Worth Watching: Ken Burns, Country Music – Episode 1: The Rub (Beginnings-1933)

In eight nights over the next two weeks, PBS stations across the country will broadcast Country Music, the latest extensive documentary by Ken Burns.

I’ve had the opportunity to preview the series in its entirety, and there is a lot to unpack.  Burns tells the story of the genre from its earliest days through about 1996.  Other than the contributions of Rhiannon Giddens, Darius Rucker, and Holly Williams as commentators, the content is presented through the stories of the artists and songwriters that defined each era.  Some of the biggest artists, like the Carter Family, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson, have their stories intertwined through multiple episodes of the series.  Those who made an impact after 1996 are not part of the show’s narrative.

It was an interesting choice by Burns to exclude the last 23 years of the genre from a documentary about it.  My suspicion is that the recurring theme of the series, which is that the circle remains unbroken and their is a clear line connecting the Bristol Sessions of 1927 through all of the country music that came after it, might not hold up the timeline is brought up to date.  That’s something to talk about down the road.

But since this is a series airing over eight nights and each episode is the length of a feature film, I’d like to provide a forum for a discussion of each individual episode, once readers have had the opportunity to watch them.

I’ll try my best to avoid spoilers, but I will say right off the bat that I knew we were in good hands when the first voice heard was Kathy Mattea.  Also, prepare yourselves for the presence of the late greats Merle Haggard and Mel Tillis, which certainly warmed my heart.

The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers are the main artists featured tonight, and there is a depiction of the Bristol Sessions cattle call that makes it sound like the 1920s equivalent of American Idol auditions.  In a way, I guess it was.  Share your thoughts in the comments, and check back tomorrow for a new discussion post to go with the next episode.



  1. Part One was sooo good! One of my favorite segments was the Jimmie Rodgers section and I laughed out loud when his wife’s journal mentioned that he interjected yodels a lot in his life, including in conversations around their house! Now, that’s a guy committed to his craft…being a weird dude notwhithstanding!:)

  2. I’m a little confused, because I’ve been reading that this is an 8 week series (not just here), but at the end of last night’s episode, it showed the preview for the next episode and said “coming up tomorrow.”?

  3. It may depend on your PBS station, but I’m pretty sure Part 2 airs tonight, and parts 3 and 4 the subsequent two days. I think it then restarts again the following Monday (9/23) and ends next Thursday.

    And yes, I concur…the first episode was fantastic. The early, early history of country music was a blind spot for me, so I really enjoyed the focus on Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, Uncle Dave Macon, Deford Bailey, and the mix of influences the genre had. You can hear the names, but seeing the videos/hearing the music makes so much more of an impression.

  4. I’ve adjusted the time frame in the post.

    Loved this first episode. The stories about DeFord Bailey were inspiring and infuriating at the same time. I can’t get over the way that they recruited talent for the Bristol sessions!

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