Eight years in the making, Ken Burns’s examination of nearly a century of country music – or “three chords and the truth”, as Harlan Howard famously put it – has finally arrived. In the US, PBS is showing this documentary miniseries in its entirety: eight instalments of at least two hours each. Here, where it is being shown on BBC4, each one has been cut by about half. I daresay there are technological workarounds to remedy this deficiency that one may be tempted to find if, say, one’s beloved Townes Van Zandt was known to have fallen victim to this major editing decision. But I don’t know.
At least the editing is more thoughtful than mere casual butchery. The truncated version still hangs together well, and Burns’s tracery of the musical traditions that evolve into and out of country music, the outside influences and individuals’ innovations, remains intact. It works as a great primer for beginners or, for old hands, an entertaining rerun of the basics with plenty of contemporary footage and recordings of the greats.
It begins in the 1920s, setting the scene – and arguably setting a pattern of mentioning, but not giving enough due, to the influence of black musicians on country – and noting the earliest recordings of the likes of Eck Robertson and Ernest Stoneman. Then come radio producer Ralph Peer and his Bristol Sessions. Peer was on a two-month recording tour of the south, in search of singers and groups to appear on his burgeoning radio network. In Bristol, Tennessee, he found a young man called Jimmie Rodgers, and a very talented family called the Carters, who had borrowed a relative’s car – in exchange for a day’s weeding of their corn crop – to travel to Bristol from Maces Spring, Virginia, to see him.
Eight hours later, we end with Garth Brooks. In summary, country looks like a simple journey from the sublime to the ridiculous, but the trip is kept complicated and fascinating by Burns and his writer Dayton Duncan. They know when to leaven history with anecdote, and how to mine the already extraordinary backgrounds of the early country performers for maximum effect without turning them into the “Pa’s runned off, I’m real sick and the baby’s gonna starve to death” cliches beloved by people who don’t even know Reba McEntire’s version of Fancy.
You can almost trace the history in the performers’ faces: the lean lines of the Depression-era and 40s stars such as Hank Williams and the tubercular Rodgers harmonising with the sparseness of their times, giving way to the gnarlier faces of gnarlier performers such as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, before we reach the soft, untroubled faces of the 80s and 90s stars who couldn’t muster a hardscrabble childhood anecdote between them. Vince Gill looks as if he is plumped daily, like a cushion.
By the end of the UK version, though you may feel thoroughly informed about the big picture, you may also wonder how much depth was sacrificed. You may hanker for greater analysis of the music, more talk of songwriting from the likes of Nelson and Haggard, or a more detailed consideration of all the overlooked women – such as Elsie McWilliams, who wrote or co-wrote 39 songs with Rodgers – behind the men. But maybe half the point of a wide-ranging documentary is to yield to other, more specific offspring in time. I look forward to eight hours of Townes in due course.