Ken Burns missed these greats in his “Country Music” documentary

Sixteen hours may sound like a crazy amount of run time, but considering Ken Burns was covering nearly 100 years of music, his PBS documentary “Country Music” was anything but “too long.” It was excellent from start to finish, and I didn’t want it to end. That said, the venerable documentarian with the puddin’ bowl haircut made several glaring omissions. There are five performers that I believe Mr. Burns gave short shrift.

Here they be:


Glen Campbell deserved more than the brief mention he had in the documentary. He was the most popular “cross-over” artist of his time (not always a compliment, but in this case it is). His “Good Time Hour” television show, which aired 1969-1972, featured great live performances and duets with the likes of Ray Charles, Tom Jones, “newcomer” Linda Ronstadt, C&W greats Roger Miller, Merle Haggard and many others. Like all the variety shows of that time, the great music was punctuated with slimy celebrity walk-ons and unfunny comic skits, but what the hell can the son of a  cotton-picker do about that?


Can one possibly overstate the greatness of Glen Campbell’s most famous songs “Galveston,” “By The Time I Get to Phoenix,” and “Wichita Lineman”? (Each composed by the legendary Jimmy Webb.)

Glen called “Wichita Lineman” the favorite of all his songs. Mine too. In an interview before his death, Glen said that he filled in what might have been a third verse of “Wichita Lineman” with a guitar solo, one now considered iconic. He performed the solo on a six-string bass guitar belonging to legendary L.A. bass player Carol Kaye.

An amazing guitarist

He was one of the most respected session musicians of the ‘60s – a certified member of the famed collection of session men deemed The Wrecking Crew. (There’s a documentary on those rascals also – check it out). That’s Glen’s guitar on Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” LP and on Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night.” By his own count he played on 586 recordings. “None of those singing stars I backed even knew my name,” he has said. ” I was just the guy at the end of the line, picking guitar.” Among country guitar pickers – he had few peers .

And of course, he could sing! Along with his hits ongs, Campbell’s duet album with the mysterious and talented Delta beauty Bobbie Gentry was nearly as good as George & Tammy’s duets, peaking at #1 (in 1968, no less!) Their on-screen chemistry on The Smothers Brothers and other music variety shows was as hot as the music.

Let it be me, indeed

His TV show always began with the opening chords of “Gentle On My Mind,” the classic written by John Hartford, who was also a regular on the show. Some consider that song not only Glen’s signature, but the greatest country song of all time.

Glen’s life story was a country song – complete with drug addiction, love affairs (Tanya Tucker), booze, fights, jail, and comebacks (“Rhinestone Cowboy”). For christsake, he even shared a movie screen with John Wayne (“True Grit”).

He had a sad, but beautiful ending to his career and life. Following his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Campbell embarked on a final “Goodbye Tour” with three of his children joining him in his backup band. He said about his disease at that time, “The stuff I can’t remember is great because it’s a lot of stuff I don’t want to remember anyway.” 

Wouldn’t footage of one of those final shows of Glen & Family have been perfect for a documentary that had such strong themes of family, faith, struggle, and Redemption?


This omission is even more curious than that of Glen Campbell, because Alison is as popular as she’s ever been, and has never been more respected in the greater music community (recently awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music.)

1985 when she was just 18 years old. I’ve loved her ever since.

She has sung or played fiddle with nearly all the country artists in the documentary, including Dolly, Emmylou, Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill. She’s also collaborated with performers outside of country music, such as Elvis Costello (who wrote “Scarlet Tide” which she beautifully performs in the film Cold Mountain), and the famed classical cellist Yo Yo Ma (singing on “Slumber My Darling,” a song written by Stephen Foster in the year 1862.)

Alison is actually the most awarded singer and the most awarded female artist in Grammy history. She was a Nashville “Outlaw” from the get-go, signing with Boston’s Rounder Records in 1987 and staying loyal to her tiny record label even after she became popular. She has performed on the Academy Awards and sung at the White House (invited by President Barack Obama). She has even recorded an excellent duet album with Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant!

Gone, Gone, Gone

Even with her forays into rock, pop, and classical music, she has been a guardian of the true Bluegrass musical tradition from her teenage years to today.

Now, how in Sam Hill did Mr. Burns pass on all this? Maybe I’m biased, as I first saw her play a live show in 1985 when she was just 18 years old, in a church hall less than a mile from my current home. I’ve loved her ever since.

Had Burns given her proper treatment, he may have used this sublime live performance of Alison performing the country spiritual “Down To the River To Pray,” a song featured in the Coen Brothers’ brilliant film, O Brother Where Art Thou?

O brothers, let’s go down


Burns barely mentioned PBS’ iconic Austin City Limits in his documentary, even though he used lots of footage from the show. Now in its 40th season, Austin City Limits was far more entertaining, musically challenging, and more influential than anything ever presented on the often-creepy CMT! (Ralph Emery? bleh!)

Ralph Emery and “Shotgun Red”… Bleh!

Austin City Limits” first aired in 1975, with Willie Nelson featured in the pilot, and Asleep at the Wheel and Bob Wills’ Original Texas Playboys on the first episode. Each week since then, I could turn to my local PBS station and have the opportunity to see live performances from C&W legends like Ernest Tubb, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. But even more cool was discovering new performers on the “fringe” of C&W, getting little exposure elsewhere; performers like Lyle Lovett, Buddy Miller, Lucinda Williams, Shelby Lynne, Jim Lauderdale, John Hiatt, the Avett Brothers, Neko Case, The Jayhawks, Nanci Griffith, and Joe Ely were all introduced to me by watching Austin City Limits.

“It was the biggest deal for me because it was a show for musicians,” singer Sheryl Crow said when invited on the show. “It was where you got to see authentic singer-songwriters, authentic players and it was the mark of real musicianship.”

Authentic, cutting-edge, and inclusive, Austin City Limits has done more to promote real country music than any similar coming out of Nashville. And of course, Austin City Limits featured the greatest theme song ever – Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues” (“I wanna go home with the armadillo…”)


It’s not completely surprising that singer-songwriter Iris DeMent was ignored on the documentary. DeMent is notoriously shy and seldom gives interviews. She doesn’t always smile in photos. She mainly sings gospel music, yet she herself teeters between being an agnostic and an atheist. She’s recorded only six albums since 1993. Yet I completely agree with National Public Radio’s assessment of Iris:

Iris DeMent makes music that celebrates humanity’s efforts toward salvation, while acknowledging that most of our time on Earth is spent reconciling with the fact that we don’t feel so redeemed. Grounded in hymns, early country songs, gospel and folk, DeMent’s work is treasured by those who know it for its insight and unabashed beauty.

There is “unabashed beauty” in the seminal country songs Burns repeats through his documentary – songs like the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘Waiting For a Train” and “Miss the Mississippi.” Iris DeMent is so grounded in that tradition, her best songs would fit comfortably on those original recordings of the Carters and “The Blue Yodeler” made in Bristol, Tennessee in the year 1927.

She was born in Arkansas, the youngest of 14 children in a Pentecostal household. Her beautiful song “Mama’s Opry” describes hearing her mother singing along to records by Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family (“Nothing in the world is as dear to me, as the sound of my Mama’s Opry”. )

The song that closed Northern Exposure

Her debut album, 1992’s “Infamous Angel,” included the song David Byrne would record, “Let the Mystery Be.” Another song from the debut LP, “Our Town” was memorably played during the closing scene for the final episode the much-adored TV series “Northern Exposure.”) Television critics have referred to that scene as the finest ending to a television series ever, and I believe most of the credit should go to Iris’ touching recollection of her the hometown of her youth.

The Los Angeles Times wrote on July 26, 1995:

“Northern Exposure” was in fact quite life-affirming in its celebration of community, friendship and nature and its respect for diversity and life’s imponderables. Now it’s passing away. Yet even as it does so, the show gently reminds us once again, with tonight’s final montage and its last brilliant musical selection of Iris DeMent’s “Your Town”, that life goes on.
Let’s dance.”

North Exposure’s finale episode with Iris DeMents’ “Our Town”

In 1999, Iris sang four duets with John Prine on his wonderful album “In Spite of Ourselves,” including the great title track. In 2004, she recorded Lifeline a collection of traditional Protestant gospel songs. In her liner notes, DeMent recounts how her mother sang these songs in times of stress looking straight at the sky, “as if she were talking to someone.” In 2012, she recorded a song “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray.”

While some find her vocal stylings contain too much twang, Merle Haggard once called her “the best singer I’ve ever heard.” Iris believed that title belonged to Tammy Wynette, for whom she dedicated the song “Making My Way Back Home” from her last LP. “Tammy was just the greatest country singer there ever was.”

About the country songs she writes, Iris has says, “I’m not writing for my own entertainment. I’m writing and singing as part of a calling. I feel like I have a job to do, and I invite the spirits of the dead into my room; I invite my history, the people who got me here. When I go to work, I actually call to mind other people I’m close to. I sort of pray.”

Country Music? Country music is Iris DeMent.


John Prine is simply the best songwriter living today.

Of John Prine’s greatest song, “Angel From Montgomery,” Bonnie Raitt has said, “I think that song probably has meant more to my fans and my body of work than any other song.” Prine says he wrote the song based on a “vivid picture of this woman standing over the dishwater … She wanted to get out of her house and her marriage and everything. She just wanted an angel to come take her away from all this.”

While “Angel From Montgomery” is often listed amount the top 100 country songs of all time, other performers prefer “Paradise,” “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,” “Souvenirs,” or “Unwed Fathers.” Bob Dylan’s favorite is “Lake Marie.” Johnny Cash’s had a hit with “Sam Stone” in 1971, even though Cash cut-out Prine’s original lyric, “Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose.” Prine’s songwriting has been described as “veering from humorous to devastating, often in the same line.”

Since Prine’s self-titled debut in 1971, he has recorded over 20 albums (my favorites are “The Missing Years” and “In Spite of Ourselves”), and performed concerts around the world. A young journalist named Roger Ebert wrote a rave review for the Chicago Sun- Times, essentially launching Prine’s music career. Next, an admiring Kristofferson got him his first record contract. Dylan and Cash soon hailed Prine as one of the best songwriters of his generation.  Today Prine is listed among the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. The Grammy Hall of Fame inducted his 1971 debut album in 2014.

A new generation of songwriters have adopted him as mentor and hero. Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and Margo Price, each have opened for Prine. “We hold him up as our Hank Williams,” says Todd Snider. Kacey Musgrave had a hit with the awesomely-titled “Burn One With John Prine.” I’d like to burn one with him, too. Who wouldn’t?

“Burn One With John Prine”

As for a great Country Music “story” – he was working as a mailman when he recorded that first record. He served in the Army, stationed in Germany, during the Vietnam War (how in the world did Burns not interview Prine in his segment about the Vietnam war?) His grandpa was a carpenter. He’s been beating cancer for about 20 years. And like Jesus Christ, he eventually found his “Irish bride.” (see “Jesus, the Missing Years”.)

So. Many. Great. Songs.

I love the songs of Townes Van Zandt, Gram Parsons, and Guy Clark – each of whom Ken Burns devoted considerable time. None of these can hold a candle to John Prine as a songwriter. (True, Gram and Townes died young). But just as Townes’ most unforgettable song “Pancho and Lefty” was dissected for its greatness in the documentary, so could “Angel From Montgomery,” and several other Prine compositions – like “Hello In There”:

“Ya’ know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello”

John Prine is a national treasure. He became the first songwriter ever to read and perform his work at the Library of Congress – a tribute usually reserved for prize-winning authors, politicians and respected academics.

I can’t for the life of me figure out how Ken Burns left John Prine out of his documentary on country music. Who knows? It’s a big ol’ goofy world, right? The good news is that Prine will soon be the focus of his own documentary (working title “John Prine: Hello in There”). Hello and thankfully not yet goodbye.

“Up in the morning
Work like a dog
Is better than sitting
Like a bump on a log
Mind all your manners
Be quiet as a mouse
Some day you’ll own a home
That’s as big as a house …

There’s a big old goofy man
Dancing with a big old goofy girl
Ooh baby
It’s a big old goofy world”

Yann Tiersen’s new recording with Gruff Rhys

Yann Tiersen has announced a new album, ‘Portrait’, featuring tracks from across his career re-recorded with guest musicians, including John Grant, Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys and Stephen O’Malley of Sunn o))). Blonde Redhead also join him on one of three new songs written for the release.

“The apparent lightness or simplicity of some of my tracks has always been a disguise or reaction to their darker side”, he says of revisiting his older work. “For instance ‘La Dispute’ is about extreme violence, blood, death and the strange state of shock you feel in the moments after something horrible has happened”.

He then goes on: “That’s one of my darkest tracks and I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the idea of people thinking it’s a romantic thing to listen to on a date. People seemed to understand it when it was first released, but the use of my music for cinematic purposes put a sort of false mask on the face of the monster. I feel that ‘Portrait’ puts my tracks in context again so people can listen to my music and see it for what it is and not for what it’s been used for”.

15 Things Tourists Should Never Do in France, Ever

Read our guide on what NOT to do in France, to make sure that you have a truly amazing trip and follow the local customs.

Never Underestimate How Far a Few French Words Can Go

The French always say they are pretty bad at languages but a lot of people do speak English and will try to practice when they also know that you do. That said, you’ll always get better service and a ton of respect by opening with as much French as you know. Even if it’s just a few words. Remember, “Bonjour” (“Hello”), “Au Revoir” (“Goodbye”) and “Merci” (“Thank You”) can go a long way.

Never Wave Wildly at a Waiter to Get Their Attention

There’s an etiquette to ordering things in bars and brasseries. In restaurants you’ll usually be seated but otherwise you normally sit down at a table of your choice and wait for the waiter to come to you. This is true even on the terraces. If they don’t come soon, but are nearby, then make eye contact or raise a slight hand. To do more, would be incredibly rude and wouldn’t lead to the best exchange. Remember, that waiting staff in France go through lots of training about food and wine and normally are running around doing 30 things at once. They will get to you. They don’t expect big tips; most people usually round the bill up to the nearest euro – or few euros – depending on the level of service and food.

Try Not to Speak Louder Than Everyone Else, Particularly at Night

The French are pretty respectful of other people when it comes to noise levels. In most cases, the people you’ll hear at night or in cafés, speaking the loudest, will be anglophone tourists. Try to watch your levels of noise, particularly in quiet villages and towns at night, where you’ll want to avoid angry French people telling you to be quiet.

Never Leave Your Cell Phone Out When Having a Coffee/Meal With Friends

There are times when you have to check your phone and that’s okay. But it’s socially unacceptable to have your phone on the table as if you’re waiting for a call. And certainly don’t use it during the meal or drinks. It’s the height of rudeness, as if you don’t want to be there. Wait until you’re on your own.

Don’t Expect a Big Savoury Breakfast

The French don’t really do breakfast in a big way. And it’s very sweet in taste. Maybe croissants, pastries and brioche with coffee or hot chocolate. It’s rare to find lots of places, even in larger cities, that offer more. And when they do, it’s not usually more than an egg and a piece of bacon for tourists. Go French, and eat big at lunch and even bigger at dinner.

Never Think That You Can Eat at Any Time

While there are increasingly fast food options across France and service “non-stop” throughout the day, traditionally these might not be the best food options. And they might not even exist in smaller towns and villages. If you want to eat in a restaurant, plan your day accordingly. Lunch traditionally starts at midday or just after and will run until 2pm or half past, if you’re lucky. Dinner starts at 7pm (although you might be the only people in there at that time). French people normally eat around 7.30pm at the earliest. You can normally expect to be able to order until 10pm in smaller places.

Never Assume Cars Will Stop at Pedestrian Crossings

There are pedestrian crossings in France, but cars will not automatically stop at them to let pedestrians cross. It’s seen more as a place where people might be crossing, so they should slow down. If you want to cross and no one stops, you have to signal your intent, start moving but ensure they’ve seen you and are slowing down before you step out.

Never Wait Until a Space on the Beach “Comes Free”

On the other hand, French people are not backward in moving in on any available space on beaches, in the parks, on buses. So do the same. They think that everyone is equally entitled to the best spots and that there’s nothing wrong with sharing available public space. You’ll have better conversations, strike up friendships and enjoy the atmosphere much more if you join in!

Never Go Straight Into Asking For What You Want Without Exchanging Pleasantries

There is a social etiquette in shops or bars about how to ask for things. In other countries, it’s common to say hello and launch straight into your question or order. In France, everyone will love you more if you take your time. Say hello or ideally, “bonjour“. Wait for the reply and for them to ask a question about how they can help, etc. Then make your request. You’ll get better service and they’ll think you’re the height of sophistication. What’s not to love?

Never Assume Your Food Order Can be Separated Into Component Parts

It’s pretty common in Anglophone countries to be able to ask for your meal without certain ingredients or to have the sauce or dressing on the side. It’s much more uncommon in France and you might be met with some resistance. Remember, they aren’t being rude. To them, they’ve worked very hard to create a perfect blend of ingredients for each dish that they think is wonderful. They might think you aren’t getting the best experience that you could have and that’s what they want.

Never Expect Businesses to be Online

To get something done, it’s better to use the telephone. Whilst businesses might be online, most arrangements are still done over the phone and they may take longer to get back to you if you try to communicate electronically. This goes for everything – reservations, meetings, and finding out information. Try out a few words of French and then see if they speak English.

Don’t Get Wildly Drunk

The French love their alcohol but mostly in moderation. It’s common to “prendre un verre” (have a drink) and the French love their “apéro” (pre-dinner drink), but you rarely find them drinking so much that they can’t stand. They rarely have pints of beer and will often be found with halves instead.

Never Expect Things to be Open on Sundays

The French are well known for keeping “family time” intact and Sundays is often the day when people see family. What’s more, the Government hasn’t allowed all shops in all places to be open on Sundays (although that is slowly changing). For that reason, you probably won’t find so many things open on Sundays. Plan ahead.

Never Show up to Someone’s House or Party, Empty-Handed

It’s normally the case that you take something to someone’s house if you’re invited to dinner or a party, wherever you are in the world. But in France, this also includes coffee at someone’s home or a play date with the kids. Take some biscuits for coffee, some cake from the local “boulangerie” (bakery) and you’ll definitely be remembered well and invited back.

Never Expect a Party to Start at the Allotted Time

In the business world and when meeting friends for coffee, people will be on time. Parties are a little different, particularly in the south. If someone says a party starts at 8pm, it’s likely that you might be the only one there at that time. It’ll be great if you know your hosts well, but otherwise it might be awkward. Get there a little afterwards just to be on the safe side.

Source: 15 Things Tourists Should Never Do in France, Ever