Review – Episode 6 of Ken Burns Country Music Documentary

Marty Stuart has been dubbed the “mascot” of the Ken Burns 8-episode, 16 1/2-hour documentary on country music, and through the first five episodes regularly offered some of the most important and compelling insight into the genre and its history. Marty Stuart appeared all of 10 seconds in the intro of the 6th episode, and never appeared again. Called “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” the episode was named after the timeless Gospel song, the slogan that adorns the rotunda of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the album released by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1972. The absence of Marty Stuart is a good way to illustrate that despite some compelling stories and important points made, the latest episode of Country Music seemed to lack focus on the subject matter at hand, perhaps conveying the story that the filmmakers wanted to tell instead to one country music had made for itself.

The episode began with Leon Russell singing “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” and a deep dive into the legendary song, and why it means so much to country music. But the film shortly cut to file footage of protesters in the streets denouncing the Vietnam War, riots on college campuses, helicopters flying over canopy jungle, and troops firing automatic weapons into the bush. These images would be ones revisited throughout the episode while important figures in country music during the era went unmentioned, and more Johnny Cash, and more Johnny Cash, and more Johnny Cash flashed across the screen, along with multiple features on Bob Dylan that now means more face time has been afforded to the folk singer in this documentary than dozens of high profile Country Music Hall of Famers.

Undoubtedly, you could not tell the story of country music in the late 60’s and early 70’s without broaching the political upheaval and countercultural revolution roiling American society at the time. And as Ken Burns and screenwriter Dayton Duncan have shown a propensity to do, they used the story of Johnny Cash as a personification of this turmoil as a man who crossed the cultural divide, and invited others to follow him. If this documentary ignored the moments Cash accompanied into history—whether on his Johnny Cash show shot at the Ryman Auditorium where he brought people such as Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger to join him on stage, or when he took a trip to the White House and refused to play “Welfare Cadillac,” and instead played “What is Truth”—it would have been a dereliction of duty. But the time spent on stories that were only proxies to country bogged this episode down in stretches.

In Episode 6, the legacies of Hall of Famers George Jones and Tammy Wynette were finally broached, both separately and intertwined as they should be. Brenda Lee had a great line about George, saying, “George Jones didn’t sing country songs. George was a country song.” About Tammy Wynette, Brenda Lee said, “The teardrop in her voice just said it all,” and she spoke about how sad of a person Tammy was off the stage to accompany her songs.

George Jones was quoted himself saying that he would try to sing a song, “…until you’re just like the people in the song, and you’re living it, and their problems become your problems, until you’re lost in the song, and it just takes everything out of you.”

George and Tammy would eventually become a couple when George visited Tammy at home one night where she lived with her songwriting husband, Don Chapel. George didn’t like the way Don spoke to Tammy, and flipped the living room table over, saying he wouldn’t let Don speak that way to her, “…because I’m in love with her, and she’s in love with me!” Tammy responded to with, “Yes, I am.”

Legendary producer Billy Sherrill also made his first appearances in the documentary, both in archival photos with Tammy as he took her under her wing, and as a commentator before his recent passing. Another producer had told Tammy they would work with her in exchange for sexual favors. Sherrill became her champion in Nashville.

But the profiles on these two Hall of Famers felt like the interlude, not the focus of Episode 6. Instead of the narrative of the story leading into the other important duet partners of the time in Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, we got more face time for Johnny Cash and the recording and release of his At San Quentin record, though this led into an important profile of Shel Silverstein, who wrote Cash’s biggest hit, “A Boy Named Sue,” and a slew of other landmark country songs. The story of Kris Kristofferson was also delved into deeply told through the story of Johnny Cash once again via Cash recording Kris’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”

Being disowned by his military family for becoming a songwriter, the Rhodes Scholar and Army Captain took work as a janitor at a recording studio just to get the opportunity to pitch his songs to the artists and producers passing by. We all know how things went from there, with Johnny Cash turning “Sunday Morning Coming Down” in to the CMA Song of the Year in 1970, and Janis Joplin cutting “Me and Bobby McGee.”

The 6th episode also delved into how television helped usher in a new era of country music, from Flatt & Scruggs receiving a big boost of attention by performing “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” to Glen Campbell’s TV show, to the introduction of the show Hee-Haw into the American living room, making country’s characters and cornpone humor a bigger part of the American cultural diet.

But just when you though the film had gotten back to the music, more file footage of the Vietnam era started rolling once again at the 1 hour and 15-minute mark, and once again the momentum of the episode seemed to fail. It wasn’t that important information wasn’t brought forth in these segments. The story of Jan Howard losing one of her sons in the war, and then losing another to suicide made for a pretty stirring moment. Her recount of when anti-war protesters came to her door, and she told them she 100% respected their right to protest, but if they ever came back, “I’ll blow your head off with a .357 Magnum,” is a pretty legendary anecdote of country music history.

Earl Scruggs, and even Charlie Daniels appeared at a peace rally in Washington, and the complicated matter of Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” was addressed in the episode. “Everybody in country music knew Merle Haggard smoked marijuana,” Ray Benson recalled, seeing Merle as a traitor for recording the song. “How could you do this to us?”

But Merle Haggard didn’t offer a lot of clarification or insight into whether “Okie From Muskogee” was supposed to be taken literally, sarcastically, both, or neither, though theorists on both sides love to tell you they’re right. Merle simply told Ken Burns, “The main message I think is, ‘I’m proud to be something. I’m proud to be black. I’m proud to be white. I’m proud to be an Okie.’ And there’s a lot of people who identify with that.”

Gram Parson and The Byrds were also introduced in the episode, and the story was told about them being booed at the Opry. Willie Nelson leaving Nashville helped set up the storyline for the next episode. But too often in Episode 6 did you feel like important stories got quick vignettes, while lengthy moments of Vietnam file footage got more attention, trying to set a mood.

As the 8-part Country Music documentary was in the heat of production, Ken Burns was finishing up his last epic film—his 10-part Vietnam War that was released in 2017. With the amount of time it takes for Ken Burns to produce his films (Country Music took over 7 years), multiple productions regularly coincide. With Vietnam on the brain, perhaps the war got a little too much play in Country Music. Again, it wasn’t that some parallels and narratives weren’t worth touching on or even delving into. But moving into the final segment of Episode 6, yet again file footage of the war and protests flashed on the screen as opposed to archive photos or footage of country stars.

Also during the primary production of Country Music, the Country Music Hall of Fame’s major exhibit was called “Dylan, Cash, and The Nashville Cats.” Where previous major exhibits had focused on the Hank Williams Legacy, The Bakersfield Sound era, and the current exhibit delves into the Outlaw era, this might have persuaded Ken Burns and the other film principles to weigh the significance of the Dylan/Cash friendship too heavily. It was an essential to feature their friendship. Having it take up large portions of now two episodes seems heavy handed, especially with so many important figures in country music not mentioned or featured at all.

The end of Episode 6 covered the recording of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s epic 3-part concept album Will The Circle Be Unbroken in east Nashville with a host of country music legends, including Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, and many others, bridging the gap between both generations, and country music’s cultural divide. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was the new school string band in town, and they had invited the old guard in to play second fiddle to them. “It ain’t nothing but country,” Roy Acuff insisted during the recording session.

There was a lot of great moments, stories, and country music information conveyed in Episode 6. But Ken Burns did himself no favors with those who’ve criticized from the beginning of the documentary that too many performers are being overlooked, too much attention is being paid to Johnny Cash, and the priorities of the filmmakers are getting in the way of the story. For the most part, these concerns have been misguided. Writer Dayton Duncan has said many times about the film that it’s not their intent to compile an encyclopedia on country music, but tell its story through its primary characters, important moments, and memorable songs. But in Episode 6, too much time was given to extraneous file footage, information most any American already knows, and stuff more fit for the Ken Burns Vietnam film.

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Episode 7 airing Tuesday night focuses mostly on the Texas connection to country, and the rise of the country music Outlaws. It is also the only Episode to stretch to 2 1/2 hours.

Episodes 1 thru 6 can now be streamed online.

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