A lot of TV shows flash past me, some quite good and some rather awful.
Occasionally, however, one is so good that I have to stop and marvel. I’ve just seen the two-hour opener of Ken Burns’ eight-night “Country Music”; it is truly great television.
This won’t reach TV until Sept. 15 (opening PBS’ season), but let’s talk about why it’s so good.
Certainly, that starts with the talent Burns surrounds himself with:
— The writing is always immaculate. Burns often uses Geoffrey Ward – wars, politics, jazz, baseball – but when the subject is more down-home, he turns to Dayton Duncan. Duncan did “The West,” “Mark Twain,” “Lewis and Clark,” “National Parks,” “The Dust Bowl” and now this. Like a good country song, his writing has a spare elegance.
— Those words are said, once again, by Peter Coyote, an actor who narrates perfectly.
— The staff does an amazing job of digging out the right material. Yes, there’s film here of country’s early days; but as we’ve known since “Civil War,” Burns can do great things with photos alone.
— With his track record, Burns gets all the right people for on-camera interviews. More than 80 country performers are included; the opener has especially sharp commentary from Dolly Parton, Marty Stuart and the late Merle Haggard, with others — including Dwight Yoakam, shown here — coming up.
But the key here is still Burns. He brings enormous intelligence, but never lets that get in the way of the story. With his writers, he dives directly to the substance and to the emotion.
The “Country Music” opener does spend some time viewing the institutional core – Ralph Peer and his Bristol, Tenn., recordings; WSM radio and its “Grand Ole Opry.” But it pauses for individual portraits.
We meet DeFord Bailey, the 4-foot-10 harmonica whiz who was the Opry’s first – and, for way too long, only – black star. And Jimmie Rodgers – whose career was short (six years) and intense. And, of course, the Carter family.
A.P. Carter found the songs … his wife Sara sang them … and her cousin Maybelle (who soon married his brother) backed them with innovative guitar licks. Maybelle’s daughter June would be at the core of country music, with her husband Johnny Cash. Her son (John Carter Cash) and step-daughter (Rosanne Cash) provide some commentary here.
They provide a link to the Carter Family, which – 84 years ago – adapted and recorded a gospel song. Intended as a funeral song, it has come to symbolize country’s eternal roots:
“Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?
Is a better home awaiting
In the sky, in the sky?”