miles to a Wills gig at Bakersfield, California’s iconic Beardsley Ballroom, arriving just in time to witness a righteous, sailor-driven fistfight in the parking lot. “You used to have some really good brawls at them country dances,” he observes, wistfully. “Nobody thought anything about it.” Though the effect on young Hag was, of course, profound: “It was an intriguing moment for me.”
Country Music is dense with intriguing moments, with silly asides and tragic flourishes, with grandiose sociopolitical theories and feather-light flexes of pure star power, with slow pans over sepia-toned photographs and sonorous proclamations from series narrator Peter Coyote, who is, indeed, named Peter Coyote. Anybody singing anything on camera is an instant highlight, whether it’s Dolly Parton tearing through the old folk song “Barbara Allen” or Dwight Yoakam crooning and then rhapsodizing Hank Williams’s “Lovesick Blues.” (“There’s a sentimental heartache to that song, but yet there’s still a raw-edged, kind of raucous, mud-in-your-eye, flipping-your-finger-at-the-world-because-you-feel-this-bad side of it,” Yoakam explains, and then croons a little more, and yeah, geez, he’s got a point.)
As a work of country music scholarship, Country Music is virtually without equal in terms of scope and size and hard-nosed but heartwarming sincerity. It’s a lot to absorb; there are far less foreboding gateway drugs. But it’s worth trying to absorb it all anyway, so long as you’re cool with failing.
The Ken Burns documentary experience—as he’s applied it to such American institutions as The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), Prohibition (2011), and The Vietnam War (2017)—is itself an American institution at this point, thorough to the point of exhaustion, vibrant even at its stuffiest, winsome in its warm embrace of its own clichés. Yes, the fake movie theater Burns constructs to screen a clip from a 1930s Gene Autry “singing cowboy” flick is a little dorky, as are the glass-breaking sound effects as Charlie Daniels describes postwar honky-tonk nightclubs as “skull orchards,” as is the United States map Burns deploys to convey the gargantuan 50,000-watt radio signal of Nashville’s own WSM, home of the fabled Grand Ole Opry. But country music itself knows a thing or two about weaponizing silliness and folksiness, about flaunting its weaknesses with enough charisma to recast them as strengths.
This is Burns’s second major musical project after 2001’s similarly gargantuan Jazz, which caught some heat less for what it valorized than what it dismissed. (Most indulgently, Branford Marsalis dismissed free-jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor as “self-indulgent bullshit.”) The first half of Country Music—which burns off its fourth episode Wednesday night, and returns Sunday to start plowing through the remaining four, one nearly two-hour installment per night—brooks no such hostility, and seems determined to avoid any intra-Nashville warfare. The series wraps up in the mid-’90s, conveniently allowing Burns to avoid addressing both the stupendous commercial rise and disheartening political fall of the Dixie Chicks, which is, tragically, the genre’s single most significant development of the past 20 years, an actual instance of “cancel culture” chilling and risible enough to make any self-pitying 2019 comedian spontaneously combust.
What Country Music offers instead, in terms of provocation, is the fairly aggressive thesis that country music was (a) a nostalgia-obsessed, old-timey proposition from day one, and (b) never solely the province of the white working class, however angrily the white working class might insist otherwise. Watching this series straight through, in chronological order, is rewarding but not a little daunting: After a star-studded introductory flourish—Merle! Dolly! Garth Brooks! Charley Pride! Kris Kristofferson!—the first episode, “The Rub,” settles into its time period (logged as “Beginnings — 1933”) and its central aim (tracing the twin histories of the banjo and the fiddle). Crucial stars do quickly emerge, namely Mississippi deity and yodeling brakeman Jimmie Rodgers and the stoic but revolutionary Carter Family, who are hailed by magnificently coiffed series oracle Marty Stuart as “the First Family of Country Music.” But the true beginning of the tale, as you might imagine, is far from the flashiest or easiest entry point.
You’ve got options, these days, in terms of immersing yourself in country music history. In 2017, the first season of Mike Judge’s animated Cinemax series Tales From the Tour Bus took a frivolous but reverent approach to the likes of George Jones and Waylon Jennings. Better yet, Cocaine & Rhinestones, Tyler Mahan Coe’s occasionally lurid and inevitably fascinating podcast about 20th-century country, debuted that same year and specializes in deep dives that won’t scorch your lungs. (He devoted three lengthy episodes to just one song, Jeannie C. Riley’s 1968 smash “Harper Valley PTA,” but kicks off the third and last installment with a brisk and witty pocket history of all the initially reviled new sounds that allegedly “ruined country radio.”)
Ken Burns’s Country Music, however, has no qualms about chucking you in the deep end and letting you thrash about. If you’re newer to the genre, it almost makes sense to start with the fourth episode (“I Can’t Stop Loving You,” spanning 1953 to 1963) and go backward. This way you immediately marinate in the raw charisma of the likes of Johnny Cash (“I literally think they sound like punk rock records—I mean that as the highest compliment,” raves Elvis Costello of the Sun Records era) and Patsy Cline (“I just can’t believe there’s somebody out there who can write a song about how you feel when they don’t even know you,” marvels singer-songwriter Jeannie Seely, recalling her initial exposure to “Crazy”). The episode builds to the wrenching tragedy of the 1963 plane crash that killed Cline, fellow star Hawkshaw Hawkins, and two others, but it also offers the earth-shaking triumph that was Ray Charles’s 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, which generated the megahit “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and further legitimized the genre. (“Ray did more for country music than any one man had ever done,” is how none other than Willie Nelson puts it. You argue with him.)
That’s part of the provocation, of course: As Country Music progresses from Jimmie Rodgers to the Carter Family to Gene Autry and Bob Wills’s ascents during the Great Depression to Bill Monroe and the tumultuous birth of bluegrass to the equally triumphant and wrenching tale of Hank Williams, Burns and series writer Dayton Duncan are especially attuned to the major figures country music history suspiciously overlooks. “African American style was embedded in country music from the very beginning of its commercial history,” says the historian Bill C. Malone. “You can’t conceive of this music existing without this African American infusion. But as the music developed professionally, too often African Americans were forgotten.”
Carter Family patriarch A.P. Carter traveled the South looking for new material to record with the invaluable help of fellow musician and songcatcher Lesley Riddle. A young Hank Williams found a mentor in Alabama bluesman Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne. (“All the music training I ever had was from him,” Williams once said.) The fiddler Arnold Shultz gave Bill Monroe an early break and an equally vital education. In Memphis, a young Johnny Cash befriended the banjo player Gus Cannon and spent a lot of time on Cannon’s front porch. This is not unknown history, exactly, but Country Music spends a significant amount of its already significant running time making these connections plain and further exploding any remaining myths about who created this music, and for that matter, just as pointedly, who this music is for.
Forward-thinking as country music can be, it’s also the perfect environment for anyone with a profound urge to look backward. “Country music is full of songs about the little old log cabin that people have never lived in, the old country church that people have never attended,” Malone says in the first episode. “But it spoke for a lot of people who were being forgotten. Or felt they were being forgotten.” The “felt they were being forgotten” part is where the bomb-throwing happens; “Country music’s staple, above all, is nostalgia, just a hearkening back to the older way of life, either real or imagined,” Malone adds, and same deal with “real or imagined.” Country Music is intent on giving you a full history in both the chronological and sociopolitical respects, and the result, in time-honored Ken Burns fashion, is overwhelming by design. But the stars, from a grinning and immortal Merle Haggard on down, will pull you in, and all the lesser-sung heroes who enriched those stars will keep you from falling back out.