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Country Music will chronicle the history of a uniquely American art form, rising from the experiences of remarkable people in distinctive regions of our nation. From southern Appalachia’s songs of struggle, heartbreak and faith to the rollicking western swing of Texas, from California honky tonks to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, we will follow the evolution of country music over the course of the twentieth century, as it eventually emerged to become America’s music.
What is remarkable is that country music is generally presented as a closed shop. If it is not Nashville and was not on the Grand Ole Opre it just is not authentic.
Ken Burns has told the better story: it is all intertwined. Willie Nelson did not succeed in Nashville but he went back to Texas and did what he wanted: jazz, the Great American Song book etc. Many other country stars came from other venues of music. Rock and the always important blues music from blacks is carefully put in place.
This series varies widely from the traditional story of country. On a technical level it points out the use of violin strings, electric guitars and more modern studio techniques.
Though the size of the revenue is not discussed you cannot miss the huge financial rewards that were (and are today) involved. Burns usually leaves the money out. No problem.
I play guitar and sing as an amateur. It is a hobby to me. MAny of the country songs I have been doing for decades. They are just as valid to my music as The Great American songbook and rock. Burns did a great job and the people he used for interviews were very representative of various styles and epochs.
The first episode of Ken Burns’ “Country Music” was in most respects an excellent show. It was particularly interesting to see the heavy African-American influence on country music documented, including astonishing photos of Black and white musicians in the same bands at a time when the races were rigidly segregated through most of the South. Indeed, at times it seems as if all American popular music mixes Black roots with something else. Put Black music together with the white marching-band tradition and you get jazz. Put Black music together with Jewish folk music, and you get Tin Pan Alley, Broadway musicals and the “Great American Songbook.” Put Black music together with the English and Irish folk traditions, mix in influences from Latin America and Hawai’i, and you get country music. The portrayals of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers were especially interesting and moving — including those awesome photographs of Rodgers’ funeral train drawing the same mourning and apprehensive crowds that President Lincoln’s funeral train had drawn nearly 70 years earlier.
But one important name in the history of country music is virtually omitted: Vernon Dalhart. (His name is briefly seen in a newspaper clipping but he’s totally unmentioned in the narration.) He was an operatically trained pop singer who had signed a contract with Thomas Edison’s record label in 1916. In 1922 Dalhart recorded for Edison “The Wreck of the Old 97,” a song he’d written about a real-life mail train disaster outside Danville, Virginia in 1903. Two years later he remade the song for the Victor label and that version sold over one million copies, the first country record to break the million mark. It was the huge success of “The Wreck of the Old 97” that established country music as a commercial genre and led both Victor and its competitors to seek out more artists in this style. “The Wreck of the Old 97” became a country standard and had many cover versions, including ones by Johnny Mercer, Hank Snow and Johnny Cash. A history of country music that omits Vernon Dalhart is woefully incomplete.
Celebrated American documentarian who gradually amassed a considerable reputation and a devoted audience with a series of reassuringly traditional meditations on Americana. Burns’ works are treasure troves of archival materials; he skillfully utilizes period music and footage, photographs, periodicals and ordinary people’s correspondence, the latter often movingly read by seasoned professional actors in a deliberate attempt to get away from a “Great Man” approach to history. Like most non-fiction filmmakers, Burns wears many hats on his projects, often serving as writer, cinematographer, editor and music director in addition to producing and directing. He achieved his apotheosis with The Civil War (1990), a phenomenally popular 11-hour documentary that won two Emmys and broke all previous ratings records for public TV. The series’ companion coffee table book–priced at a hefty $50–sold more than 700,000 copies. The audio version, narrated by Burns, was also a major best-seller. In the final accounting, “The Civil War” became the first documentary to gross over $100 million. Not surprisingly, it has become perennial fund-raising programming for public TV stations around the country. Burns arrived upon the scene with the Oscar-nominated Brooklyn Bridge (1981), a nostalgic chronicle of the construction of the fabled edifice. The film was more widely seen when rebroadcast on PBS the following year. Though Burns has made other nonfiction films for theatrical release, notably an acclaimed and ambiguous portrait of Depression-era Louisiana governor Huey Long (1985), PBS would prove to be his true home. He cast a probing eye on such American subjects as The Statue of Liberty (1985), The Congress (1988) (PBS), painter Thomas Hart Benton (1988) (PBS) and early radio with Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (1991) (PBS). Burns returned to long-form documentary with his most ambitious project to date, an 18-hour history of Baseball (1994), which aired on PBS in the fall of 1994. He approached the national pastime as a template for understanding changes in modern American society. Ironically, this was the only baseball on the air at the time, as the players and owners were embroiled in a bitter strike.