Various Artists: Country Music—A Film by Ken Burns (The Soundtrack)

September 11, 2019
Various Artists: Country Music—A Film by  Ken Burns (The Soundtrack)

Ken Burns’ documentaries have their fans and their detractors. Some feel he plays it too safe, doesn’t go deep or wide enough; others marvel that he’s able to cover as much ground as he does. And, this fall, they’ll have the chance to evaluate his take on the history of
country music. As he did in his 10part jazz series, Burns promises, in this new multi-part presentation, to dig beyond the surface into the roots, to follow the genre’s evolution as it branches out from what was once called hillbilly music toward the American entertainment mainstream, landing reasonably close to the present. Legacy’s audio companion release stuffs 104 tracks onto five discs—country tunes tend to be short—and touches on most of what you’d expect to find in a package of that breadth that shoots for comprehensiveness. There’s plenty of Hank Williams and, of course, Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, George Jones and Patsy Cline. You’ll also find Gene Autry, Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and both Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs representing the bluegrass side of things. But as is often the case on far-reaching collections, the most interesting inclusions are sometimes the ones that surprise: The country-rock crossover that began in the ‘60s doesn’t get a whole lot of representation (no Poco or Eagles) but the compilers did find space for a track from The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo , and as the chronology inches toward the contemporary, it doesn’t ignore what was going on in Texas starting in the ‘70s (Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt) While most of the collection aims to make sure that the biggest names are accounted for, there are some that may not be familiar to casual fans (Jeannie Seely, The Coon Creek Girls). Mostly though, it’s all about great songs. So many of these tunes— from “Home on the Range” to “Me and Bobby McGee”—are embedded into the American cultural fabric, and it’s great to find so many of them huddled together. Jeff Tamarkin