Must-Hear Music TV: Country Music and Now Hear This

Under the category of "abundance of musical riches," there are two fantastic series about music airing on PBS right now. You probably already know about one of them, but another, which many readers will like even better, is getting far less press.

The first program is the wonderful Ken Burns documentary series, Country Music, which runs for an astounding 16 hours while uncovering biographical detail on the artists that established each important country sub-genre: the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, and on and on. At one point, they even dive into the Nudie Suit phenomenon.


Of particular interest is how Burns digs into the new-at-the-time technology of AM radio and its impact in spreading the music and culture far and wide. I'd heard stories from my Iowa-raised father of tuning into radio stations from south of the Texas border during the 30s and 40s; early episodes reveal the facts behind many of them.

Punctuating the historical film and video performances are interviews with living country artists who help put things in context. Marty Stuart stands out as he describes important milestones and details with enthusiasm.


At the other end of the musical spectrum is a must-see series for anyone curious about classical music: violinist and conductor Scott Yoo's four-part Now Hear This, presented under the PBS Great Performances banner.

Each one-hour episode covers a single composer: Vivaldi, Bach, and Scarlatti so far (the final episode airs tonight - though you can stream all of them online). Seeing Yoo is like watching the energizer bunny with a violin strapped on as he bounces around the major music centers of Europe. Every step of the way, he finds local musicians to collaborate with, bringing the music alive in bursts of inspired, often impromptu playing.

The secret to the series' success is the incredible musicians Yoo conjures up from his musical Rolodex as he traces each composer's story. The short and varied performances are jaw-dropping and often feature period instruments in their original locations. It doesn't matter if you find classical music boring; you'll be riveted watching these humans play.

You can stream the episodes free right now via the PBS website or app. The free online version is scheduled to expire on October 18, so jump on it while you can see (and hear) it. Both series are also available for purchase as discs on the PBS Shop website.

jimtavegia's picture

It would be a shame to miss any of this.

Anton's picture

My wife and I just finished the Ken Burns series and it is brilliant.

Even if someone doesn't think they like country music, that series is still perfect.

Too many highlights for me to mention....just please try it!

Next up, Now Hear This.

Thanks for a great post!

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

The TV-less Serinus hadn't a clue. Now I even have a way to listen.


Bogolu Haranath's picture

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Bogolu Haranath's picture

Holographic TV is at least 3 to 5 years away from being available on the market for sale ........ See S&V website :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

When Holographic TV becomes available, MF is gonna magically appear in front of you and show you how to properly set up your turntable :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

And .... Diana Krall is gonna magiclly appear in front of you and sing "I Love Being Here With You" :-) .........

Robin Landseadel's picture

My biggest takeaway from "Country Music" was Marty Stuart. He'd probably would have been better for the series voice-overs than the stolid and detached Peter Coyote. Brilliant musician, brilliant musical raconteur. Never heard of him before, and I love country music. The link is to a Dave Letterman show where he just burns it up:

Anton's picture

I had always been a fan, even The Busy Bee Cafe album cover is great!

But I hadn't really pondered how integral to the whole country music scene he really is...that was a GREAT part of the show.

He's also articulate and absolutely portrays the spark and joy he takes from the music itself.

I won't ruin the story for others, but even the story of his love life was amazing. In one episode, he mentions how a certain part of his life played out and gave the most charming wink of all time. It honestly choked me up.

I loved Wynton Marsalis' parts of the Jazz Series, and Marty Stuart fills the "Wynton slot" beautifully and insightfully.

Even Suart's amateur photos were beautiful and evocative.

Good call, Robin!

Robin Landseadel's picture

Kinda like Johnny Cash's story arc, but up-tempo and in a higher register.

SET Man's picture


I'm not a fan of American country music. Still I found Ken Burns' doc to be excellent as part of an American history telling.

I've watched "Now Hear This" I do like a bit of classical music but not a hardcore fan. I have to say that I love this series, it was a surprise for me. Really enjoyed the "Bach" episode. Great watch for all indeed even for those who are not into classical music.

jimtavegia's picture

They are amazing and Scott Yoo is excellent. I will have to buy this and well worth watching more than once. Great videos for young musicians to watch and learn from.

gcvanwinkle's picture

Enjoyed every minute of it and while I agree that Marty Stewart's comments were a huge plus so were for me the insights from the children and grandchildren of the various country stars. We learned that Johnny Cash was a lot more than just a great singer/songwriter. Finally, watching male country musicians tearing up while reciting the lines from Haggard, Kristofferson and others lyrics is TV at it's best - thank you Ken Burns and PBS!

P.S. Tidal now has a playlist from the series and it makes for great listening...

BDP24's picture

Robin, wasn't it amazing to see Letterman absolutely leap from his chair at the end of Marty's song? Part of that credit can go to Marty's fantastic band, The Fabulous Superlatives. Drummer Harry Stinson is an in-demand Nashville studio drummer and harmony singer, guitarist Kenny Vaughan I first saw live when he was in Lucinda William's band (he has his own recent solo album), and bassist Chris Scruggs is a multi-instrumentalist and a 1st-call studio steel guitar player. IMO, the best band in the world!