Ken Burns: Inside the Filmmaker’s Epic ‘Country Music’ Series
Earlier in 2019, Ken Burns and his Florentine Films collaborators Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey took a whirlwind bus trip that whisked them around and across the entire state of Tennessee in a few short days. Their itinerary included several places with significant ties to the history of country music: Bristol, site of Ralph Peer’s 1927 and 1928 recording sessions that first captured the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers; Knoxville and Sevierville, central to Dolly Parton’s story among others; Memphis, the birthplace of rock & roll with Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio and a major crossroads for blues musicians; and, of course, Nashville, home of the Grand Ole Opry and the place where the country music industry was eventually consolidated.
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In addition to drumming up excitement for the eight-part documentary series Country Music, which premieres on PBS September 15th, it was an effort to illustrate a recurring theme of the series. Country music sprang from disparate sources and has never been just one sound, the series argues, as it traces the music’s path from its pre-commercial folk origins through its high-water commercial peak in the mid-Nineties. Covering bluegrass, Western swing, honky tonk, cowboy songs, the Nashville sound, the Bakersfield sound, and much more, Country Music also drives home the point that it’s not a music bound to one particular geographic area.
“I like the free electrons country music is about,” says Burns, whose previous foray into popular music was 2001’s Jazz. “You can’t just tie it down. It doesn’t wrap up in a bow.”
Written by Duncan, Country Music was created over the course of several years that included 101 interviews with legendary artists or other individuals close to the country business, many of whom have since died, along with hours of archival footage, music cues, and still photos. Burns and team piled up 175 hours of interview footage in the process, only a small portion of which is featured in the 16.5 hour run time of the series, a fact that still brings the team to tears.
“Dayton cries 10 times more than Julie and me,” says Burns. “I cry twice as much as Julie. You can do the math.” (In March, Burns donated the rest of his interview footage to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, so it won’t go unseen.)
With Memphis fading in the mirrors of the bus and Nashville up ahead, Rolling Stone sat with Burns, Duncan, and Dunfey to talk through the process of re-telling the rich history of country music.
With a broad topic like country music that spans so many decades, how do you actually select the pieces that will distill it down into something the average person will understand?
Ken Burns: This is a central question of our whole method. We are interested in telling a complex story with generations and lots of people in different places. We’re interested in following those cities and those places, obviously the people, for the music and the songs as they change. But also, the act of songwriting is an important character in our film. We’re trying to weave together stories so some [artists] have to stand in as emblematic. We can’t tell every story. We have goal posts for this film.
Dayton Duncan: It’s like an album, which has a lot of individual songs, but it’s also a concept album. So it has to serve a theme of some sort. The central point is that country music isn’t and never was just one type of music. It was always this amalgam of American music and it sprang from a lot of very different roots and then, as it grew, it sprouted many different branches, but they’re all connected.
Do you think that’s a common misconception of country music, that people think it’s all one thing? People love to use the phrase “traditional country,” but the tradition really seems like one of evolution.
DD: That is the tradition.
KB: It’s change. Like, is there one kind of rock & roll you guys have been covering for years? No. But the differences, the various shades of it, it’s all [a] spectrum. So we have all these people in country music all along different parts of the spectrum. There are obliterated borders among the artists who travel back and forth. Most significantly to us, in our fourth episode is the fact that when Ray Charles is given creative control of an album for the first time in his glorious career and he does Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, which is a huge hit. And the single from that album, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” just dominates the airwaves that summer. It was an incredible phenomenon. Which tells you that there’s just complete cross-pollination. And that was one of the celebrations of the film, was for us to explode our own, at least initially, narrow definitions of it and permit it to be many things.
DD: I understand that talking about commerce is part of that, wanting to label things. We don’t view this as a film about, oh, “big bad record labels.” It’s the industry we also follow, which makes it possible for people to hear it. If it hadn’t been for record labels and radio, it’d still just be doing it person to person. That’s the thing that makes the cross-pollination possible.
And really, it seems like many of the men and women you cover who have enjoyed long careers in country haven’t adhered strictly to one sound, either. It’s like a survival tactic.
KB: What happens is that you recognize some raw talent…and more often than not, commerce, or just the accidents of their intersection with the business, traps them in not the full expression of who they are. So you have lots of people like Loretta Lynn, who is so herself and arrives in Nashville and spins tires for a while until someone says, “You’re not the Nashville sound. You’re yourself. Be yourself.” And then all of a sudden she explodes. Willie Nelson never finds traction in Nashville and has to go back to Texas to do the things he’s going to do.
You have interviews with people like Merle Haggard, Little Jimmy Dickens, and Cowboy Jack Clement, all of whom are now gone. When you’re working on a project like this one, is there a sense of urgency, of time running out?
Julie Dunfey: Yes, and we’re very aware of people’s age and circumstances. Harold Bradley and Little Jimmy Dickens were the first two interviews we did, at the urging of people who said, you’ve gotta get them.
DD: We started interviewing people in 2012. We did Ralph Stanley really early. We got Cowboy Jack in his little office, ten steps from his bedroom.
KB: There’s a constriction in your heart about this, that of that 101 [interviewees] that we’ve lost 20, and you’re just desperate for nobody else to go before the broadcast. At the same time, we just feel so privileged to have them. Like Merle, who’s one of the biggest forces, if not the biggest force in our film. We’re in the editing room going, “Did Merle comment about this?” You want to bring him in because he feels like God, you know. As Ralph Emery said, “This is a Hollywood handsome guy, looks like Warren Beatty and he’s the whole package. He can write, he can sing, he’s handsome.” At the end, what you see is somebody who’s kind of reverted to the Okie his dad was, with the hat and the whiskers going everywhere. But in his eyes is this glimmer and twinkle that lives on beyond him. I still get choked up looking at the slightest comment.
DD: Actually one of the great joys of the project is getting to meet and for us, getting to interview people whose careers we want to follow, but [also] had lots of things to say about things totally unrelated to their life and their careers. So Merle is probably the greatest example, and Marty Stuart is a great example. Ketch Secor, whose life we don’t even cover because he’s too young, or Rhiannon Giddens.
KB: Or Willie. So Willie doesn’t talk, right? He’s the death of any interview and I was on The View in a separate segment with him. And I watched the people just paralyzed, because Willie had written a book about anecdotes of the road. And they said, “So what’s your favorite anecdote?” And Willie goes, “You can read the book.” Finally after years of tracking him down we were allowed to interview him on a bus on a Friday afternoon, in rush hour, where the bus has to be on for air conditioning. So we’re slashing through our three-and-a-half pages of questions to cut it down essential things. But like Merle, he wanted to talk about Ernest Tubb. He wanted to talk about all the people who came before. So that if you walked through those places he became animated in helping us understand something, and he realized, [he is] a conduit to those earlier times.
DD: When we started this — our normal thing is, ok, who are the 20 historians, the list of historians and people who have written books and biographies of people? And those are often times the people we would rely on as on camera interviews. But because we were wanting to get Jimmy Dickens while he was still alive and those other folks, we started accumulating a large library of people who were talking about country music knowledgably but with that little bit of angle that is they’re music artists themselves.
It seems like you have a good opportunity here to reach some people who haven’t paid much attention to country music and may in fact have dismissed it outright. What do you make of that tendency to not treat it with seriousness?
KB: Part of it is cultural, part of it is there’s so much stuff, part of it is actual taste. I brought in a friend from California who literally said, “Ken, I love all your stuff but country music?” By the end of the second episode, he was in tears. By the end of the 8th episode, he was a puddle. Every time I see him, he still looks like a deer caught in the headlights because he had been so unprepared for the emotional wallop of what the accumulation of the stories, the accumulation of the songs, the accumulation of the art, has done. That’s what we think we want to have happen. We’re a particularly divided country in which we’re more than happy to fly over a group of people that we assume are the country music base, forgetting that it’s the dominant music in America now.
JD: I came to the project thinking I don’t know anything about country music. And I started to discover, actually I do. I was in college in the Seventies, so I knew Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, I knew Willie, I knew Waylon. I had every album of Emmylou. I was like, “Oh, that’s country?” As I started to learn the deep history and understand the roots, I became an obnoxious convert. But to your question, I’ve been surprised over the years… people I’ve known for a really long time, like a friend of mine who works on Wall Street. When I told him what I was working on, he was like, “Oh, I’m a huge Bob Wills fan.” I was like, “How did I not know this about you?” He knew so much about country music.
You talked earlier about having Ketch Secor and Rhiannon Giddens in the series, even though this story doesn’t cover any of their work. Why did you choose those performers?
KB: These are young people, passionate about the music now but they felt compelled to understand where the music came from. It’s a wonderful thing that people who appear most often in Episode 1, the oldest period, are the youngest people: Rhiannon and Ketch. They took it upon themselves to know what was coming out of Galax, Virginia, when Pops Stoneman and Fiddlin’ John Carson and others were at the beginning of this music, and could help us understand a relationship hat dated even further back through an African and a European tradition of the banjo and a fiddle. They’re people today who have a firm grasp, perhaps firmer than anybody else — I mean, I would never challenge Marty [Stuart’s] supremacy for understanding what’s going on in the whole history of country music. They saved our bacon in Episode One.
Ken, I saw that you’d been asked about where country music as an art form ends, and your answer was, “there is no ending.” That story is still being written. Who from the contemporary landscape do you see as likely to be included in these same conversations in 25 to 30 years?
KB: We’re historians, amateur as we may be. But we’re interested in what we know and the goalposts of what we’ve done. We felt the temptation in Baseball, I felt the temptation in Jazz to do this same thing. And we can’t handicap and we can’t make a firm decision because history involves a kind of triangulation that only perspective — that is to say, the passage of time — permits. Is it 20 years, is it 25 years? Is it 30. I’m not sure. But I know there’s a comfort level you cease to have when you get too close to the present because that’s the province of you.
DD: We all might have our individual people that we tend to listen to more or like more than others, but that’s not the point. Here’s what I will tell you, is that there are people performing today who are doing really well who will be in that. And there are people performing today who we don’t know much about who will also be there.
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