So Ken Burns has a new multi-hour, PBS special, and The Daily Beast believed they were honor bound to review it. What Ken Burns’ 16-Hour ‘Country Music’ Epic Leaves Out. Malcolm Jones has a review you would expect out of a New York Media outlet. In a word, condescending.
Country Music and PBS in the same mental space is almost enough to give me a headache, but then throw in the Daily Beast… Actually, aside from New Yorkers tendency to look down on everyone who doesn’t love all things New York, the review isn’t bad. It isn’t great, but since I haven’t seen Burns’ new effort, I will give Jones some leeway.
First up however, we have Jones looking down on Country Music and its fans. (Even though it comes much later in the piece.)
You find hardly anything weird in country anymore—no recitations, no Bill Monroe psychotic falsetto, no corny humor, none of the qualities or eccentricities that made country unique, even if it alienated respectable middle-class listeners.
Old time country was weird, beneath the tastes of the middle class, and generally restricted to the idiots in the, well, country. I honestly can’t tell if he liked any of the music he references, or just knows it because it showed up in the PBS special. (Any bets?) The fact that a lot of early country music had at least some religious overtones, probably didn’t endear it to Mr. Jones, or maybe I’m projecting.
But his main beef with the Country Music genre seems to be that it was the music genre “created by radio.” (Well there’s another, and I bet you can guess what it is.)
More than any other genre, country is the creation of radio and the record business. Of course, chart success determines who gets sold and promoted in any genre. But nearly every genre, from blues to jazz to rock and roll, existed as musical styles before being gobbled up by the music industry.
I’m not sure you can make that statement with a straight face, when the 1960s and 1970s Rock and Roll radio stations (and record companies) were dominated by “Top 40” stations, and the worst insult was to be a “one hit wonder.” If your records were not on the Billboard Chart, no one heard them. At least until FM came along, and every community and small college suddenly had a radio station, and they could play stuff that wasn’t Top 40. Like Progressive Rock, and Jazz, Fusion, even weird comedy recordings from Firesign Theater.‡
The other dart thrown at country, was race. As if the country as a whole wasn’t segregated in “that serendipitous August in 1927,” (the month and year cited by Jones) when radio was just getting started. And he claims, mostly by omitting any details to the contrary, that when rock started in the 1950s, it was immediately integrated. Do I really need to bring up the career of Pat Boone? He had several hits that were covers of Rock and Roll songs done originally by black artists, but the record executives didn’t think that such artists were appropriate for the tender sensibilities of Middle America. Or white, urban America either. But somehow, that all falls on the County Music artists, and not the record company executives at the various labels of the day. (Didn’t anyone see the original Hairspray movie?)
Jones goes on at length with a continuation of the complaint I referenced first. That is about how modern Country has become homogenized under the music industry. But from where I sit most music in America has been homogenized. So much so that I’ve mostly given up on new American music in favor of European labels. That is at least as much because of the tiny minds running the American music industry, as the American public. As I’ve discovered with Musical Interludes, people become comfortable with a certain kind of music in their youth, and then refuse to listen to anything else, because reasons. They say “I don’t like X” and I often wonder if they’ve ever actually listened to anything aside from Top 40, or whatever.
Still, I will give Malcolm Jones and The Daily Beast this much credit; I am mildly interested in seeing the newest effort by Ken Burns, though maybe I will just re-watch The Civil War.
‡ By the standards of 2019, The Firesign Theater is NOT politically correct. That isn’t a complaint, just a warning. SJW heads will explode.