Ken Burns Country Music Film Comes at the Best & Worst Time

The broadcast of the Ken Burns-produced 8-part, 16-hour documentary on country music could very well be the most significant event to happen in country music in 2019, if not in the next few years. For country music to receive the expansive documentary treatment for America’s preeminent filmmaking archivist is a monumental honor, and could have significant implications.

On the positive side, the Ken Burns film could be the spark to light the fire for a real country resurgence, and not a moment too soon. Marty Stuart—who is the primary commentator in the project—says the new film is “like the cavalry coming.” With the way the term “country” has been co-opted and stretched over the last decade or more, Country Music will help to reset the public mindset of what country music is and always has been, along with highlighting many of the country legends who’ve been virtually forgotten in the Top 40-nature of the current country format. And since the film concludes in the mid 90s, classic country won’t be buried by attention for more modern artists and music.

The traditional end of country music sometimes gets overshadowed by the contemporary,” Marty Stuart says. And to have 16-and-a-half hours’ worth of footage and interviews coming from the nation’s premier documentarian—it’s an awesome gift.”

However the timing of the release of this film could also arguably not be more terrible. With the current acrimonious nature of race relations in the United States, the polarization around President Donald Trump, and the media storm instigated by Lil Nas X and the removal of “Old Town Road” from the Billboard country charts, a bullseye has been placed squarely the back of country music, and the Ken Burns documentary has become a target in the fervor itself, specifically for not doing enough to address race in the film.

It’s important to note that the Country Music documentary project was commenced over seven years ago. At the time, Barack Obama was President. “Identity politics” was not a widespread part of the American lexicon. Few were worried about how much diversity country music embodied. And as for Lil Nas X, he was 12-years-old at the time. Now, after many academic papers on the matter, and quite literally hundreds of think pieces targeting country music as the bastion for American conservatism and whiteness that must be disrupted and undermined, the country music project from Ken Burns has become swept up in the larger culture war.

None of this could have been anticipated when the film was being composed, and is completely out of the control of Ken Burns and co-producer Dayton Duncan. The documentary has basically been done for well over a year, aside from final edits and music sequencing work. The major outline and approach of the film was already established, and many of the interviews conducted before President Trump was even elected. And since the film bows at about 1996, it wouldn’t be possible to address current race relations, and how they interface with country music at the present.

This doesn’t mean that Country Music doesn’t address race relations in country music at all. In fact in the first episode to air on Sunday (9-15), it’s one of the primary focal points. African Americans that were seminal to the formation of what we know as country music today have rarely received their proper due, and the Ken Burns film works heavily to correct that. Rhiannon Giddens, who has been a long-time leader on this front, is one of the primary contributors to the opening episode, and the installment goes in depth about how black minstrels and blues players helped set the wheels of country in motion, and then were often stricken from the history due to systemic racism present in country music early on.

Later in the film, the career of Charley Pride is covered extensively, including his interactions with overtly racist fellow performers and others in the country music business, and how he came to be respected in the genre despite being African American, and overcame any adversity to be regarded as one of the most successful performers in country music history. The country contributions of Ray Charles and other African American performers are also touched on in the film.

Nonetheless, Ken Burns, PBS, and the film’s promoters and publicists are clearly very worried that promoting country music in the current political and cultural climate could damn this documentary out of the gate and paint them in a negative light, especially since the primary demographic of PBS swings much more progressive. That is why majority of the promotion of the film in the last couple of weeks leading up to the premier has focused on how the film labors to give proper due to African American performers in country music, anticipating this is where criticism for the film will center. And they are fair to be worried.

Reviews of Country Music by the few who’ve seen the whole film so far have been mostly mixed, with some positive. One concern broached almost universally about the film is that it tries to cover too much ground without ever going in-depth into one particular story or moment. Right as you really begin to be intrigued in an artist or a moment, the movie moves on. But the other major criticism of the film is for not focusing more in depth on race. Many major periodicals, including The New Yorker, Stereogum, Vulture, Daily Beast, and others have all criticized the film on the race point, saying Burns side stepped his opportunity to call out the blatant racism in country music. In fact, this has been on of the prevailing focal points of the media coverage of the film so far.

“Burns gets dinged by conservatives for turning his blockbuster projects into considerations of American racism — as if national life wasn’t not so secretly about that anyway — but this time, he keeps doing a catch-and-release thing,” Vulture decrees. “Burns isn’t cynically avoiding the subject of inequality, mind you. It’s all over Country Music, just not as consistently as in his masterworks.”

David Cantwell writing for The New Yorker says, “The silence and hostility with which African-American performers have often been greeted by the country establishment needs even greater emphasis.”

This is the reason Ken Burns and co-producer Dayton Duncan have been on the offensive in the last few weeks, trying to frame the film as one where the revising of history to emphasize the African American contributions to country should be taken as one of their primary efforts. And like many entertainment writers, they have been evoking the name of Lil Nas X to do it. An Op/Ed written by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan published in The New York Times on September 13th starts,

This spring the rapper Lil Nas X, who is black, released “Old Town Road,” a twang-inflected song that rocketed to the top of the country music charts — even though Billboard temporarily removed it from the list, saying it wasn’t sufficiently “country.”

A few months later, when the Country Music Association announced that three women — Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire and Carrie Underwood — would host its annual awards show, some people criticized the choice as political correctness, as if “real” country music was restricted to good old boys.

Both controversies reflect the stereotypes that chronically surround country music. They overlook its diverse roots, its porous boundaries and the central role that women and people of color have played in its history.

Such narrow views would astonish the two foundational acts of the genre — Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family — who contributed to country music’s early commercial success in the 1920s. They knew firsthand that what has made American music so uniquely American has been its constant mixing of styles and influences.

It’s first important to note that Lil Nas X was not temporarily removed from the Billboard country charts. He was permanently removed from it—one of the many misnomers that swirl around the Lil Nas X controversy. But the above missive from Country Music‘s primary producers clearly show their concern for this film being relegated as an “also-ran” in the Ken Burns canon that side stepped important issues, as many in the press have already espoused, as opposed to talking about the importance of the film itself, and it’s overall mission to chronicle the rise of country music as a cultural institution.

One of the problems with the film ending in 1996 is it doesn’t give Ken Burns the opportunity to highlight how race relations and inclusion of African American artists in mainstream country has never been better. This is also something that many of the critics of country music tend to ignore as they look to characterize country as overtly racist, as opposed to an art form that just happens to be primarily performed by American whites, similar to how hip-hop is primarily performed by African Americans. Darius Rucker found a second wind in his career as a country artist, and is currently a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Kane Brown is one of the most successful mainstream artists in the last five years. Jimmie Allen’s debut single “Best Shot” was one of the best debuts by any country artist in nearly 20 years when it spent three consecutive weeks at #1.

That’s not to say that racism hasn’t been, and may still not continue to be a concern in country music. According to many, including Country Music contributor Rhiannon Giddens, the work of Ken Burns and this film is vital in helping to frame the mindset about how important African Americans have been to country, especially in its origins. But like many critics are saying about the film at large, by trying to cover so much ground, little details get lost. It wasn’t that Ken Burns punted on putting a spotlight on some of country music’s race problems, it’s that he just didn’t have enough space.

In this current political and social climate, it can be argued nothing Ken Burns could have done would have been enough for activist journalists and those who’ve publicly pushed the idea that country music as a cultural institution must be undermined as an artifice of white America. Ken Burns has been put in an impossible situation that he could have never anticipated when scripting and outlining this film. Harping on certain sore subjects when it comes to race in country could have also tuned off the film’s core demographic of country listeners, who probably can use a dose of history about the African American contributions to the music. Even now, Burns runs this risk with how the first episode plays out by underscoring the importance of African Americans in the formation of the music.

If this film was being released in 2015 instead of in the immediate aftermath of the Lil Nas X controversy and the increasingly contentious discussions about race in America, it would be considered in a much different light. But Ken Burns did not make Country Music for 2019. Like all of his films, he made it for forever—to be a master work of history to be enjoyed for generations to come. It’s the task of Ken Burns, or any historian, to tell the story accurately and not allow whatever prevailing popular sentiments roiling popular culture at the moment to affect the authenticity and objectivity of their work.

Perhaps like many of the mixed reviews of this film have been saying, not focusing enough on details, and trying to cover too much material may render Country Music good instead of great. But that will be for the public to decide. And regarding a film that has taken over seven years to make with 2019 eyes that are constantly looking for social injustices would be unfair to the work, and the filmmakers. Just like the songs and careers of country legends, time will be the ultimate objective judge of the quality of the Ken Burns country music film. And unfortunately, not much in 2019 is ever regarded objectively, especially when it comes to country music.

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