The Ken Burns documentary series Country Music ended recently, and I’m just now settling down in my recliner to binge-watch all eight episodes – 16 hours’ worth. The entire world has gone cuckoo for the past two weeks over this PBS presentation that will most likely win a bunch of awards and push the vaunted filmmaker into full-blown celluloid sainthood.
People are eager to read all about the series and to visit sites that offer stories. My boss told me to write 750 insightful words to corral some of those clicks. I agreed without mentioning that my judgment is tainted. See, I hate the documentary already and haven’t even hit “play” yet.
“Have you been watching the country music documentary?” I’ve been asked 173 times since the series premiered on September 15.
“I’m recording it on TiVo and plan to watch it soon,” I’ve responded 173 times.
Despite the mathematical improbability, I’ve heard 173,001 breathless and long-winded responses. (Is it possible to be breathless and long-winded? Yes. It. Is.) Most people wax at length about their favorite scene, episode, thematic interpretation, song, artist, photo, video, and random thought.
I nod, smile, and feign interest while trying to ignore the voices in my head urging me to kick the person in the shin mid-sentence. I miss the good old days when saying that you were recording a show was an easily understood verbal clue to keep your cakehole clamped. For instance, if I say, “Have you seen Romeo and Juliet?,” and you say, “No, I haven’t, but I’m recording it,” then you can bet my response will not be, “Oh! Oh! Juliet pretends to kill herself, but Romeo believes she’s really dead, so he kills himself for real, and then Juliet wakes up and says, ‘Oh, shit,’ and offs herself, too. You’re gonna love it!”
The “I’m recording” rule doesn’t apply to St. Burns and his new documentary. Viewers figure it’s so long and chock full of information that they can dish on a scene or two in conversation and not give too much away. Here’s the problem: Since everyone and their uncles can’t wait to describe their favorite scenes, I’ve listened to what amounts to an audiobook of War and Peace narrated by King George VI. I feel like I’ve seen the show already, and most of the scenes that have been described to me so breathlessly are stories I’ve already heard.
“When Johnny Cash played at San Quentin, Merle Haggard was an inmate and heard him sing, and it inspired him to become a country singer!” someone told me. “Can you believe that?” Uh, yes. I can believe that. I believed it the first time I heard it 40 freaking years ago. Was I the only one reading Country Music Magazine back then? Am I the only one who went to the public library to read all the biographies of all the Hanks, Johnnies, Willies, and Waylons?
Now, I’ve used up most of my word count and haven’t even started watching the show yet. If I bullshit a while longer, I could finish my column without watching a frame, but that doesn’t strike me as sound journalism. I’ll watch the first episode or two and see if any epiphanies present themselves.
Episode 1 begins. I am bored immediately. My gag reflex kicks in at the three-minute mark when Garth Brooks looks into the camera with deep Chris Gaines-ish sincerity, taps his chest, and says country music comes from the heart. The narration begins, and whose voice do I hear? Who else? Peter Coyote, who apparently watched Burns steal a kitten years ago and has parlayed that blackmail knowledge into a lifetime contract.
The usual suspects are trotted out for interviews in the same old way, and I find myself wishing the documentary had been in rotoscope animation like Mike Judge’s Tales from the Tour Bus. I’m tired of the celebrity talking-head format used almost exclusively on these types of shows. I love Rosanne Cash, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, and other country stars, but they interrupt the documentary’s flow and best elements: the historic photos and videos. Kristofferson has appeared on countless shows like this over the years. Do you think he’s been saving his best stories until age 83 to lay them on Burns? No. He and others rehash stories they’ve told their whole lives, meaning fans of country music have most likely heard them. (My favorite talking head is Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel, whose plain talk and euphemisms are refreshing and fun.)
I struggle to make it through Episode 1. My interest level picks up in Episode 2 and grows more during Episode 3, which covers Hank Williams, a personal favorite. I’ve read quite a bit about Williams, but Burns provides photos I’d never seen. However, the subsequent episodes deal mostly with more modern artists such as Johnny Cash, George Jones, and the like, and those artists have been examined from top to bottom many times.
I didn’t finish the series but plan to soon. For now, I’ll just say Country Music is well done but not all that scintillating and is timeworn in its presentation. It’s like The Civil War with guitars. Burns released Civil War in 1990 and has done 10 similar documentaries, so shoot me if I don’t do cartwheels and join the Country Music cult.