As a music journalist, I spent over two weeks fully immersed in the many elements of Ken Burns “Country Music” project. There is the “film” which will air on PBS beginning September 15th and run one two-hour episode each night (Sundays through Wednesdays) for two weeks (16 hours total), there is also a two-hour “Concert at the Ryman” which aired on PBS on Sunday September 8th, which features excerpts from the series introduced by Burns , and the DVD and Bluray which contains all 16 hours PLUS three hours of bonus content (but not the Concert at the Ryman),There is also a FIVE-CD and 68-page book set from Sony/Legacy, which I’ve already reviewed on Amazon. I’ll be reviewing each of the elements separately and, in this second review, I’ll discuss the 450-+-page coffee-table “companion book” to the series, the second “element” to be released.
Now, I have to say that I’m generally impressed by Burns project. It was nearly 10-years from conception until completion. It’s actually bigger and broader than his “Ken Burns Jazz” one produced a decade or so ago. It begins primarily in the 1920s with the first recording of Appalachian and hillbilly music and ends with the rise of Garth Brooks and the stadium concerts. As Burns says in the documentary – and its bonuses – he knew little about country music and the purpose was to learn as he made the film in conjunction with partners Dayton Duncan (who wrote the films narration as well as the text in the book) and Julie Dunfey. So it is aimed at the average American who knows a little – but not much – about folks like the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Merle Haggard or Emmy Lou Harris, to name just a few. But even those who think they know a lot about country, will learn something from the project. Though I know who Black harmonica player DeFord Bailey is, none of my friends did. The same goes for The Brothers Maddox and Rose.
I’ll spend the time here discussing the book and save the other element s for separate reviews as they are released.
Unlike the CD set which as I said in my review of that component, will appeal most to the “newcomers”, who watch the PBS series (and make their pledges) and want to.know more, the book will certainly want to be something the knowledgeable country music fan will want too. The text is an “expanded” version of what narrator Peter Coyote reads in the TV series. Honestly I recognized some of the sections but did not dig deep enough to see what material is added. The reason for getting the book is twofold. The first are the glorious illustrations and graphics. Burns more than 3,200 photographs and images which flash by on your TV screen, but here you can linger over the generous group on images – both in color and black and white
The second reason is that - unlike the DVD/Bluray set – there is an index in the back so you can find what you are looking for, as both a reference or looking for an image.
There are no footnotes in the text so you won’t know the source of Duncan’s info but there is a lengthy “bibliography” at the end.
The book is not only large; it is HEAVY. It weighs in at just under FIVE POUNDS! . Personally I found it hard to read in my lap because of the weight, but you may feel differently. Just know this is a hefty volume.
When viewed as to the purpose for which this is issued, I think the book services it’s purpose. It will also serve to encourage readers to seek out more recordings by the artists they discover
One last comment. Like many books these days, there is an AUDIO version of the book too. It runs 18 hours, just about the same as the TV series. But there are no illustrations of course. I just received my copy (hey, I’m a “completist”) but haven’t listened to it yet. It is not “read” by Peter Coyote but rather Burns and Dalton are listed along with audiobook reader Brian Corrigan.
Watch out for my reviews of the other components of the project, here on Amazon.
I hope you found this review both informative and helpful.