"Country Music TV Series Was Flawed"

October 8th, 2019

Logo for Ken Burns' PBS series Country Music

Recently, PBS aired an eight-part, 16-hour documentary by Ken Burns, titled Country Music. For those of you who loved the mini-series and want to own it, you can purchase a DVD set for $66, or buy the Blu Ray for $86. For those of you who didn’t get to watch Country Music., I advise you to save your money.

In addition to getting some of his facts wrong, Burns was also guilty of omitting a number of country music pioneers who made a significant contribution to the industry. Instead, he used his time to expound on how country music is a blended art form which derives its roots from Europe and Africa, and how the country sound has inspired a number of rock bands and folk singers. That’s OK, and I get that Bob Dylan was friends with Johnny Cash, but the time spent on those kinds of anecdotes would have been better spent recognizing giants of country music who Burns left out, like Carl Perkins, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Glen Campbell.

Carl Perkins is widely recognized as the King of Rockabilly, but you’d never know it from Burns’ film, in which Perkins received just two quick mentions as a guitar player for Johnny Cash. In truth, Cash, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Perkins were part of the original Sun Records gang, but it was Carl who was the master songwriter and picker of the four. Carl wrote and recorded “Blue Suede Shoes” in 1955 which sold millions of copies, and when he and Elvis went on tour together it was Perkins who the audiences screamed for, not Presley. If you want to talk about people who shaped and influenced country music in the latter half of the 20th century, and had an influence on other musical genres, just ask Paul McCartney who said, “Without Carl Perkins, there would be no Beatles.” How did Burns miss that?

Fourteen years before Loretta Lynn sang about being a “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded “16 Tons”, a ballad about being a coal miner. It was the number one hit song in the nation in 1955, and sold over two million records in its first two months. A year later, his first album of country gospel hymns hit the Billboard charts, and stayed there for 300 consecutive weeks. Ford has three different stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in addition to having a rich baritone voice, he was also an accomplished comedic actor, who went on to host his own primetime network show from 1956-1961. The Ford Show was must-see TV, and, despite blowback from his sponsors, Ernie insisted on ending each show with a gospel tune. In Country Music, Ken Burns led viewers to believe that Johnny Cash was the first country star to host a primetime series, and that the Man in Black insisted upon including gospel songs on each show. Sorry Ken, but Ford was the groundbreaker, not Cash, whose short-lived TV show didn’t premiere until 1971.

Speaking of getting the facts wrong, Burns failed to mention Glen Campbell, whose variety series bowed a year before Cash’s, and whose hit songs, (like “Gentle on My Mind”) made him the most successful country crossover artist of the modern era. Waylon Jennings once paid tribute to Campbell during a CMT special, in which he thanked Glen for always offering a spot on his show to country western singers whose careers were in a lull. Campbell is also acknowledged as one of the greatest guitarists of all time, so I am baffled by the Burns snub.

There are many other stars who should have merited at least a mention in Burns’ film, among them, Arthur Smith, whose “Guitar Boogie” sold 3 million records in 1945, and whose Charlotte recording studio was the first of its kind in the Southeast. But Smith is also famous for his groundbreaking lawsuit against Warner Brothers, who stole his “Feudin’ Banjos” and retitled it “Dueling Banjos”, which became a number one hit from the movie Deliverance. It was bluegrass music’s first major intellectual property fight, and Smith won big.

For me, Ken Burns’ Country Music was more notable for who it left out than for who it included, and, to quote a Barbara Mandrell song, that’s a crying shame.

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