Recently, PBS aired an eight-part, 16-hour documentary by Ken Burns, Country Music. For those of you who loved the mini-series and want to own it, you can purchase a DVD set for $66, or buy the Blu Ray for $86. For those of you who didn’t get to watch called Country Music, I advise you to save your money.
In addition to getting some of his facts wrong, Burns was also guilty of omitting several country music pioneers who made a significant contribution to the industry. Instead, he used his time to expound on how country music is a blended art form which derives its roots from Europe and Africa, and how the country sound has inspired rock bands and folk singers. That’s OK, and I get that Bob Dylan was friends with Johnny Cash, but the time spent on those kinds of anecdotes would have been better spent recognizing giants of country music who Burns left out, like Carl Perkins, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Glen Campbell.
Carl Perkins is widely recognized as the King of Rockabilly, but you’d never know it from Burns’ film, in which Perkins received just two quick mentions as a guitar player for Johnny Cash. In truth, Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Perkins were part of the original Sun Records gang, but it was Perkins who was the master songwriter and picker of the four. Perkins wrote and recorded “Blue Suede Shoes” in 1955, which sold millions of copies, and when he and Presley went on tour together, it was Perkins who the audiences screamed for, not Presley. If you want to talk about people who shaped and influenced country music in the latter half of the 20th century and influenced other musical genres, just ask Paul McCartney, who said, “Without Carl Perkins, there would be no Beatles.” How did Burns miss that?
Fourteen years before Loretta Lynn sang about being a coal miner’s daughter, Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded “16 Tons,” a ballad about being a coal miner. It was the No. 1 hit song in the nation in 1955 and sold over 2 million records in its first two months. A year later, his first album of country gospel hymns hit the Billboard charts and stayed there for 300 consecutive weeks. Ford has three different stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in addition to having a rich baritone voice, he was also an accomplished comedic actor, who went on to host his own prime time network show from 1956-1961. The Ford Show was a must-see on T.V., and, despite blowback from his sponsors, Ford insisted on ending each show with a gospel tune. In Country Music, Ken Burns led viewers to believe that Johnny Cash was the first country star to host a prime time series and that the Man in Black insisted upon including gospel songs on each show. Sorry Ken, but Ford was the groundbreaker, not Cash, whose short-lived T.V. show didn’t premiere until 1971.
Speaking of getting the facts wrong, Burns failed to mention Glen Campbell, whose variety series bowed a year before Cash’s, and whose hit songs (like “Gentle on My Mind”) made him the most successful country crossover artist of the modern era. Waylon Jennings once paid tribute to Campbell during a CMT special, in which he thanked Campbell for always offering a spot on his show to country-western singers whose careers were in a lull. Campbell is also acknowledged as one of the greatest guitarists of all time, so I am baffled by the Burns snub.
Many other stars should have merited at least a mention in Burns’ film, among them, Arthur Smith, whose “Guitar Boogie” sold 3 million records in 1945, and whose Charlotte recording studio was the first of its kind in the Southeast. But Smith is also famous for his groundbreaking lawsuit against Warner Brothers, who stole his “Feudin’ Banjos” and retitled it “Dueling Banjos,” which became a No. 1 hit from the movie Deliverance. It was bluegrass music’s first major intellectual property fight, and Smith won big.
For me, Ken Burns’ Country Music was more notable for who is left out than for who is included. To quote a Barbara Mandrell song, that’s a crying shame.
Jim Longworth is the host of Triad Today, airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).