Country music: A Film by Ken Burns

DVD Wholesale Quick Overview:

Had scattered family and friends watching on the strength of the first two episodes. We were so mesmerized, we all watched the immediate rebroadcast and couldn’t wait for the next segment. Bought 2 sets. Amazing clarity and great details about the beginnings. Loved the treatment of Jimmie Rodgers. Enjoyed the historical extras about the rise of radio and the cast of background characters throughout the first 4. Classic Ken Burns. But what happened? 5, 6, and 7 were excruciating to watch. Were there complications getting permission? No Johnny Horton? “North to Alaska” “Battle of New Orleans” “Sink the Bismarck” “Whispering Pines”? Where was Tennessee Ernie Ford and the tome “Sixteen Tons”? Bobby Helms and “Fraulein”? Marty Robbins had a string of number one hits! You skipped many notable historical markers that lost out to slow pans of the Carter Family, again and again-same stuff. Would have preferred the Americana of Lefty Frizzel singing “Saginaw Michigan” or Kitty Wells “How Far is Heaven?” You overdid Johnny Cash so much you almost made me tired of a favorite. Rosanne Cash is delightful, why wear her out? Delving into the definition and meandering meaning of “Country” was spot on, until harped on to the loss of precious time that should have gone to many other important artists. You missed the chance to broaden the series, widen your cast and accurately depict what really happened. You barely mentioned Glen Campbell. Unbelievable. Another chance to highlight a brilliant songwriter, Jimmy Webb: “Whicita Lineman”. In Campbell, you had a “Rhinestone Cowboy” (number 1 hit) to echo several of your fun themes and you missed that? Another tempestuous love life and poignant end? You showed John Denver but didn’t let him “Take Me Home Country Roads”. The history left out is startling! Instead you used up time making me want to mute “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. Wouldn’t have thought that possible. Janis Joplin, hardly a country persona, you gave space for “Bobby McGee” and then left out Linda Ronstadt and “Blue Bayou” (among her several other TOP TEN hits dripping with country). And it is tho the coal minors daughter had no famous country sister in Crystal Gayle. Not worth a little air? That should make your brown eyes blue! This series is half the genius of Ken Burns, and half so disappointing it makes me wonder if some segments were turned over to young Johnny Cash acolytes who actually just went for the easy production of using available footage? I’d give them 2 stars. 8 comes back with a bang and saved me from returning the series.
– Deb

“Country Music” (2019 mini-series; 8 episodes) is the latest documentary mini-series from Ken Burns. This time around, Burns and his team are bringing us the story of country music. As “Episode One – The Rub (Beginning – 1933)” opens, we are given some introductory comments from various country celebrities (Kris Kristofferson: “Country is a white man’s soul music”), and then we go back to the 1920, when almost in parallel paths, the rise of both radio and the phonograph were instrumental to the rise of country(then called hillbilly) music to a wider audience. Along the way, we get a country music instruments 101 on the fiddle, the banjo (did you know the banjo was brought over from Africa?), the mandolin and the guitar (mobility of these instruments was key–hence no role in country music for the piano). The second hour of the first episode zeros in on the origins of the Grand Ole Opry, the Carter family (yes, of June Carter fame), and Jimmie Rodgers.

Couple of comments: “Country Music” aims to achieve what Ken Burns did with the “Jazz” documentary mini-series hoped to achieve. “Country Music” comes in 8 episodes of 2 hours each. That gives Ken Burns and his team a lot of room to explore. I love how the film makers set us up for the detailed account of what happened in the summer of 1927 in Bristol, TN when the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers are discovered. In the end, a great documentary is all about great story-telling, and Ken Burns and his team have proven, time and again, that they are masterful at that. Having researched this meticulously (and finding a treasure trove of historical recordings, pictures and footage, only enhances the viewing experience.

“Country Music” premiered last night on PBS, and will continue with new 2 hour episodes this week and next through Thursday the 26th. I absolutely loved Episode 1, and can’t wait to spend 7 more evenings watching this unfold. If you like a great documentary or are a fan of music history, I’d readily suggest you check this out, be it on TV, on VOD or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray, and draw your own conclusion. “Country Music” is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

*Update 9/17/19* Episode 2 “Hard Times (1933-1945)” aired on PBS last night, and was more of the same (in the best possible way). “Hard times and country music were made for each other” comments someone, and that is very clear as we see the country struggling through the Great Depression, while hillbilly music continues to grow in popularity. Gene Autry gets extensive coverage, as does Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. But the star of this episode is the Grand Ole Opry, which finally finds a permanent home in the beautiful Ryan Auditorium…

*Update 9/19/19* Episodes 3 (“Hillbilly Shakespeare 1945-1953”) and 4 (“I Can’t Stop Loving You 1953-1963”) are now in the books, marking the half-way point of the mini-series. Episode 3 focuses on Hank Williams a/k/a the Hillbilly Shakespeare although certainly others are highlighted too: Eddy Arnold, Bill Monroe, Earle Scruggs, the Maddox Brothers & Rose, just to name those. Episode 3 feels like it is the very best of the series. Episode 4 focuses on Johnny Cash, when rockabilly almost destroyed “country” music (“country almost died on the vine”, one comments). Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson and Ray Charles are some of the others highlighted in this episode. I get the sense that we have reached crescendo and going forward it will all start to sound quite familiar. Episode 3 marks THE highlight of this documentary mini-series.

*Update 9/28/19* I now have seen the last 4 episodes, which I expected to be a drop-off from the stellar first 4 episodes, and they were a bit but not nearly as disappointing as I had expected. What a terrific series this has been. Thank you Ken Burns and Co. for bringing us this fabulous documentary!
– Paul Allaer

DVD Wholesale Main Features :   

Actors: n, a
Directors: Ken Burns
Format: NTSC, Widescreen
Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only.)
Number of discs: 8
Rated: PG-Parental Guidance Suggested
Studio: PBS (Direct)
DVD Release Date: September 17, 2019
Run Time: 960 minutes

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