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NPR Arts & Life

Filmmaker Ken Burns Goes Wide, But Not Deep, In His Chronicle Of 'Country Music'

Country star Dolly Parton, signing a guitar alongside writer Dayton Duncan (center) and filmmaker Ken Burns (right).

Ken Burns is our great explainer, television's finest illustrator. He's a filmmaker who gives us what we know from fresh angles, so that we can learn more and appreciate topics on a deeper level. Whether his subject is the Civil War or baseball, Burns has made an art of divining what most Americans know about a subject and then putting an arm around our collective shoulder and murmuring, "Yes, but have you seen this?"

Burns' latest subject of excavation and examination is the idiosyncratic world of country music. You'd think it would be a relatively straightforward project: Beyond the common wisdom that Hank Williams was country music's first great songwriter, there's a lot the average citizen doesn't know about this music's history — and getting footage of performers singing is easier than, say, sourcing film of Ty Cobb spiking a third baseman. Indeed, there are many entertaining moments in Burns' Country Music,including a clip in which Dolly Parton explains how her 1974 hit "I Will Always Love You" was inspired by her break with Porter Wagoner, the singing partner who launched her career.

Burns' Country Musicbegins in the 1920s, with pioneering engineer-producer Ralph Peer recording country artists for the first time, and continues on, in eight two-hour episodes, up through the 1990s. (Burns seems to have thrown up his hands before entering the 21st century, allowing him to avoid having to explain "bro country" or the rise of Taylor Swift.) The production, narrated by Peter Coyote, is also full to bursting with interviews of country music stars who speak on their own careers and lavish praise on each other. Pretty soon, all the back-scratching becomes tiresome.

Some 18 years ago, Burns gave us the history of jazz with the help of on-camera perspective by critics such as Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch and Gary Giddins. But Burns doesn't seem to think country music holds up to such scrutiny: How else to explain the presence of only one country music scholar, Bill C. Malone? To be sure, some performers — most notably Marty Stuart and Rosanne Cash — are eloquent in their grasp of country music's complexity. But where is context and commentary from critics and historians like, say, Jewly Hight or Holly Gleason, whose books have done so much to rewrite country history to include essential female voices? In place of scholarship, we are given gush.

There are also times when some of Burns' best notions aren't well-executed. The film's second hour has a promising section about the comedian Minnie Pearl, a woman too often neglected in surveys such as this. Yet, after establishing that this marvelous humorist was a college-educated wit whose cornpone stage image was a carefully crafted persona, the documentary then fails to show us any footage of her at work. Pearl was one of the most frequent and energetic guest stars on TV variety shows stretching from the 1950s through the 1980s, yet she is tucked away here with a miserable bit of audio. I was dumbfounded. In general, Burns and his writer, Dayton Duncan, present what used to be called the "Great Man" theory of history: The biggest stars and the most obvious ideas are the ones deemed most worthy.

Two years ago, in his series The Vietnam War, Burns deepened our knowledge of that country's history, giving Americans a new perspective from which to view the war. But in Country Music,Burns goes wide, not deep; it's rare for any musical excerpt to last more than 20 seconds, making it impossible for a singer to make an impression on a viewer unfamiliar with his or her work.

This time around, Burns has traveled down Hank Williams' "Lost Highway" with a busted GPS.

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