In a work as epic as Ken Burns’ excellent documentary on the history of country music – 16 hours, broadcast in eight 2-hour episodes on PBS – it’s only natural someone will complain about what was left out. I’m not complaining. But I would like to set the record straight. Subtitled “A Story of America, One Song at a Time,” it hit its mark. Burns has done an excellent job of reminding Americans about their history from his landmark “Civil War” series, to the history of baseball and jazz. But what you won’t learn from the documentary is that Canada played a significant role in that American story from the start. Among some examples:


-you DO learn Jimmie Rodgers is acknowledged as the Father of Country Music, but you DON’T learn he had a Canadian contemporary, Wilf Carter, known in the States as Montana Slim, or that Wilf worked with both Rodgers and The Carter Family, or that one biography says Carter’s “background predates the start of Jimmie Rodgers’ career,” or that Wilf also yodelled, which was a major part of Rogers’ fame;

-you DO learn Bob Nolan, of The Sons of the Pioneers, wrote their classic western songs “Cool Water” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” but you DON’T learn he was born in Winnipeg;

-you DO very briefly see Canadian Hank Snow, but you DON’T learn he was Canadian, or that he was a major Grand Ole Opry star for decades, or that he had the record for the longest time a single spent at #1 on the charts (until Florida Georgia Line came along with “Cruise”);

-you DO learn about Loretta Lynn’s first record, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” but you don’t learn it was produced by Canadian Don Grashley, who basically discovered her;

-you DON’T learn about Cajun music at all, best epitomized by fiddle sensation Doug Kershaw, or the French Canadians that helped establish that culture and music;

-you DO learn Johnny Cash had a manager through the 1960’s and ‘70’s, but you DON’T learn his name – it was Saul Holiff – or that was from London, Ont.;

-you DO learn Johnny proposed to June Carter in Canada (London to be precise), but you DON’T learn it was Saul who suggested June Carter as a female addition to Johnny’s shows (some have said there wouldn’t have been a Johnny & June without Johnny & Saul);

-you DO learn about the role the TV variety show “Hee Haw” played in the history of country music, but you DON’T learn the show was created by Frank Peppiatt and John Aylesworth, two Canadian-born writers or that they brought in two more Canadians, Gordie Tapp and Don Harron, to write for and appear on the show;

-you DO learn a lot about Johnny Cash and his weekly TV series, but you DON’T learn Stan Jacobson, a Canadian, had produced a previous show with Cash in Toronto that Cash loved so much he insisted ABC hire Stan to produce his weekly American TV show (which Stan did from 1969-1971);

-you learn a lot about Emmylou Harris, but you DON’T learn Canadian Brian Ahern produced 11 of her albums and was married to her for seven years;

-you DO learn Reba McEntire is regarded as “the most successful female country artist of her era…,” but you DON’T learn Canadian Shania Twain is the world’s best-selling female country artist;

The history of country music is NOT a uniquely American story. The changes, influences on and of the genre are paralleled with the history of Canadian country music. Yodelling, barn dances, radio’s influence and example after example, show how impossible it is to separate the music along border lines. Indeed, it might be more accurate to say the music in both countries shares a history beyond identical twins. Perhaps it’s more like conjoined twins.

And before some start asking for a Canadian version of the Burns’ doc, it’s been done before. Back in the early 1990’s, CBC television produced such a documentary (which I ‘m still looking for online). It was done at the same time the CBC was filming the 1991 “George Fox on Campus” TV special. That special was filmed at the University of Guelph. I was interviewed for that show and also for the history of Canadian country music show they were working on at the time. Somehow, I missed the broadcast. But an old high school friend of mine saw it while occupying a hotel room in Alberta and saw me on the show.

And if you can’t spend 16 hours watching the Burns doc, I recommend “The Other Side of Nashville.” It was a 2-hour film done in the early 1980’s covering the history of country music up to that point in time.

Randy Owen is an award-winning country radio broadcaster approaching the 40th anniversary of his first time on country radio. He’s written extensively about the genre, having articles published in Country Music News and Country Wave magazine, as well as various Facebook and blog posts.