Review – Episode 2 Of Ken Burns Country Music Film, “Hard Times”
The first episode of the Ken Burns Country Music documentary tasked itself to define what country music is by delving deep into its origins and original purveyors. The second episode called “Hard Times” began the work of explaining why the music means so much to so many people. As Marty Stuart said eloquently early on in the episode, “I think hard times and country music we were born for each other. There’s a strange hope and faith in country music, even in songs that have nothing to do with faith and hope.”
Country music is the story of America, and the pain and suffering of the 1930s is when country music stepped up to tell the stories of America’s poor and displaced, as well as give them respite and diversion through entertainment. Where the first episode of the documentary was more biographical and informative, the second was more touching and resonant. Some wondered how you would fill an entire episode from where the first one left off and still not even get to Hank Williams. But by the end of “Hard Times,” you wished there was another hour left to go.
The episode started in earnest with the commentary of Don Maddox—the fiddle player for the Maddox Brothers and Rose, and the current oldest living link to country music’s historic past, who still resides in southern Oregon. The story is told of how the Maddox family migrated from Alabama to California to become “The World’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band,” and one of its most important and influential bands of country music history too. Don Maddox has been featured here on Saving Country Music numerous times, and the inclusion of the Maddox Brothers and Rose in this documentary once again highlights what a travesty it is that they’re still not in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Before Hank Williams would help usher in country music’s Golden Era, it would be stars such as Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, the Grand Ole Opry’s Roy Acuff, and the silver screen’s Gene Autry that would help popularize country music like never before, and add Western influences to it. The Sons of the Pioneers and Roy Rogers also come into play, as do the Monroe Brothers and Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys.
Meanwhile The Carter Family would set up shop in Del Rio, Texas to take advantage of a renegade radio station set up across the border in Mexico to circumvent US broadcast limitations. Drama within The Carter Family also played an important part of the episode, and it was shocking to hear that the original lineup never had the opportunity to play the Grand Ole Opry. However the family band’s influence was spread far and wide on the wings of renegade radio, reaching a young Waylon Jennings, Chet Atkins, and Johnny Cash and their respective homes across America, solidifying what country music was to them and everyone else.
Race once again played an important role in the episode. As was explained by Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel, Bob Wills was influenced by black blues artists, as well as Mexican Americans. Bill Monroe also had black performers in his stable of influencers. It was also illustrated how country music performers often worked to take care of their African American counterparts, specifically the Delmore Brothers who would sometimes drive dozens of miles out of their way just so they could sit at the same table with touring buddy DeFord Bailey. Ultimately the original Opry performer was removed from the institution, possibly just as much due to song publishing issues as race, but was paid proper respects years later for the Opry’s 40th anniversary, and brought back into the fold.
Much time was also spent on Minnie Pearl, who you can’t help but love even more through her story of sophisticate turned comedian who made a career of becoming her own punchline. The episode concludes with the onset of World War II, and the enlistment of many country legends, including Bob Wills, his guitarist Tommy Duncan, Roy Acuff, and 20 members of Chicago’s Barn Dance program, which at the time was bigger than the Grand Ole Opry.
As a whole, the second episode might even inch ahead of the impressive episode 1 due to the more emotional components of the material covered—components that also make country music so compelling. It was all so good to see commentary by Jean Shepard and Mac Wiseman, who have recently passed, as well as Vince Gill and Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs.
As Marty Stuart alluded to, country music gives us strength through our shared misery. The second installment of the Ken Burns Country Music documentary encapsulated and Illustrated this well.
Episode 2 can now be streamed online. The next episode is titled “The Hillbilly Shakespeare,” and is primarily about Hank Williams. It will air on his birthday.
September 17, 2019 @ 9:00 am
This thing is so damn good. Looking forward to tonight.
September 17, 2019 @ 9:06 am
nicely done , trigger . i think the emotional/historic aspects of the story started coming together in ep 2 and things are picking up steam. i have to say that , as with all ken burns’ docs , i’m overwhelmingly impressed with the footage and stills they’ve found to make this come alive …..some GREAT performance footage which helps us more fully understand the enormous popularity of these legends as entertainers …not just singers and players . as ray benson points out , most people may not appreciate the talent they are hearing from so many gifted instrumentalists and vocalists …but they sure respond to someone ‘entertaining’ in the broader sense ( bob wills ) . the footage is priceless in that respect .
September 17, 2019 @ 9:29 am
Regarding the black influence on country music (with Jimmie Rogers, it’s pretty obvious) and the “mentors” that a lot of the major players apparently had, the doc doesn’t really dig too deep into it – so does it come across a bit hyperbolic? As if to say, “no really, take our word for it.” I wish they would’ve elaborated on these specific mentors and what, exactly, their influence was on the artists (playing style, singing style, lyrics etc.),
Also, I didn’t realize AP Carter basically employed a black partner, Lesley Riddle, to help him gather songs around the countryside – from black people. If anything could be construed as “white man steals black music” it’s this, but I’m surprised I’ve never heard anybody vilify him for this. Did any of the original sources get paid, or earn any royalties from that?
I’m beginning to see where some of the criticism of this doc series is coming from. It begs a lot of important questions, but in many cases doesn’t really answer them.
September 17, 2019 @ 9:55 am
The reason the series doesn’t name these black influencers by name is because we don’t have many of their names. Many have been literally stricken from the history books, if they were ever recorded to begin with. Rhiannon Giddens spoke about this at AmericanaFest specifically. In the next episode about Hank Williams, I’m sure we’ll get a healthy dose of Tee Tot, a.k.a. Rufus Payne, and his back story.
It’s almost as if people want to blame Ken Burns for the early racism in country music personally. It’s his job to tell the story as it played out, and I most definitely think he would have included the names of these early influencers he or anyone else had them. I think he has gone out of his way to explain the black influence in country music so far, almost to the point of embellishment.
September 17, 2019 @ 10:11 am
“It’s almost as if people want to blame Ken Burns for the early racism in country music personally.”
This is today’s modus operandi. Look for someone to blame and nothing else.
September 18, 2019 @ 6:24 am
“I think he has gone out of his way to explain the black influence in country music so far, almost to the point of embellishment.”
Agreed. No music is created in a vacuum, and no artist develops without hearing and being influenced by other sounds. Having to continually stress that these white artists were influenced by others is ham-handed and a bit grating. And the forced clips and mentions of jazz artists are over-the-top. We get it.
But this is the world we live in. I almost feel sorry for filmmakers like Burns, who feel they have to appease the never-happy SJWs to the point of dull repetition.
September 17, 2019 @ 10:09 am
From what I’ve surmised, AP Carter didn’t pay royalties to these folks that he gathered songs from. Think about it this way, recording and buying and selling records was a very new concept. It wasn’t as rigid a structure as it is now with ownership rights and so on.Did you also notice people used each other’s melodiies pretty freely when writing new songs? Also consider, many of the people he gathered songs from didn’t write them either, in many cases these folks were just passing on songs they had heard and learned from others. You might even say many of the songs were “public domain” at that point. No doubt, some of those songs may have come from overseas when you consider African and Scotch Irish immigrants brought music with them.
But your point is, AP Carter and Ralph Peer profited from them. So is that fair? I look at it this way, had he not spent an incredible amount of resources and time doing this, those songs likely would have vanished into the sands of time. Somebody had to do this and it fell to him. Obviously it cost AP his marriage and he was an unhappy guy later in life, filled with regret. I guess in a way, he paid a price , but ultimately the great American song catalog was the result.
September 17, 2019 @ 11:18 am
I agree with everything you say, and surmised as much. However, when it comes down to the “whitey stole from blacks” cliche, I’d figured AP Carter might be an easy target for vilification – especially in today’s climate. I was hoping for more clarification or context in the doc itself, otherwise a neophyte audience could jump to the wrong conclusions.
Then again, maybe I’m overthinking it.
September 19, 2019 @ 4:17 pm
Kevin, you said it well. People are still innocently “borrowing” parts of melodies and chord progressions from others. It’s almost impossible not to do so. There are seven notes. Granted, there are a lot of things we can do with those seven notes…however, we’re all a product of what we’ve heard ourselves. Music is constantly morphing and changing …but always from something that came before.
September 17, 2019 @ 1:36 pm
Tis worth noting that the cultural concept of the writer of a song owning it, or even really the idea of originality was not yet fully developed. Scotch-Irish Presbyterianism actually had a set of twelve melodies that psalms (and later on newly composed gospel songs) were to be set to. The study of Celtic music history has this thing called a “tune family,” in which you can trace a melody from when and wherever we first have record of it, and watch over the centuries as folks set new words to it, modified it, spliced it on to other melodies, etc. Twas all common practice prior to the recording industry. The Carters recorded multiple songs that originated many centuries before in Scotland or Ireland.
September 17, 2019 @ 3:01 pm
Of course, concepts of creative “ownership” and copyright were still being worked out and were still conceptually alien to many artists and performers at the time (even today!), but obviously Peer was savvy and taking copyright ownership of traditional compositions and making a lot of money off them through record sales and radio play.
AP Carter was a financial beneficiary of this, and it seems obvious he was accumulating new songs for profit. He was complicit in the business scheme. It’d make sense if he was at least kicking a couple bucks over to the people who were sharing or teaching him those songs (didn’t have to be royalties, maybe a flat fee for their trouble). It seems that wasn’t happening.
September 17, 2019 @ 4:48 pm
This is true. Another thing that should be mentioned is the presence of syncopation and backbeats, as well as scales like the Mixolydian, Dorian and pentatonic from the British Isles. This is why it blended so well with the African traditions and contributed to many stylus of American music. Sort of hard to copyright, but we should do the best we can to give credit where do
September 18, 2019 @ 5:12 am
Good point. Makes me wish the doc had a little more music theory explanation. Nothing fancy, just touch on the basics, the building blocks of the music itself – because as quaint as “country is three chords and the truth” is as an explanation, it’s not really enough. Especially in a time when an obvious hip-hop track by Lil Nas X is called country just because he wore a cowboy hat and mentioned horses (though Burns couldn’t have predicted that). Really is *that* what country is? I don’t think they even explained what “shape notes” were in church singing, and why that method was popular.
September 19, 2019 @ 9:17 pm
Agree nothing fancy, just delve a bit deeper in the subject. As musician and a teacher I think it really intrigues people when you can combine history with some music theory. Plus it helps shed some of the generalizations that are made sometimes.
Thank for the articulated and thoughtful response.
September 22, 2019 @ 8:48 am
I’ve been trying to wrap my head around some of this stuff, but I have no background in music.
So JP, are you saying backbeats and syncopation are examples of the African influence or are you making the point these existed in Britain as well? Is there much syncopation in C&W? Simple, steady back beats seem obviously important to the genre.
I’m trying to figure out where the African influences come in specifically. It’s pretty easy to hear in a Jimmie Rodgers song, though I can’t put a finger on what the specific element is.
But “Amarillo by Morning,” for example, seems pretty damn whitebread to me. I don’t hear much that, to my untrained ear, sounds black in Carter Family songs either.
Anyone knowledgeable care to give me some info or search terms? Fascinating subject!
November 2, 2019 @ 10:48 pm
I apologize, this conversation on my end was attached to an old email address of mine. I felt the the need to reply this late out of curtesy. So my previous comments are really more about American music in general, but yes things like back beats syncopation are a part of the British music tradition as well as African. The British music invasion really started in the 1760s and not the 1960s😂
The similarities and unique qualities of British and African music really helped shape things. And then there is the Germans, Spanish, French, natives etc.
Unfortunately though I think certain things are taken for granted or over looked, leaving people to make assumptions or neglect some serious contributions. It goes with out saying that there was a lot of development in music by individuals and groups / regions in the 20th century. I think it’s fairly accurate to say balled singing is the major part of the country tradition, with some back beats but maybe less syncopation. Where up beat hillbilly music has more of that jig and reel sound.
Thanks for the response and allowing me to put my two cents in.
September 17, 2019 @ 9:31 am
I binged all 4 episodes. This is good shit. I got no complaints. I eagerly await the next 4.
September 17, 2019 @ 9:31 am
Race once again played an important role in the episode.
At the risk of being “labeled”, I have an observation. It seems that the first two episodes did indeed make race a major factor. There is no denying the validity.
However, it appears that the allusion is that of being an influence om early artists. That is CERTAINLY true.
But shouldn’t the documentary be centered on the performers and artists? For example, if there was a documentary on the Rolling Stones, it would certainly have to mention blues and country as influencers of their music. But I wonder, even doubt, that there would be the same amount of time centered on that than the band itself.
Every genre has influencers. It is part of history and should be mentioned. Influencers certainly help develop the sound. But the focus should be on the sound.
Now that opinion would change if there were many early artists in the country music genre that were of other races. And we know there were to some extent. It seems to me like there is a concerted effort to influence history by heightening other races, even though their impact, for the most part, were that of influencing the sound of the early country music acts.
Again, giving proper credit where it is due is great. But as I said, would the same be done on the history of the Rolling Stones? I think there would be honorable mentions of influences but the focus would squarely be on the group itself. And I hope as this documentary moves forward that focus is not misdirected for sublime reasons but is put on the music and artists themselves. When reading a history of Warren Buffet, it is great to know who shaped his thinking and investing approach. But I am primarily wanting to know about Warren Buffet.
Maybe a separate documentary is warranted that would be titled, “History of the Influencers of Country Music.”
Not a dissenting comment as I have thoroughly enjoyed the first two episodes.
September 17, 2019 @ 10:42 am
But this isn’t a documentary on a particular artist or band. It’s a documentary on a genre, and I’d 100% expect a documentary on 1960s Blues-Rock to dedicate a significant amount of time to the Blues that those bands, including the Stones, were influenced by.
If you’re describing how Country came into existence, you have to talk about the things that went into it and came before it. And musical genres aren’t like groups or people, with clear defining lines. To even draw the picture of what Country Music is you have to talk about the influences that make it.
September 17, 2019 @ 11:17 am
Not only influenced but got their start by playing a lot of their songs. Same with early country . It’s totally relevant .
September 17, 2019 @ 11:22 am
More than half of the first Stones record were covers of Blues songs written by black musicians. I’d hope there was ample coverage of that in a Stones documentary.
September 17, 2019 @ 11:26 am
Also it’s pretty bizzarre you’d like to seperate Country Music from its influences. Do you think it exists in a vacuum and miraculously spawned out of nothing ? Would you like for the doc to leave out all the Irish, Scottish, German or other European influences too or is it only the African American influences you have trouble with ? Judging by your post it’s the latter.
September 17, 2019 @ 1:12 pm
It pretty much did leave out those other influences or at best glossed over them.
September 17, 2019 @ 6:21 pm
Michael, I agree. I do not think this documentary is agenda-driven, but one must not leave the door open for accusation thereof. Include all influences or none.
September 17, 2019 @ 6:28 pm
Agreed. I think there has been one passing mention of the Hawaiian influence. Seriously?!
September 17, 2019 @ 8:12 pm
We mustve watched different documentaries.
September 17, 2019 @ 11:07 pm
So you’re saying that the amount of time spent in the first 3 episodes on the African-American influence is the same as the time spent on the Scotch-Irish influence? I’m sorry, but it’s not even close. They talked about it briefly in episode 1, but have gone in-depth about the AA influence in every episode. How can you even dispute that? The Scotch-Irish influence is without a doubt the biggest influence of Country Music, but you wouldn’t know it from this series. And to hardly talk about the German, Hawaiian or Mexican influences is a travesty.
September 18, 2019 @ 7:32 am
Good point Michael.
September 17, 2019 @ 9:46 am
I loved this episode–the first one was great too, but this was even better. I think the standouts so far have been Ketch Secor and Merle Haggard (RIP). While it’s still too early to come to a conclusion on the series as a whole, the beginning has been very well done. Or course, I figured it would be–Ken Burns really doesn’t miss when it comes to these long-form documentaries, Looking forward to tonight’s installment!
October 27, 2019 @ 10:00 pm
I’m late to the party, just binged the program and my issue isn’t at all that they dig deep and focus on influence and that which was AA.
But talk of a heavy hand. This entire program felt like they went in to make a documentary focusing on strong women, African Americans, Immigration, America as a place of ideas instead of a place and how this crazymixedupcool thing came together to overcome the evils of white guys and give us “Old Town Road”.
Look, you can’t have ever seen or heard the Stones and not understood their influence nor could you have met Chuck Berry and known the pain of exploitation and of some very difficult times.
But it seems there is so much shame with anyone white being proud of someone else who is white or something a white guy created to where I think everyone feels they have to mention Tee Top first if they are gonna mention they like Hank Williams Sr.
Damned right Tee Top matters.
But this entire documentary came in with an agenda to come from a place where you’re to see these people as culture vultures and to not praise them too much because I mean those white guys would be nothing without these AA influencers.
Show me one AA documentary where they lovingly and glowingly heap praise and thanks on a white creation or refuse to take credit for something and point instead to some Scottish folks.
America is uncomfortable truths so if we are going to talk some uncomfortable truths of this doc can we at least own that a lot of this is totally the NPR tiny desk series listening, fair trade coffee drinking urbanite white guy letting you know that sure he respects country music but I mean he’s no hillbilly and he’s totes not a racist.
Maybe he isn’t but I don’t take him for a country fan either and this felt more like an exercise in making a bunch of MAGA hat people’s jaws go slack as they cry and realize their racist love of country music means nothing because it’s like their DNA came back showing AA roots.
It’s less of a proud documentary from one side and just a heavy dose of this agenda and it just feels dishonest to me is all.
Maybe that’s just me and this comment disappears into the ether but was just my opinion of it.
Robert's Country Blog
September 17, 2019 @ 9:48 am
I’m still very busy with my music vacation in Nashville, so I will have to wait until I get back to Texas to watch any of the documentary, but since you mentioned the Carter Family and the Sons Of The Pioneers, I’ll add a couple of bits that might be of interest to your audience. When I attended Marty Stuart’s “The Pilgrim,” it was advertised that Dale Jett (Carter Family) will be at the third Marty Stuart artist in residence show. I attended Marty Stuart’s Late Night Jam in 2018, and the closing number featured Dale Jett backed by Marty Stuart and Chris Stapleton. Also, the Sons Of The Pioneers are still touring. Obviously, it’s not the original cast, but Roy Rogers’ son is part of the group, and they are still going.
H.P. @ Hillbilly Highways
September 17, 2019 @ 9:52 am
You mentioned Wynton Marsalis in your review of episode 1. There is still no real need for him to be there, but after this episode it is clear that he is a valuable contributor.
September 17, 2019 @ 10:03 am
It’s not that Wynton Marsalis is a bad contributor at all. I like Wynton, and he was one of the reasons to watch Ken’s documentary on jazz back in 2001. But he’s just out-of-place here. It feels like an interjection by a filmmaker who has always admitted that jazz is his favorite type of music. Marty Stuart is a great commentator too, but it would be just as out-of-place if they had put him in the jazz documentary. Country personalities can (and probably did) make the points Wynton is making.
September 17, 2019 @ 11:09 am
It made a lot of sense to have him comment on ‘swing’ music in the second episode.
September 17, 2019 @ 11:32 am
Look, I am really enjoying this documentary so far, and I think Ken Burns has done an excellent job. But you could have Ray Benson make those points about swing, if he didn’t in the interview that he conducted. Benson wrote a play about Bob Wills and where Western Swing came from.
In the companion book for the series (which I highly recommend everyone get), the very first piece of written material in it is a quote from Wynton Marsalis. Not Marty Stuart, not Merle Haggard, not Dolly Parton, but Wynton Marsalis. Ken Burns clearly has a man crush on Wynton, which is cool. But he should have been more self-aware, and not try to make Wynton a major player in a country music documentary. With all the people who need to receive face time in this film and probably won’t, Wynton could have been left out, in my opinion.
September 18, 2019 @ 6:19 am
His presence hasn’t bothered me to the extent that it has others, but I do see your points. I’ve been thinking about this, and I wonder if he purposefully did it to fully illustrate that country is beyond the typical “only fans are rural southern whites” stereotype. It’s a little ham-handed, for sure, but I can see it.
September 17, 2019 @ 9:59 am
I have not watched he’s the second episode yet. Just came here and read your article. I will catch up tonight. Looking at the mention of Minnie pearl. Omission to me and I’d love to know more about her is lulu belle. She was the first queen of country music and similar style to Minnie from what I’ve read. Around this time frame also late thirties.
September 17, 2019 @ 10:15 am
I posted this in the Episode 1 review, but I’ll post again here since this is the proper episode; hearing this come out of Merle’s mouth may have been my favorite thing so far…
“If somebody don’t like Wills, he’s immediately under suspicion with me.”
September 17, 2019 @ 10:17 am
The Mexican radio station was XERF in Via Acuna, Wolfman Jack would later DJ for the station. Check out ZZ Top’s “Heard It on the X.”
September 17, 2019 @ 10:22 am
Could not find in the credits who sang the opening version of “Hard Times”. Awesome voice – anybody know?
September 17, 2019 @ 10:36 am
September 17, 2019 @ 3:40 pm
awesome indeed ….and again …this is the kind of voice almost completely missing from mainstream radio today ….no matter the genre . a voice with conviction , experience, performance skill and AUTHENTICITY.
I was thinking all of these things while the song played in the background and remembering how GREAT it was to be moved by the conviction in an artist’s performance …..whether it be lennon singing ‘ revolution ‘ , freddie singing ‘bohemian rhapsody ‘, george singing ‘ he stopped lovin her today’ stevie , mavis , tom jones , gladys knight etc………so much power in their deliveries …so much sincerity and GIVING .
i think we could count on 2 or 3 fingers the mainstream vocalists who deliver like that today ….no matter the genre.
September 18, 2019 @ 11:57 am
September 17, 2019 @ 10:39 am
I just find it wildly interesting that major contributors to country music are going to get left out of this thing, meanwhile we had to take minutes to explain an unnamed African American who rode around with AP Carter to get songs. Burns is trying too hard to bring race into this story and it becomes overbearing to the listener. (this person performed in blackface a few times, a random black person influenced him in a railyard, this songs melody came from an african amerian church etc…, etc……
As I said in my original post two stories ago, the extreme focus Burns is going to place on African American’s input into country music, as well as Johnny Cash in general(you can already see this coming) is going to be the downfall of the documentary. I guarantee you the time spent on Cash will outweigh the combination of Lefty, Buck Owens, Paycheck, Wynette, and the GOAT Jones combined.
September 17, 2019 @ 11:42 am
Like any good story, you need central characters to compel the audience. I don’t have a problem with Johnny Cash being one of those central characters, because he ties country music together from the Carter Family to the modern day. It’s going to be impossible to cover everyone in country music, but I can understand the frustrations some will feel if one of their favorite artists isn’t even mentioned. We’ve got a long way to go here though, and Johnny Cash hasn’t really even been covered at all in the first two episodes except in passing.
As for race, just understand that the main criticism of this film so far is that race hasn’t been emphasized enough. That’s why I wrote an article on this before the series started. Just yesterday, there was another article in Slate deriding the film for not delving into race enough (https://slate.com/culture/2019/09/country-music-ken-burns-pbs-documentary-series-review.html). Meanwhile Ken was on Morning Joe once again seeming to need to apologize about race and country music, as if he’s at fault for the history. He is doing an excellent job setting the African American influence of country in context, but it will NEVER be enough for some people. However in this current climate, I’d rather he spend too much time harping on the subject than not enough. This was a bad time to release this film due to that aftermath of the Lil Nas X controversy, but I think time and history will see that Burns did a fair and accurate job in broaching race and country music in this film.
September 17, 2019 @ 12:35 pm
Burns is in a tough spot. He’s trying to education the population (and let’s be honest, sell DVDs and merch) about an oft-derided genre of music (because of its perceived “whiteness” and inherent “racism”) during one of the most toxic, race-obsessed times in recent American history.
He’s clearly on the lefty/journalist/academics’ team, but his own people are putting his feet to the fire. As if to say “Ken, why are you bothering with this stuff? Isn’t it just awful, racist music for rednecks?” He has to mollify them by over-emphasizing the genre’s diversity and black roots. He can’t just provide the facts, and tell the story – he has to contextualize everything in a way that today’s audience of rabid, political lunatics will find more palatable.
September 17, 2019 @ 1:16 pm
Exactly. And again, he started making this seven years ago when he never could have imagined where we would be in society today. Then the Lil Nas X controversy happened. Ken Burns has always been to the left of America’s center. He’s actively spoken out about this over the years. To throw him under the bus because he’s not angry enough at country music is foolish. It’s the Joe Biden effect. If you’re not a radical, you might as well be complicit with the enemy. Ken Burns is doing great work to reset the American mindset about the contributions of African Americans in country music. To undermine him and this film is to undermine this important effort.
September 17, 2019 @ 1:43 pm
The left eats itself, to its own detriment.
September 17, 2019 @ 3:36 pm
Nobody, at least of any note, has thrown Ken Burns under the bus that I can see. And it seems to me that The Morning Joe team were respectful towards him, even the one who asked about the black influence. The Great Ken Burns is what they called him. And I’m a little surprised that no one seems to push back when he says that country music brings us all together in these interviews. That would be something that someone with an activist agenda might do.
September 17, 2019 @ 4:19 pm
Look, I don’t mean to embellish the level of criticism coming to this movie, but it’s unfortunate that Ken Burns feels like he needs to be on the defensive, and certain journalists feel the need to be on the offensive against this film when it comes to race, when it’s arguably the most expansive undertaking to give African Americans credit for their role in country music. There’s always going to be criticism of everything. But so far, I think Burns has addressed race as well as he could have, and I expect more of that in the 3rd episode.
September 18, 2019 @ 5:26 am
The left eats itself, to its own detriment.
Meanwhile, the right has devolved into a cult of personality.
September 18, 2019 @ 6:23 am
Who is throwing him under the bus? Even this newest article from Slate is again well-written, fair, and nuanced criticism. One of the things about making a really long doc is that because there is so much in there, what isn’t becomes more conspicuous. So everyone is going to have an opinion about what was missing. But so far I haven’t read anything critical that has been unfair, or out to get country because of its perceived whiteness or whatever. It seems like there are a number of people that keep wanting that narrative to be true, and I’m sure someone out there on twitter or something is probably calling Burns racist without even having watched the thing, but you can find anyone saying anything on twitter if you look hard enough. Burns has made a great doc, and so far it’s eliciting really interesting and thoughtful criticism. Why be so scared or reactive about it?
September 18, 2019 @ 10:14 am
I would say telling readers that an animated pop history series like “Tales From The Tour Bus” is a better option than this Ken Burns documentary for getting an accurate portrayal of country music, or even Tyler Coe’s “Cocaine and Rhinestones” is a pretty serious reduction of Ken’s and Dayton Duncan’s efforts. I like both of those series, but come on.
Again, I don’t mean to embellish the criticism of this film based upon race. What I am trying to say that it’s a shame that it’s become a focal point, and that Ken Burns feels the need to be out in front of it as opposed to talking about the film as a whole, and letting the public take in the important points about race and country music without feeling like they’re being played. Slate also wanted Ken Burns to address the current women in country music issue, when his film cuts off in 1996. It’s the job of Ken Burns to be a historian, not an activist. Sure, lots of people will have critical things to say about the film, and so have I. But why not keep it as something free from the political vitriol plaguing the rest of society?
September 18, 2019 @ 12:40 pm
The Slate article clearly suggests that those series would be preferable specifically for those seeking “country scandal and dirt.” Not a better or more accurate portrayal.
What vitriol, though? Why is a thoughtful conversation on the role of race in cultural by definition vitriolic? None of these articles are calling Burns a racist, or suggesting he be cancelled or any such nonsense. People are doing the very thing that’s supposed to happen in response to a great documentary, which is to take particular themes or issues posed and examine in greater depth. I could agree that at this point there are about four or five articles with the same basic headline and core “hot take”, but when you actually read any of them, they’re all pretty good. I’d think you’d be celebrating well done journalism on country, not skimming through it looking for evidence of some hidden agenda to take country down.
September 17, 2019 @ 2:11 pm
I watched the Morning Joe piece just now. I’d say I think what he’s doing is not apologizing but politicking. And in the good sense. Getting in front of the issue, as it were. And I am really grateful for his effort and his skill, as I’m sure you are too.
I have to say that I like that he keeps repeating that country together with r&b were the two main influences of rock and roll. Damn straight.
I saw the Slate piece in my Facebook feed this morning and clicked on the comments. Oof. That was a mistake. But that’s Facebook for you.
September 19, 2019 @ 9:05 pm
Thanks for the link to the Slate article. Well written and insightful. Plus I bought a book mentioned in the article.
King Honky Of Crackershire
September 17, 2019 @ 3:56 pm
I appreciate your comments. It saves me from having to type them.
I can’t believe this episode gave no time to Ernest Tubb.
September 17, 2019 @ 4:14 pm
Episode 3 starts of with an extensive feature on Ernest.
September 18, 2019 @ 4:41 am
Ernest gets his due in #3 (along with others), though Hank is the final point of the episode.
September 17, 2019 @ 10:56 am
See my post above.
By the way, every time I try to post I get a response “the page is not working”. I have to try several times and when it finally does go through it will put my comment at the end rather than the reply section if that is what I am posting to.
Anyone have any ideas or similar problems? When I post from the cell phone it is much better.
September 17, 2019 @ 11:20 am
Regarding the first episode, I found the first half kind of all-over-the-place and exhausting (though I thought it *did* touch on a lot of interesting points, and I especially enjoyed the comments from Ketch Secor and Rhiannon Giddens), while the latter half seemed to settle into a nice rhythm as it zeroed in on Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.
As for last night’s ep, I thought it did a better job overall of balancing the biographical info about various artists and groups with the bigger-picture stuff (like the historical context of the Depression and WWII, and the growth of the music industry). 🙂
September 17, 2019 @ 11:33 am
September 17, 2019 @ 11:31 am
The main takeaway for me is that the Country HOF needs to get off their collective asses and put Maddox Brothers and Rose while Don is still around. This sticks in my craw more than any of their other omissions. Ignoring them is a damn joke.
September 17, 2019 @ 1:14 pm
Maddox Bros and Rose are the bomb, baby! They have been on my radar awhile. IMO, their music holds up pretty well and still sounds great today. Rose was quite the character. The current issue of Vintage Rock, specifically the Rockabilly issue has a great read on them and an interview with Don. Sounds like Rose was pretty bold and brassy at a time when it wasn’t considered ladylike. It’s been suggested they were the fore runners to rockabilly as they slapped the upright bass and played some great Hillbilly Boogie!
September 17, 2019 @ 12:55 pm
I was very pleased with this episode. I was one of those not sure what they would do between Rodgers and Williams. Now I know. I still wonder if it was wise to spend so much time (4 hours) before Hank and with so much material left for the remaining 12 hours, but I’m loving it so far. I’ll only be able to say in hindsight, i.e., after watching it all. I just know that if Randy Travis gets three minutes or something like that, I’ll be very disappointed.
September 17, 2019 @ 2:22 pm
Does anyone know how the commentators are selected for this sort of thing? I imagine scheduling and availability is a big part of it. I have enjoyed the commentary so far! But I wish I was hearing from even more people. I find myself thinking things like “I’d be interested in what Dolly Parton (or whomever, insert any Country person you’re interested in) thought about this.”
September 17, 2019 @ 4:16 pm
101 different people were interviewed, with priority given to artists and others who might pass and their oral histories lost before the film aired. Some were interviewed on specific topics, but all spoke about country generally as well for use throughout the film. Of course you can always interview more people, but they had to cut it off somewhere. 101 interviews is quite a large number.
King Honky Of Crackershire
September 17, 2019 @ 3:49 pm
I’m thoroughly shocked that no time was given to Ernest Tubb in this episode. Maybe they’re waiting for episode 3.
September 17, 2019 @ 4:03 pm
I’m expecting Ernest Tubb, Eddy Arnold, and Hank Snow to get significant time in Episode 3, even though Hank Williams will get the lion’s share of it. They fit more in the Golden Era of country (as I call it) than the earlier era.
King Honky Of Crackershire
September 17, 2019 @ 7:22 pm
Since ET started recording in the 30’s, I thought they would include him in episode 2.
I was glad to see him in episode 3.
September 17, 2019 @ 6:45 pm
Like the first episode, I loved it. Glad they did touch on Border Radio, even if only for a moment. The Bob Wills sections were great too (and especially Merle’s commentary).
I know some disagree, but I am starting to see what some of the criticism is about regarding the gaps here. The Black and Mexican-American contributions might have been emphasized more—not for political reasons, but because it’s the truth, and an important one. Maybe the cross-pollination between the blues, tejano and country needs its own documentary.
I do hope if they talk about Townes, they mention Lightnin’.
September 22, 2019 @ 9:01 am
They certainly seem to be giving the idea of interracial music influences plenty of screen time, but there is no real “how”.
I watch this and I know that a lot of different cultural groups were involved, but other than saying the banjo came from Africa there’s no real specifics.
September 17, 2019 @ 9:45 pm
It’s a wonderful dance.
Watching this thing move from one subject to another whilst avoiding political landmines like they’re trying not to step on toes, all the while telling a long story with no real beginning or end.
Casting their nets both deep and wide.
All for the sake of education and understanding.
No guarantee that their efforts would be appreciated in its own time but doing it anyway.
God bless Ken and company for spending the decade with their heads down working even as the world was melting down around them.
Inspired and inspiring stuff.
September 18, 2019 @ 12:03 am
One of the things I am most impressed by in this documentary are all the old, original photographs they were able to get for it. Not only that but then doing whatever they did to enhance them. I can easily see why this project took 7 years to complete. Wonderful job, so far.
September 18, 2019 @ 7:23 am
I know I’ve mentioned it a ton, but the “Country Music: An Illustrated History” is the perfect companion book to this series. It puts the best collection of photographs on country music in one place. Easily worth $35 on Amazon or wherever it’s sold.
September 18, 2019 @ 5:55 am
I’m going to have to watch this in the winter (it’s a January stay-in-bed binge) and circle back and read your reviews (I’m bookmarking them). I just don’t have time for this commitment right now and even if I did sit down for 30 minutes, I’d be asleep in 15 . But keep up the excellent work.
September 18, 2019 @ 6:26 am
I’d be curious to see if they release artist-centric albums for some of the focal points of the series, like they did with his Jazz series. These would be best of/greatest hits discs, of course, and I think most of the artists already have a plethora of those sorts of albums (and I suspect most of us have much of that music in our libraries already), but seems like they’d be an easy sell for the country music novice.
September 24, 2019 @ 5:03 pm
There is a cd set available. I haven’t listened to it yet, it was a bit pricey but quite big with 5 cds.
The music from the series made me buy it, some amazing stuff. I had heard of Jimmie Rodgers but didn’t think I was familiar with his music. Amazed to hear songs I knew because they were covered by other artists, like the late Leon Redbone.
September 18, 2019 @ 8:09 am
I have absolutely enjoyed all 3 episodes. Love commentary from Merle and Ray. Love the discussion everywhere. Online to the water cooler. People are more aware of roots and yes race influences. When Billboard renamed as Country & Western brought a little needed dignity to music. I’m with Dolly.. You just can’t call anyone a hillybilly without knowing what you’re talking about. Looking forward to tonight and Ms Patsy Cline. Forever my favorite girl singer.. Side note: Bob Wills should’ve hired Rose! Yes Maddaux Bro n Rose should be in CMHOF ..duh
September 18, 2019 @ 8:33 am
Episode 3 is utterly fantastic.
September 20, 2019 @ 3:10 am
I defy anyone to watch the opening of this episode and not end up a blubbering mess from Mavis Staples’ absolutely heart-rending version of “Hard Times Come Again No More” and images from the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. I have gone through an entire box of Kleenex over the course of the first 4 episodes of this series, what a triumph of storytelling it is!
September 27, 2019 @ 9:59 am
I was surprised that Hank Snow’s story was not included. He grew up dirt poor in Nova Scotia, Canada and had a very difficult upbringing yet became a superstar in the US, which at the time was unusual for a Canadian. Nova Scotia has a strong tradition of Celtic fiddle music which was also an influence in the development of country music in the US.