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Ken Burns: Country Music, Episode 3, “The Hillbilly Shakespeare (1945 – 1953)”

The third episode of Ken Burns’ “Country Music” documentary series begins with a backtrack,   covering the ground on Ernest Tubb that chronologically should have been included in the “Hard Times (1933 – 1945)” episode.  Tubb was an unlikely superstar – singing in a voice as flat as the Texas panhandle, with a toothy grin and a wink.  However, his lyrics were often about heartbreak.  His streamlined, simple sound was nothing like the hillbilly jazz of Bob Wills and was a major influence on Hank Williams.
Williams, the country artist everyone is required to like (not a daunting task) is the primary subject of this episode, most likely making it the easiest one to produce.  With his chaotic personal life, the most timeless country songs ever written, and a voice that projected pure emotion, Williams is a perfect documentary subject.  Within the timeline of 1945 to 1953, segments are also included on “pop country” star Eddie Arnold (managed by future Elvis guide Colonel Tom Parker), Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, the Maddox Brothers and Rose, Jimmy Dickens, as well as passing nods to Lefty Frizzell, Webb Pierce, and Faron Young.  I wondered how Frizzell’s arrest on statutory rape would be addressed and the producers took the easy way out by avoiding it all together.
There probably won’t be another episode as compelling as this one, because of having Hank Williams all over the soundtrack.  In the words of record producer Fred Foster, “He cut right to the bone.” The script largely glossed over the commercial death of Western swing, not mentioning how Bob Wills was pushed aside on radio by the new bare boned sounds.  Aside from Williams, the most compelling story telling was on the integration of Flatt and Scruggs into Bill Monroe’s band, creating a heretofore unknown bluegrass sound, and their subsequent, decades long ill feelings. Or, in the words of Marty Stuart, “Nobody can hold a grudge like a hillbilly.”
Williams, of course, holds the primary spot on country music’s Mount Rushmore and deserves every superlative ever thrown his way.  And, yet, taking the episode in its totality demonstrates the most obvious flaw in this project – the producers consider Little Jimmy Dickens a major artistic talent and Merle Travis a footnote.
Grade: A-

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