Saturday, October 5, 2019
"Country Music" ~ What Ken Missed
At the outset, Ken determined that the focus of his country music series would be Johnny Cash. I don't know why, but I can guess. As a non-country fan who probably is a subscriber to Rolling Stone Magazine, Cash took on a sheen; became a sort of demigod in Burns' eyes. Ken needed someone to wrap his episodes around, and who better? Cash led a melodramatic life. He had it all ~ family tragedy, rockabilly roots, substance abuse, infidelity; plus he sired a hugely successful daughter. The continuum.
The commenters on the one country music site I frequent invariably mentioned their dismay with Burns' absorption with Johnny Cash, to the exclusion of many deserving artists. It's a shame, really. A lost opportunity.
I've already talked about the complete disrespect shown to George Strait, but there are others.
Here, to me, are the most glaring omissions:
Jerry Lee Lewis ~ Ken spent a lot of time, quizzically on Elvis Presley. Not once was there a time when Elvis was even remotely country. His label-mate on Sun Records, however, not only is one of the most phenomenal artists of all time, but Jerry Lee Lewis actually had a successful country career. Nowhere in this eight-part series did Jerry Lee get a single mention. And, unlike Elvis, Jerry Lee actually loves music, country or otherwise. Jerry Lee is not a caricature.
Ray Price ~ We caught a glimpse of Ray Price somewhere within episode five or six, or something. I don't remember, but it was in the context of talking about some other artist. Had Ken been at all curious, he would have found that Ray Price was the country singer of the fifties and early sixties. No, not Hank Snow or Roy Acuff ~ Ray Price. And since Ken seems to have a fascination with Nudie suits, who better? But let's be frank: Willie can thank his lucky stars that Ray Price recorded Night Life, and Roger Miller would not have had a career at all without Invitation To The Blues. Bill Anderson? How about City Lights? I could go on, but Ray can speak for himself:
Don Gibson ~ I'm not a fan of Don's singing, but that's not what made him iconic. He wrote many of the songs that were heavily featured (by other artists) in the series: I Can't Stop Loving You (Ray Charles), Sweet Dreams (Patsy Cline); as well as (I'd Be A) Legend In My Time (Ronnie Milsap) and Just One Time (Connie Smith), and many others. To feature those artists and not include the man who wrote the songs is inexcusable.
Don Rich ~ I've heard Buck Owens' recording of Together Again when he sang harmony with himself. Trust me, Don Rich hit that song out of the park. There wasn't enough focus on iconic bands overall in this series. The Strangers (and Bonnie Owens' contribution to Merle's sound) received no mention. The declaration that Roy Nichols was in someone else's band when Merle snatched him up went mostly unnoticed.
Don Rich was the heart of the Buckaroos, and if Buck was still alive, he'd say the same. Everything changed after Don died. He was the bandleader, he was the Telecaster master, he was the harmony singer extraordinaire.
Gene Watson ~ Country music was soooo in the doldrums in 1975. We had Tanya Tucker and...well, that's about it. I was working a menial job that allowed me to carry my portable radio around with me when I heard Love In The Hot Afternoon, and I was transfixed. This guy could sing, and he hadn't even yet shown off his best stuff:
Glen Campbell ~ Glen wasn't just some guy who had a network television show, but that's what one would glean from Ken Burns' dismissive reference to him. In the late sixties, one could not flip on their radio without hearing a Campbell song, ad nauseum, I would add. But damn ~ he deserved some love in this series, and he got zero.
Marty Robbins ~ come on! I know Ken is not a country aficionado, but Marty Robbins? Did Ken at least watch Breaking Bad?
Tanya Tucker ~ She was thirteen and I was seventeen and hotly jealous when my radio started playing Delta Dawn. Ken talked about Brenda Lee (who I love), but no reference to this phenom? Ken, Ken.
There are other niggling points, but these are the standouts to me; in addition to George, of course, who deserved far better. I could forgive a few, but it seems so obvious to me that country icons, regardless of whether they did or didn't sing about prisons, shouldn't have been ignored.
A couple less seconds about Johnny's Rick Rubin recordings and a few more about artists that country fans revere could have sent this series into the stratosphere.
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