Country Music Documentary by Ken Burns

by | 7 Apr, 2020 | 2 comments

Country Music by Ken Burns
June Carter

June Carter

Many of us hunkered down in our homes this month have been following the Saturday night documentary series called Country Music by Ken Burns. (SBS television 8:30pm). If you have not caught up with this fine documentary yet, then this is something you can do to pass the time and learn some amazing history in the process.

SBS Television Series The History of Country Music.

Country Music series explores questions such as “What is country music?” and “Where did it come from?“, while focusing on the biographies of the fascinating characters who created and shaped it, from the Carter Family, Bill Monroe, Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills to Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Garth Brooks and many more. The series also delves deeply into the times in which they lived.

The series shows us how country music evolved over the course of the 20th century, as it eventually emerged to become America’s music. Country Music features never-before-seen footage and photographs, plus interviews with more than 80 country music artists makes this suburb viewing.

The Series features 8 episodes titles and summary set out below:

1 – The Rub (Beginnings – 1933)After centuries of percolating in America’s immigrant and racial mix, particularly in the American South, what was first called “hillbilly music” begins reaching more people through the new technologies of phonographs and radio. The Carter Family, with their ballads and old hymns, and Jimmie Rodgers, with his combination of blues and yodeling, become its first big stars. Rodgers’s career ends when he dies young from tuberculosis.
2 – Hard Times (1933 – 1945)During the Great Depression and World War II, country music thrives and reaches bigger audiences. Gene Autry sets off a craze for singing cowboys, Bob Wills adapts jazz’s Big Band sound to create Western swing, and Roy Acuff, a singer on the Grand Ole Opry, becomes a national star. Despite a divorce between two of its members, the Carter Family carries on, turning out songs that will become classics. Nashville slowly becomes Music City and the center of the growing country music industry.
3 – Hillbilly ShakespeareCountry music adapts to the cultural changes of post-war society. Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs transform traditional string band music into something more syncopated: bluegrass. Out of the bars and juke joints comes a new sound with electric guitars and songs about drinking, cheating, and heartbreak: honky-tonk. Its biggest star is Hank Williams, a singer and songwriter of surprising emotional depth, derived from his troubled and tragically short life.
4 – I Can’t Stop Loving YouIn Memphis, the confluence of blues and hillbilly music at Sun Studio gives birth to “rockabilly,” the precursor of rock and roll. Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash are at the forefront. Rhythm and blues star Ray Charles surprises the industry by deciding to record an album of country songs­, showing that music travels in both directions across the nation’s racial divide. In the recording studios of Music City, country music’s twang is replaced by something smoother: the Nashville Sound. Patsy Cline is still emerging as one of its biggest stars when her life is cut short by tragedy.
5 – Sons & Daughters of America (1964-1968)During a time of cultural upheaval, country music reflects profound changes in American society. The feisty Loretta Lynn writes and performs songs that speak frankly on behalf of women. Charley Pride becomes a country star when people respond to the quality of his voice instead of the color of his skin. Bakersfield artist Merle Haggard, a former prison inmate, rises to become the “Poet of the Common Man” while Johnny Cash descends into the chaos of drug addiction. The Man in Black finds salvation through the intervention of June Carter and a landmark album that critics uniformly applaud.
6 – Will The Circle Be Unbroken (1968-1972)With the Vietnam War intensifying, America is more divided than ever. Country music is not immune to the divisions and, like the nation itself, its stars respond to the conflict differently in their songs. Kris Kristofferson, a former Rhodes Scholar and Army captain, abandons the career his parents have planned and becomes a writer whose lyricism sets a new standard for country songs. Bob Dylan, the Byrds, and other non-country artists find Nashville a creative place to record. And a hippie band from California, the Nitty Gritty Band, comes to town to create a landmark album that bridges the gap between the generations.
7 – Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way? (1973-1983)Defining country music is debated as never before, but the argument sparks a vibrant era that makes room for new voices and attitudes. Dolly Parton strikes out on her own and becomes the most famous and successful woman in country music. George Jones and Tammy Wynette seemingly live out their songs’ tragic lyrics – and create country masterpieces. Hank Williams Jr. and Rosanne Cash emerge from their famous fathers’ shadows, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings launch the “Outlaw” movement, and Emmylou Harris bridges folk, rock, and country in a way that will influence a new generation of artists.
8 – Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’ (1984-1996)As country music’s popularity skyrockets, the genre questions whether it can stay true to its roots. The success of the “New Traditionalists” like Reba McEntire, George Strait, and Dwight Yoakam suggests it can. Garth Brooks overcomes rejection and explodes onto the scene to recalibrate the yardstick of success. And after being dropped from his label, an aging Johnny Cash, at the invitation of a hip hop producer, returns to the studio with just his guitar and his unforgettable voice to record a series of albums that sell millions of copies and earn him the respect of the industry he helped to create.


  1. Megan Watson

    Loving the doco but disappointed that we’re only seeing the vastly cut down version – 1/2 the length of the full 16 hour version – you really notice that in some of the edits, you’re left wanting more.

    • Greg McGrath

      I noticed that the televised version was even minutes shorter that the “on-demand” version.
      I am quite thankful that SBS found it appropriate to program it into their schedule, edited or not.
      Perhaps one day they may reschedule the full length versions.