"George Strait racked up sixty number one hits, more than any artist in any genre, so here's a thirty-second clip about him."
I don't want to let my disappointment with Episode 8 of Ken Burns' "Country Music" sour me on the entire series. The documentary truly was a relevatory event. However, aside from the sixties, this was the episode I was anticipating the most, and....well, wow.
I'll do a summation of the series in a subsequent post, but for now, let's address the time period of 1984 to 1996.
The good: Dwight Yoakam. 'Bout time, is all I can say. Dwight has been snubbed by the Nashville community for...well, forever; inexplicably. I thought the industry liked hits, and Dwight certainly racked up those. Yoakam, however, was "different", and we can't have that. Unlike some of the obscure artists and songwriters Burns spent too much time chronicling, Dwight Yoakam has bona fides.
Kathy Mattea: Although Ken didn't feature any of Mattea's best tracks, I was still heartened that she was included. In a previous post, I noted a few of the female artists from the era; and Burns could have highlighted any of them ~ Pam Tillis, Paulette Carlson ~ at least he picked one of the good ones.
Vince Gill: Vince's music resides in a special chamber of my heart. It's all tied up in memory, naturally, as music is; and "Look At Us" is the last song on a special 50th wedding anniversary cassette I created for my mom and dad (I still have that cassette somewhere.)
Ken Burns is a country music neophyte. However, as a documentarian, he was obligated to do his research, and he either didn't or he had predetermined agenda.
How impactful was George Strait in country music? I came back to country in the mid-eighties, and if George Strait hadn't existed, I probably would have stayed, but my eighteen CD's (and one box set) attest that he deserved more than an obligatory nod. Much more.
I was so disturbed by George's diss, I couldn't drive it from my mind. I contemplated adding a comment to Burn's "Country Music" site, but what was the point? What was done was done. Ken wasn't about to undertake a do-over.
Randy Travis ~ Burns seemed more interested in Randy's hard-luck early life than the fact that he created the neo-traditionalist movement. Back of the hand, Randy! On to Garth!
Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Mark Chesnutt, Travis Tritt ~ ppsshhh ~ mere footnotes.
I like The Judds; I like Reba to an extent; I'm not a big Garth fan, but okay ~ I'll give him his due. But we can quarrel 'til the end of time over which artist had the biggest impact on country music in the eighties and nineties; and if you want to argue that it wasn't George Strait, you lose.
One major component Burns missed was that, while he was so focused on songs with "deep meaning", that's not all that country music is. Sometimes music is FUN. In fact, MOSTLY music should be fun. I don't want my musical life to be a job. While "Go Rest High On That Mountain" is a stirring song, you can't exactly dance to it. And maybe that was Ken's innate bias and downfall. He thinks country music fans are sitting at home, soberly contemplating the cryptic message in every song. Maybe that's why he dismissed George Strait in favor of Cash's prison laments.
Sad songs can be fun, too. Not fun in the sense that listeners are dancing on a grave, but stunning in the searing pain that punches them in the gut. That's what Burns, as a non-country chronicler, didn't grasp.
I've read that Ken might do an "addendum" to his series. I say, too late. "Oh, there was George Strait and Randy Travis, too." No thanks. George, Randy, Alan, Clint, Mark, et al, aren't after-thoughts.
If you don't know country music and are relying on Ken Burns to provide you with the essence, let me offer another perspective:
Oh, gosh. This track doesn't say one word about prisons...or trains. It doesn't talk about a hardscrabble life. It's just fun, and we can't allow that.
Ken, you tried. Mostly you did well. I don't want to come across as a stern school marm, but frankly, for this episode you didn't do your homework. I'll get over it, truly. I won't ever watch Episode 8 again, but I'm pretty okay with the others. And let me say that no one else would ever do it, would ever even try. You did it.
This series in many ways was the highlight of my year. I know that if I had the resources to create a series about country music, a bunch of people would be mad at me, too; for too much focus on somebody and not enough on somebody else. But really, Ken? You don't get George Strait?