8 of ’19: Ken Burns’ “Country Music”

This is the tenth of a 19 part list of my favorite things about 2019. There are books and movies and artists and albums and places and experiences. Making the list has been a helpful way of looking back and taking stock of my year. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some important items. No doubt in 20 years I’ll look back at several things on the list and ask, “Huh?” But this is an attempt at this moment in time to remember…

I’ve been on a mission for years to convince people of this maxim: Country music is not and has never been about one thing. The people who take to social media on Country music awards show nights to decry the state of the genre and how far it has slipped from “traditional country,” often cite as “real country” songs, sounds, and artists that were rejected as “not country enough” when they were released to the listening public. Conversely, people for whom the genre has become more closely tied with their conservative politics than with their tastes often reject (and usually don’t even bother to listen to) songs, sounds, and artists who are actually reclaiming and mastering more traditional aspects of the genre. The spine tingling, joy-filled 2016 CMA Awards performance by Beyonce and The Dixie Chicks of the Daddy Lessons/Long Time Gone mashup that was rejected by red-state MAGA heads comes to mind. As does one of this years’ most traditional sounding country tunes, penned by Jason Isbell and sung by The Highwomen, If She Ever Leaves Me.

Ken Burns’ Country Music takes this theme and fleshes it out as only Burns can– masterfully. And, I would add, subversively. In addition to making use of the regular lineup of country music documentary commentators– Marty Stuart, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, and Sharon White– he includes the voices of Rhiannon Giddens and Charley Pride, and makes a point to highlight the story of DeFord Bailey, giving a subtle nod to the uncomfortable reality that a conversation about Country Music cannot occur without a conversation about race, racism, cultural appropriation, and globalism.

To be sure, he could have gone further. Leaving out the 2003 Dixie Chicks/Toby Keith/Iraq War controversy was unfortunate. Regardless, it was all I wanted it to be and more. The last 10 minute montage of the final episode was iconic, and the storytelling throughout was illuminating and educational, particularly how he helped describe how that although country music is about being from somewhere, usually a small town, the genre was forged in the fires of cities.

The 90+ song soundtrack is also a must-own for anyone interested in the story of America.

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