Over seven years of full-time labor on the part of numerous people, over 101 interviews conducted, countless hours of archival work digging up old photographs, audio, video, and other vintage material, and an elongated year-long promotional effort finally culminated in the broadcast of the debut episode for the Ken Burns Country Music epic Sunday evening (9-15). The quality of a Ken Burns film is always appreciated and immediately recognizable. Whatever the material being covered, it’s always a warm feeling to settle into Ken’s latest dalliance into American history, to hear the narration of Peter Coyote, and behold the care and love given to the subject matter.
The first episode began with possibly the most important moment of the entire film, which consisted of country legends and personalities laboring to define what country music is. Dolly Parton offered her always-valued insight. You couldn’t help but get choked up a little bit when Merle Haggard came on the screen—one of the many country legends Ken Burns interviewed before their passing. Merle expertly said, “[Country music] is about these things that we believe in, but we can’t see, like dreams, and songs, and souls. They’re hanging around here, and songwriters reach out and get them.”
The recently-passed Mel Tillis also made an appearance, as did Holly Williams, Kathy Mattea, Rosanne Cash, and other important country music personalities that don’t regularly receive screen time in this era of popular culture. But the topic of discussion for the first episode was the very kernel origins of country music. Though some of the criticism preceding the film from those who’ve viewed it in its entirety is that it’s too light on detail and doesn’t pay enough attention to the African American contributions to country music, that didn’t pertain to this chapter.
With great depth, the dual origins of country music are laid out, how white Europeans and African slave ancestors gave rise to the music in the American South. Rhiannon Giddens is one of the tour guides through this period, coining the concoction of black and white influences in country music as “The Rub.” Just how important the African American influence on country music is gets underscored not just in the stories and pictures of early African American performers, but of many important Caucasian performers such as Jimmie Rodgers appeared in blackface to impersonate the black performers they were influenced by. Rhiannon Giddens also gives an actual illustration of the early banjo style that was cool to watch.
Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show might have been the most impressive personality to appear in the episode, offering a lot of great commentary and insight into the primitive origins of country music. This first episode may work as a coming out party for Ketch as one of country music’s premier contemporary intellectuals, with plenty of experience as a musician to back it up.
The first episode also covered the rise of Fiddlin’ John Carson, who was country music’s first commercially successful star, plenty of in-depth insight into the origins of The Carter Family, the Bristol Sessions, Jimmie Rodgers, Uncle Dave Macon, and harmonica player Deford Bailey and his importance to country’s rise on radio. Though many radio stations and programs deserve credit for the origin of country music, it’s no surprise that WSM and the Grand Ole Opry are a focal point in the film. As is explained, WSM was initially launched solely to sell insurance, with the call letters standing for “We Shield Millions,” stressing how country music has always been a close sibling to advertisement.
The great Marty Stuart, who is characterized as the “mascot” of this film, shows up in the second half of he episode, and offers a great quote in, “If Taylor Swift or Carrie Underwood, or whoever the hottest girl of the moment is wants to know where they come from, they need to go all the way back to the voice of Sara Carter [of The Carter Family].”
About the only concern for the content of the episode could be how Burns—and unabashed jazz guy—went on a couple of tangents to talk about jazz’s origins that felt a little self-indulgent. And no offense to Wynton Marsalis, but he seemed like a strange commentator for the subject matter.
There are still seven more episodes to go, and things could always go downhill from here. But the first taste of this film felt like a great start, even if a little fey in its subject matter for general audiences. There will be plenty of time spent on Hank Williams, the Outlaws, and Loretta Lynn in the future. But now the table is set for the superstars who owe their origins to the important influences and moments covered in this debut installment.
Good work so far.
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If you missed the episode, you can streaming it online now HERE.