Biggest Oversights in the Ken Burns Country Music Documentary

The Ken Burns Country Music documentary that aired on PBS in mid September was a supreme gift to true country music fans and those who would become one over the 8 episodes, and 16 1/2 hours of the film. But understandably with an undertaking so vast as trying to tackle an entire genre of music, there were multiple artists that were not highlighted that arguably should have been.

Country fans who are up in arms over their favorite artists being “snubbed” need to appreciate that it would be difficult to impossible to highlight every entertainer, and even if the film had included 20 more artist profiles, there would be 20 more artists people would complain got overlooked. In hindsight, perhaps it would have taken 10 episodes instead of 8 to do the subject matter justice, but you can’t include everything, and you have to make sure what you produce is compelling to the audience. As Ken Burns and screenwriter Dayton Duncan have said, it was one of their biggest concerns that not enough stuff was highlighted, but they wanted to make sure the film came across not as a dry history work, but as something that tells the overarching story of country music, which they accomplished with flying colors.

Also worth noting is the final episode was meant to be more of a summation as opposed to a deep dive into the 80’s era. Just like Ken Burns did with his baseball film, the Country Music documentary was made opened ended, meaning it could be added to in the future. It is a living work, just like the story of country music itself. So for those disappointed artists like George Strait didn’t get more air time, or that the current era wasn’t included, that may be forthcoming in future installments, and is not entirely fair to get hung up over, at least not yet. It’s also important to not just dwell on who was forgotten, but who was included. The Maddox Brothers & Rose, Emmloyou Harris, and others that had major contributions to country, but sometimes get left out of top tier consideration in country history, were given their proper due.

But artists not featured from earlier eras are unlikely to receive more attention in the future. So not as a rebuke of the work of the documentary, but as an addendum for those who watched and might want to dig deeper into the history of country through some of its more important personalities not represented well in the film, here are some of the Country Music film’s biggest oversights.


Jim Reeves

The story of the tragic plane crash that killed country star Patsy Cline, along with Hawkshaw Hawkins, and Cowboy Copas on March 5th, 1963 was one of the centerpieces of the Ken Burns documentary, as was her career that was very significant to country as Patsy became one of the first artists to cross over to pop, and help define the early “Nashville Sound” era.

But as country music historians will argue, at the time, Jim Reeves was just as significant, as was his plane crash that occurred just over a year later in 1964, ending his career tragically. The Country Music Hall of Famer’s career track was eerily similar to Patsy’s, where he was known for a more polished sound, and died right as his career was taking off. Unlike Patsy, many recordings from Reeves were still in the vault when he died, resulting in Jim having a robust career after his passing, resulting in four #1’s, and eleven Top 10’s. Jim Reeves was still charting Top 20 singles a decade after his death, including “I’d Fight The World” which came in at #13 in 1973.

The Jim Reeves plane crash was mentioned briefly in the documentary, but his life and career wasn’t, even though the Patsy Cline story gave it the perfect opening, and they were inexorably linked in the minds of many country fans at the time. In 1982, a compilation album called Remembering Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves was released, and was Certified Gold.

Don Williams

Don Williams was another Country Music Hall of Famer that didn’t even get a mention, though a brief shot of what appeared to be him from behind on stage entered the frame early in Episode 7. Don Williams played a huge role in country music, not just as a successful artist commercially, but as the guy many country fans will cite as being one of the most dear to their hearts. The “Gentle Giant” had seventeen #1 hits, 45 Top 10 hits, was the 1978 CMA Male Vocalist of the Year, and only had three singles from late 1974 into 1991 not make it into the Top 10.

Don Williams was not about promoting himself, and didn’t fit snugly into any specific sound or era. He wasn’t a flamboyant presence on or off the stage. He just sang his songs. This is probably one of the reasons the film passed him over, but this is also one of the reasons he was one of the most universally-beloved performers in country history. The warmth that accompanied his music was unparalleled. It was comfort music.

Glen Campbell

It’s somewhat understandable why the legacies of some artists got overlooked in the Ken Burns Country Music documentary. Some artist’s legacies get lost over time. Others don’t have living advocates or champions helping to keep their contributions alive in the public consciousness. But during the production of the Ken Burns film, Glen Campbell was going through a farewell tour, and a high profile battle with Alzheimer’s. There was a compilation album, and tribute concerts. The Band Perry won a Grammy for re-recording his hit “Gentle On My Mind” written by John Hartford (who also didn’t get a mention in the film).

Similar to Jim Reeves, Glen Campbell was not a died-in-the-wool honky tonk crooner, he was a crossover star known just as much for pop as country. But his “Glen Campbell Show” (which got a quick mention, and was the only reference to the “Wichita Lineman” singer) was huge in spreading the appeal for country music, and was a big boost for the personalities who appeared on it. The Country Hall of Famer sold 45 million records worldwide, including twelve gold albums, four platinum albums, and a double-platinum album. He won five Grammy Awards, and ten ACM Awards. And before he became a country music superstar, he was a guitarist in the famed “Wrecking Crew” of studio musicians in Los Angeles who played on many on the biggest hits of the era.

Above and beyond his contributions and accomplishments, Glen Campbell defined what country music was for many people. Songs like “Gentle On My Mind” embodied the restlessness of the time. Not seeing Glen Campbell featured was almost like seeing someone in your family forgotten.

Conway Twitty

Many names have been offered up as artists overlooked in the series, but arguably the biggest one was Conway Twitty. And not just because the Country Music Hall of Famer was the most accomplished country artist to not receive a profile, or even that he was completely ignored. It’s that the film referenced Conway in passing, and twice, but both times only as a former rockabilly star turned country artist, not a guy with 44 #1 singles, let alone his career with Loretta Lynn as a duet partner.

To play Devil’s Advocate, the legacy of Conway Twitty is a spotty one. He was more of a commercial force in country rather than a creative one. His songs like “Never Been This Far Before” and “Tight Fittin’ Jeans” are retroactively creepy to some audiences. His persona was the inspiration for country comedy star Unknown Hinson, and fights between his kids and wife around his estate, and specifically “Twitty City” which was sold off to evangelists as opposed to being the shrine to his legacy it was meant to be, have put Conway on the wrong side of history.

But Conway Twitty is a Top 5 country music artist of all time from a statistical standpoint. Even if the film mixed the good with the bad in a retroactive on his career, Conway deserved more than a passing reference for his time in rockabilly. To many, Conway Twitty is country music.

Johnny Horton

Johnny Horton wasn’t especially prolific, and just like Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves, he died tragically in an accident when a car he was riding in with Tommy Tomlinson and Tillman Franks hit a truck head on in 1960 in Milam Country, Texas, and he passed away on the way to the hospital. But songs like “North To Alaska” and “Honky Tonk Man” were massively influential in country, and “Battle of New Orleans” has been considered one of the most significant songs of the last century by the Grammy Awards and other institutions. Though his career and life was short, Johnny Horton was beloved by his fellow performers. Johnny Cash attended his funeral.

Another interesting part of Johnny’s story that would have been perfect for the film is that at the time of his death, he was married to Billie Jean Horton—the same woman Hank Williams was married to when he died. Billie Jean is another personality (though never a performer) who seemed to be missing in the documentary. Billie Jean did a lot to keep the legacy of Johnny alive after his death.

Johnny Horton has also been mistaken for being a proprietor of racism over the years, which may have put him on the outside of being included in the documentary. His song “Johnny Reb” is considered more of a historical work, similar to “The Battle of New Orleans.” But a white supremacist singer named “Johnny Rebel” often is mistaken with both the song, and Johnny Horton.

Hank Snow

Aside from getting some face time singing his big hit “I’ve Been Everywhere,” it’s hard to say Hank Snow received his due, not only from the documentary, but many complaining about who got snubbed. The Canadian and Country Music Hall of Famer logged seven #1 hits, and 33 Top 10 songs during his heyday, and was a huge force in country music for decades. Similar to Don Williams, and unlike many other country stars, Hank Snow wasn’t all about marketing himself, which can make his impact blend into the background. But he had a big impact nonetheless, including opening up the appeal for country music in the Canadian market.

Hank Snow also holds a very historical distinction with his song “I’m Moving On,” which before the modern era and Billboard’s chart changes in 2012, held the record for the longest-charting #1 in country history at 21 weeks. Now that pop crossover spins are incorporated into country charts, Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Backroad,” and Bebe Rexha’s “Meant To Be” have hypothetically eclipsed that record. But if all things are equal, that record rightfully belongs to Hank Snow.

Johnny Paycheck and David Allan Coe

If you’re a fan of Johnny Paycheck and David Allan Coe, you have a right to be disappointed they weren’t even mentioned, but you also can’t be surprised. With their spotty pasts and the controversy that could have brewed from showing them in a positive light, it’s understandable why Ken Burns and writer Dayton Duncan just avoided the whole anthill. Still, both played significant roles in country, and it’s strange Paycheck couldn’t at least get a mention as being a side player behind numerous performers who were profiled, and the whole story behind “Take This Job and Shove It” seems perfect for a feature in the film, and a tie-in to country’s working class roots.

And if you wanted to see these guys in the documentary, you may have an unlikely ally. Some folks have criticized the film for whitewashing country history, and not including sketchy personalities like Coe and Paycheck. Remember, the point of the film is not to promote personalities, but to give an acculturate portrayal of country music from a historical perspective. If this is your goal, these two probably should be included.

Jerry Lee Lewis

The Sun Studios era was covered in depth in the documentary via Johnny Cash, the Million Dollar Quartet was referenced, of which Jerry Lee Lewis was a part of, yet he didn’t get his due for the second wind in his career when the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famer arguably put together a Country Music Hall of Fame-caliber career.

Once again, personal behavior may have cause the filmmakers to shy away from giving Jerry Lee Lewis too much attention, but all the tie-ins and openings were there.

Jerry Jeff Walker, Doug Sahm, Michael Martin Murphy

You can be disappointed, but not particularly surprised that Doug Sahm didn’t make it into the documentary. His contributions to country music were mostly regional, and with such a premium on time, some people were going to get squeezed. Nonetheless, just mentioning his name in reference to Austin and the Armadillo World Headquarters would have gone a long way with Doug’s friends and family, and was warranted.

If it wasn’t for Jerry Jeff Walker, there arguably wouldn’t have been any music scene in Austin for Willie Nelson and others to come home to, or to rise from. He took his success with “Mr. Bojangles,” and along with songwriter Michael Martin Murphy, helped establish Austin as a country music epicenter. Of course Walker never saw similar success as he did in his folk days, but his support of Guy Clark (who was profiled), and other Texas songwriters deserved mention.

Bluegrass and Newgrass – John Hartford, Sam Bush, Alison Krauss, Jimmy Martin, et al.

The Ken Burns Country Music documentary did an excellent job making sure bluegrass didn’t play second fiddle to country in the film, and though there could have been more names and players mentioned, it did a valiant job representing this important portion of the music. However the legacy of Jimmy Martin, who was the self-professed “King of Bluegrass” got overlooked once more, just as Bill Monroe would have wanted.

Though it’s understandable that you can’t mention every artist, and John Hartford, Sam Bush, and Alison Krauss didn’t get mentioned (though Bush was pictured a couple of times behind other performers), perhaps a segment on more contemporary bluegrass, or “Newgrass” was warranted. Alison Krauss is the most awarded female in Grammy Awards history with 27, and has another 42 nominations, making her the third most in history among everyone.

The good news is if the documentary is ever added to, you can be assured that the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack released in 2000 will play a big role, and many bluegrass artists overlooked the first time will receive their due.


OTHER OVERSIGHTS:

Tanya Tucker – Even before her recent career resurgence, Tanya Tucker could be considered a Top 5 female artist in country music all time in regards to sales and radio support. She is likely to be a Country Music Hall of Fame contender in the coming years.

Linda Ronstadt – Though she converted to rock and pop early in her career, her work as an ambassador for country music rivals that of Gram Parsons, and if nothing else, her efforts with the “Trio” of Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris was worth mentioning.

Eddie Rabbitt – Though considered part of the “pop” problem in country by some, it’s hard to find songs more infectious than “Driving My Life Away” and “I Love A Rainy Night.” Eddie Rabbit was another who died young so his legacy was never properly cemented in country music. But it could have been with even a quick mention in the documentary.

Vern Gosdin – “The Voice” had a significant impact on country, and is considered a favorite artist by many. He was one of the casualties of the film’s quick pass through the mid 80’s that will hopefully be rectified if there are future installments.

Keith Whitley – Whitley was mentioned in reference to Vince Gill’s “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” but as the favorite artist of many, could have received a deeper dive into his career and tragic passing.

Marty Robbins – Marty was mentioned numerous times throughout the film, but probably deserved his own profile from the impact he had on the music.

Who did you think could have received more screen time? Give your opinion below.