There could also be no documentarian who’s ever taken the dictation to “present your work” extra severely than Ken Burns. The omnipresent filmmaker has made his identify on deep, dense dives into American tradition that present as a lot context and archival materials as doable with out fogging up the general narrative. It’s a formidable balancing act that has helped him direct and produce examinations on all the things from the evolution of baseball, the lasting legacy of the Roosevelts, the intricate horrors of the Vietnam Struggle, and past. Now, alongside producer Julie Dunfey and author/producer Dayton Duncan, Burns has set his sights on the origins and affect of nation music, a totally American style with an especially difficult historical past. It’s a vastly formidable venture given simply what number of a long time the style has encompassed. Whereas Burns’ “Jazz” zoomed in on about 30 years of historical past over the course of four episodes, “Nation Music” tries to elucidate practically a century of music; even with eight episodes spanning 16 hours complete, “Nation Music” can’t fairly join all of the dots it presents (or, for that matter, those it doesn’t).
In equity: There are so many dots, a lot of them as compelling as American historical past ever will get. As written by Duncan, “Nation Music” unfolds as each an oral historical past and string of flattering portraits. (The overwhelming majority of interviews are with musicians and their members of the family; it’s arduous not to consider what the collection would possibly appear like had been extra historians included.) Iconic figures like Johnny Money, Dolly Parton, and Hank Williams offering narrative throughlines; some episodes embody a decade, others just some pivotal years. The fervour for the subject material shines via the grainy recovered footage and insights from nation music luminaries (a few of whom have since died, making their appearances right here really feel that rather more poignant). In interviews, ladies like Parton, Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Money, and Reba McEntire discuss their successes and ambitions, flashing vivid and pointed smiles every time they’ve to deal with the sexism that greeted them alongside the way in which. Males like Marty Stuart and Merle Haggard reminisce about their heroes and overtly weep whereas reciting their favourite lyrics. Even essentially the most violent drunks get sentimental sendoffs in the event that they as soon as managed to write down an honest music.
On occasion comes a real gem of an unscripted second, like when Kris Kristofferson meditates on the spirituality of songwriting, or when Loretta Lynn quips in regards to the backlash to her music about contraception (“The Tablet”), “If [the pill] had been out after I was having youngsters, I’d’ve eaten ‘em like popcorn.” (As “Nation Music” makes plain, nation music may need been all dirges and pitying ballads had been it not for sly wits like Lynn’s.) Nearly extra rewarding than seeing acquainted faces is how “Nation Music” finds tales about individuals who solely diehard followers would possibly know, like songwriters Felice and Boydleaux Bryant, whose love story (advised partly right here by their beaming son) fueled extra hits than many watching would have recognized.
“Nation Music” has such a palpable reverence for its materials and charismatic characters, actually, that it nearly turns into preemptively defensive. Because the docuseries itself describes in painstaking element, nation music was borne out of frustration, poured out of people that felt neglected and under-appreciated. It took a long time for the mainstream music business to acknowledge nation music’s energy, and solely when it was such an simple moneymaker that ignoring it meant dropping out on potential windfalls. Nation music was born with a chip on its shoulder and a cussed adherence to “custom,” which “Nation Music” spends a lot of its hours explaining with out getting too deep into the uglier elements of that mixture. (The collection ends considerably randomly in 1996, that means it doesn’t have to the touch such modern-day problems as, say, the business excising the Dixie Chicks after they dared counter the celebration line on the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.) Possibly the perfect instance of how the collection leaves such wealthy angles unexamined comes when it quotes a Nation Music Awards official as saying that “the followers of our music elect the presidents, run the factories, develop the meals, transport our items, and on the whole manipulate the gears of this nation on daily basis” — after which simply strikes on, as if stating this large energy with out analyzing its implications any additional is sufficient.
“Nation Music” additionally spends a while acknowledging that the style was additionally born out of a fractured nation the place most of the individuals who impressed its most iconic sounds had been just lately enslaved — an important element that by no means fairly will get as a lot consideration because it deserves.
The primary couple episodes do element the African origins of the banjo and the unavoidable fact of nation’s common minstrel reveals, and a turning level of a center episode shines a welcome highlight on groundbreaking Black nation singer Charley Delight. However all through its 16 hours, the collection is extra prone to acknowledge a racist actuality earlier than rapidly pivoting to an anecdote about somebody like Delight overcoming it. A phase about how the Nation Music Awards tried to get Lynn to offer Delight the chilly shoulder when he gained Vocalist of the 12 months ends along with her shrugging that she as a substitute hugged him. There’s no actual try and interrogate the systemic racism that led to the request within the first place, which appears particularly complicated given how related this dynamic stays at present. (If “Nation Music” had been to stretch to the current day, it could be attention-grabbing to see what it would do with Lil Nas X and his many defiant “Outdated City Street” remixes.) Greater than a pair (white) interviewees attempt to say that “hillbillies” had been seemed down upon in a comparable method to how the nation checked out black individuals, a ridiculous declare given enslavement and institutionalized segregation that goes unchecked. And even except for the truth that racism within the business and past ought to positively have an even bigger half all through the collection, it’s irritating to look at because the collection retains sidestepping its personal compelling angles for one more go to to the Grand Ole Opry.
With over 90 years of historical past to cowl, “Nation Music” does what it could actually to attract an correct image of the business and its place inside American historical past in the course of the time interval it describes. It did its homework and respects the subject material; it’s a real archival feat. However its overwhelmingly nostalgic lens might in the end make the collection extra for preexisting nation followers than curious newcomers wanting to know its historical past and enchantment. For as a lot time as “Nation Music” has to tie these threads collectively, it leaves an terrible lot of unstitched materials on the desk.
“Nation Music” premieres Sunday, September 15 at eight pm on PBS.