OK, Ken Burns, what about The Band?


First, I may have just missed it. I may have left the room for a minute during one of the episodes of Ken Burns’ series on country music, and maybe my guys were mentioned then. So if that happens, I’ll back away while quoting Emily Litella: “Never mind…”

But all through this series, night after night, I keep hoping that The Band, possibly my favorite musical act of all time, will make an appearance.country rock

You may say, “But The Band isn’t a country group!” And you could have a point, although Wikipedia lists “country rock” as one of its genres (see screenshot at right). And if you click on “country rock,” you get Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt — all of whom show up in one way or another in the series thus far.

In fact, one of the great things about the series is the way it explores multiple ways that country overlaps and interacts with other genres. But The Band gets ignored. I mean, come on — there’s a long, lingering, detailed examination of the recording of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s epic album, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which is fine — but couldn’t they have spared a minute or two of that for my guys?

One of the reasons this bugs me is that, loving The Band as I do, I’ve always wanted to understand its musical roots (and yes, “roots rock” is another way it’s described) better. I mean, what sort of song is “The Weight?” It feels… western… but in some mystical, dreamlike, maybe even surreal way. I see the “Nazareth” in which the action takes place as a dusty, tumbleweed-littered place that’s on its way to becoming a ghost town. And the characters — Fanny, ol’ Luke, Miss Moses, young Annalee, and of course Crazy Chester — sound like Western characters. Or country characters. Or country-western characters.

And if “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Rockin’ Chair,” and “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” don’t explore country themes, what does? (And that’s all from one album.) Of course, they also explore… some other stuff that I can’t put my finger on, but which makes The Band unique.

Yeah, I know, you can’t mention everything, but I thing The Band deserves at least a nod or two.

Oh, and another thing: Where’s Creedence?

19 thoughts on “OK, Ken Burns, what about The Band?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I have to confess that as much as I love The Band, I haven’t listened much to their later stuff.

      The only song after “Stage Fright” that I know well is “It Makes No Difference.”

      It’s the early stuff I love…

      1. Bill

        It does go downhill after ,”Stage Fright” but there are some standout tracks on the later releases.My favorite after their glory days,though,is Richard Manuel’s solo ,Live at the Getaway 1985.It’s out of print/hard to find.Used CD copies fetch $50 or more on Amazon and ebay.Discogs is your best bet if you don’t have and want a copy…

  1. C J Watson

    From what I understand, Robbie Robertson was searching for the same connection between country, folk, and rock that Gram Parsons was seeking. The musicians were all connected in one way or another. I agree that there should have been some mention of The Band, but I think they should have their own documentary. I’d love to hear about Levon Helms upbringing and how he developed his musical talent. His soulful voice rivaled any of the voices of the artists mentioned. What about Garth Hudson’s phenomenal keyboard skills and how he played such a blusey country rock organ. And Robertson, as I mentioned, who seemed to have a parallel quest to that of Parsons. I agree that The Band should be included.

  2. C J Watson

    And what about Marshall Tucker? Mentioned in passing. At least they used a small portion of Can’t You See. OK, maybe MTB is not legendary on a global country music scale, but I love them.

  3. Mark Stewart

    This I like; have always loved The Band.

    The idea that Country Music is an island is bunk. It connects to every other music form, most especially the adjacent ones. And then there is the Grateful Dead. It’s a complicated world, sonically as it is visually.

  4. Norm Ivey

    As much as I have enjoyed this series–to the point that I haven’t deleted the episodes from the DVR yet–it’s not really about country music. It’s more about the Superstars of the Country Music Industry. There are so many missed connections that could have been made throughout the series, The Band is just one of them. There are Americana artists that should have received a shout out, but perhaps the series just didn’t reach far enough into modern times for that. It was complete in what it covered, but It is a series targeted at mainstream country music fans. The final episode has a sort of staccato rhythm–like they’re not really sure which artists from the 90s have the real staying power.

    Random thoughts:

    Last year at The Okra Strut, the headlining band was The Weight Band, the next iteration of The Band. They were good.

    Rhiannon Giddens, who is a commentator throughout the series but is never discussed as an artist has some pretty amazing songs. Check out her Freedom Highway album. She’s one of those Americana artists that should have been mentioned.

    It’s a little eerie the number of interviews they captured with artists who died before the series was broadcast–Merle Haggard, Roy Clark, Guy Clark. Seems like there was another that I can’t recall right now.

    Merle Haggard and I share a birthday. He died on his birthday.

    Reba McEntire is more beautiful today than she was when she was young.

    The Senate does a good job of bringing in country roots artists–Steve Earle in a tribute to Guy Clark, Jason Ringenberg, Chuck Mead, Jim Lauderdale have all played there in the last 6 months. They bring in solid artists in lots of other genres a well. Support them.

    I’ve been to the Grand Ole Opry twice. The first time (1974?) we saw Dolly Parton, Roy Acuff, some other folks and Connie Smith. In 2011 we saw Little Jimmy Dickens, Lee Brice (from Sumter), some other folks and Connie Smith.

    I sold a cheeseburger to Ricky Skaggs in the early 80s when I was a swing manager at McDonalds on Meeting Street in West Columbia.

    Country songs are the only genre that can make me cry.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “perhaps the series just didn’t reach far enough into modern times for that”

      Why did they end the series when they did, instead of bringing it to the present day?

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I mean, I can’t think of anything good in country music in the last 20 years, but if that’s the case, maybe they should have explored that — or showed me why I’m wrong.

        We almost didn’t watch last night’s episode, because we assumed there was nothing good in the 80s and 90s. We were wrong…

      2. Norm Ivey

        I think it’s a phenomenon of any history documentary. We’re not far enough removed from it to know what matters. We won’t know what matters from the 2000s music for another 10 or 15 years. Go back and listen to Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire. The first couple of verses are lists of things that have stood the test of time. Then you get down to Rock and roller cola wars, and nobody cares about that any more.

    2. Mr. Smith

      “Americana” is the category the music industry invented as a dumping ground for a mix of Country, Folk, Roots, etc. performers who don’t neatly fit under a particular label and therefore aren’t thought to have sufficient commercial prospects. Emerging Americana Artist of the Year for 2018, Tyler Childers, lambasted the labeling. As quoted in Rolling Stone:

      “ ‘As a man who identifies as a country music singer, I feel Americana ain’t no part of nothing and is a distraction from the issues that we’re facing on a bigger level as country music singers,’ he said, nodding to the title of his debut album, Purgatory. ‘It kind of feels like purgatory.’ ”

      The Burns series at least gives a nod to this group by focusing for a short time on Guy Clark, Townes van Zandt, etc.

      1. JesseS

        Haven’t watched the documentary, but “Country Music” itself was a category invented by the music industry to sell to the north as “hillbilly” novelty music and try to “break in” to the south, only when they got there they found out that old folks already knew about rag time while the kids were already moving on to new stuff. As the talent scouting went on through the industrialized south (they didn’t bother going up into the hills, they just put out fliers for “authentic mountain music” in mill towns) they felt that the music was bad, so they imported song writers from Tin Pan Alley.

        As “Fiddlin'” John Carson said some guys from RCA showed up to “Make us wear out Sunday best that we’d never worn before.” Silly hats and bonnets and stuff like that –all precursors to 50s cowboy hats and rind stones and 70s Big Hair.

        “Country Music” is, was, and always will be an invention of industry. It’s authentically fake.

  5. Brad Warthen Post author

    OK, I’m slightly mollified, but only slightly.

    The song that closed the series was the Carter Family’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” It was a recording in which a bunch of different people took turns singing a line each.

    One of them was Levon Helm. Which was nice.

    Speaking of Levon, one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in a movie was when he appeared as Loretta Lynn’s father. It was unbelievable. He was SO REAL, as though they had gone back in time and brought back her actual Daddy to play himself.

    I think most folks would agree that there’s no one more “country” than Loretta Lynn, the Coal Miner’s Daughter.

    But Levon magnificently embodied the COAL MINER HIMSELF!

    And yet Burns couldn’t bring himself to deal with The Band.

    OK, I’m not mollified anymore…


    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Then there was his stunning portrayal of Jack Ridley in “The Right Stuff.”

      More than that, there was the brilliant stroke of making him the film’s narrator, which set the whole tone of the movie, and made it work.

      Tom Wolfe had made a big deal of the fact that a generation of pilots tried to talk with the up-in-the-holler twang of Chuck Yeager.

      Sam Shepard did a fine job as Yeager, but looked like a movie star playing a role next to Levon, who just really looked, sounded and acted like an Air Force pilot.

      And the narration was magical…

      “There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die…”

  6. Brad Warthen Post author

    Looking back at what I wrote in the original post: “Of course, they also explore… some other stuff that I can’t put my finger on, but which makes The Band unique.”

    Before that, I had just mentioned “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” which brings to mind the line sung by Levon: “pretty soon a carnival on the edge of town…” Go listen to it, so you can get the feel of exactly the way he sings the words.

    That hints at what makes them different. You might be in a typical country or western town, but out on the edge of it, setting up tents as the sun goes down, is a carnival. And the sideshows have some real wonders in them. That’s The Band…


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