Ken Burns on His 16-Hour Country Music Epic for PBS – Rolling Stone
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How Ken Burns Connected Every Dot of Country Music’s Rich History in New Film

The filmmaker’s new documentary is a journey into the nation’s rowdy, sentimental, multicultural soul

Johnny Cash at his home in California, 1960. Credit: Sony Music Archives

Johnny Cash at his home in California, 1960.

Sony Music Archives

Ken Burns was in Dallas some years ago visiting a good friend, philanthropist Cappy McGarr. The filmmaker was working on his 2012 Depression-era miniseries, The Dust Bowl, and as usual for a workaholic who often has six or seven films brewing, Burns was turning over ideas for his next project. When McGarr suggested tackling country music, “it just exploded in my brain — like, of course,” Burns says. “And as we got into it, we saw that it was as real, important, and emotionally compelling as any film we’ve made.”

Related: 30 Best Music Docs Streaming on Netflix

Country Music (which premieres on PBS on September 15th) is Burns’ first major release since 2017’s unsettling, highly acclaimed The Vietnam War, and his second deep dive into American music, following 2001’s Jazz. It’s scarcely less exhaustive: At 16.5 hours spread across eight episodes, Country Music distills 101 interviews, more than 700 hours of archival clips, and 100,000 still photos into a story as complex and multifaceted as the nation it mirrors. It takes a sweepingly broad view of the genre, from so-called hillbilly songs (in truth a stew of Anglo-American folk, African American blues, and multicultural spirituals) to Western swing and bluegrass, cowboy and honky-tonk tunes, countrypolitan ballads and outlaw jams. There are also detours into the styles that country music irreducibly informed: rock & roll, rockabilly, country rock, and Americana. Country fans will be gobsmacked. And those who think they have no interest in the genre will have to think again. Country Music might well be the most ambitious, culturally resonant music documentary ever made. (The tie-in book and CD box set take it still deeper.)

As the series notes, all four Beatles were country fans; so was Charlie Parker. Figures outside the country ecosystem — Jack White, Paul Simon, Wynton Marsalis — supply perspective, along with an estimable historian (Bill Malone, author of the recently updated 1968 cornerstone Country Music USA). But mostly the story is told by the music’s own stars and side people, many of whom are passionate historians themselves. “We went in assuming we’d have a more substantial representation from ‘experts,’ and from outside of country,” says Burns. “We didn’t need them. [The country people] know their story really, really well.”

That story begins with the music’s so-called big bang: The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers recording at the legendary Bristol Sessions in Tennessee in 1927. Their stories weave through the series — part via the Carter-Cash dynasty, beginning when Johnny Cash falls in love with June Carter; part via Rodgers acolyte Merle Haggard, whose own life intersects with Cash’s when Haggard sees him perform at San Quentin State Prison while Haggard is an inmate there. That was a life-changing encounter, spurring Haggard on a path to become one of America’s greatest songwriters, and his account of it is one of the series’ many wrenching moments. “Merle is in virtually every episode,” notes writer Dayton Duncan, the series’ co-producer with Burns and Julie Dunfey. A longtime Burns collaborator, Duncan spent several hours with Haggard, who served, in some of the final interviews of his life, as both subject and ad hoc history consultant.

Rosanne Cash was also among the first artists Burns and his team approached. She had initial reservations about how the music’s story would be presented, especially the sections that involve her dad, Johnny Cash, whose death in Episode 8 is effectively the series’ end point. “The more [the filmmaking process] went on, the more reassured and impressed I was with what they were doing,” she says. “They went as deep as you could go.”

Cash was also among the first to see the finished film. “They connected every dot,” she says, “from Appalachia to Bob Wills to Bakersfield to my dad. It was artfully done, and so moving.”

Related: 100 Greatest Country Artists of All Time

Burns is a child of the Sixties — by his own description, a hippie in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who sold the first issue of Rolling Stone as a clerk at Discount Records on South University Avenue. His mom died when he was 11, and his dad was an academic ill-served by the academy, a legacy no doubt informing his son’s path.

Burns has been living in rural New Hampshire since 1979, not long after he finished at Hampshire College. In 1991, flush with the success of The Civil War, he bought a rambling Victorian house, which would become the editing hive of his company, Florentine Films. One day this spring, a team there was focused on a six-hour Ernest Hemingway documentary. Lined with posters of musicians and baseball players, with dog beds, imperfect wooden floors, and employees in T-shirts, the building is like off-campus housing tricked out with cutting-edge postproduction gear.

The rest of the New Hampshire site, including the 66-year-old filmmaker’s home, is perched on top of a hill about 1.5 miles outside town. Burns’ office is a museum of American history and his own work. He likes to show people around; in a gesture you sense he’s repeated a few times, he hands a visitor an iron manacle, dating to the days of American slavery. “This is the United States also, you know?” says Burns.

Among Burns’ past visitors is Marty Stuart, one of Country Music’s secret weapons. He’s something of a genre Zelig. As an 11-year-old, he met hit singer Connie Smith at a concert he attended and told his mother he’d marry Smith someday (he did). Stuart hit his career stride at 13 playing virtuoso mandolin with bluegrass architect Lester Flatt; he joined Johnny Cash’s band (and married his daughter Cindy) in the Eighties, became a solo hit-maker in the Nineties, and an Americana standard-bearer in the 2000s. Stuart is also one of the world’s foremost country archivists; he owns Jimmie Rodgers’ guitar, Cash’s first black performance suit, a handwritten copy of Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light,” and the boots Patsy Cline was wearing when she died.

Stuart was impressed by how Burns’ film engaged with country’s diversity issues. “Women have had to fight — and at this minute are having to fight — for their equal share in the world of country music,” he says, alluding to the gross underrepresentation of women on country radio. That fact is especially outrageous given how integral Maybelle Carter’s signature “scratch” guitar style, Sara Carter’s vocal approach, and the legacies of Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and others are to the music, as Country Music makes plain.

The film also points out how many country greats had African American musical mentors, and how little-known their contributions are. Hank Williams learned from Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, Bill Monroe from Arnold Schultz, Johnny Cash from Gus Cannon. Lesley Riddle helped the Carter Family collect and learn songs; Rodgers learned to sing and play the blues from black musicians as a railroad water boy, and made one of his most famous recordings, “Blue Yodel No. 9 (Standin’ on the Corner),” with Louis Armstrong. The film doesn’t sidestep racism in the music’s history. DeFord Bailey, one of the Grand Ole Opry’s biggest stars, was fired for dubious cause. Johnny Cash, thanks in part to his progressive politics, was the target of a proposed boycott by the Ku Klux Klan, which circulated fake news stories that his Italian American wife, Vivian, was black. Prior to a Seventies CMA broadcast, Loretta Lynn was warned of the optics of getting too close to African American country legend Charley Pride when presenting him with an award (she made a point of both hugging and kissing him). Pride is one of the film’s most profound commentators.

‘It’s really important people know country music is a hybrid, a creolization that comes out of African and European cultures mixing,” says singer Rhiannon Giddens, an early-American-music scholar who drove that point home earlier this year on a concert program with Burns, Marsalis, Stuart, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. “Also, most importantly, it comes from working-class people mixing. That’s the thing that’s often forgotten, that where people made these interactions musically was in the fields, on the riverboats, or wherever — and that this music is our music, all of us together. It’s very dangerous to subscribe to it as ‘white music,’ or as this monolithic thing, because it’s not. And that’s the beauty of America, I think — all the positive stuff comes out of that aspect of the mix.” In a year when country’s biggest story is a queer black rapper from Georgia, these lessons couldn’t be more timely.

Ultimately, the core power of Burns’ documentaries is their emotional potency, and Country Music is no different. Its single most stirring moment might be Vince Gill choking up during a rendition of “Go Rest High on That Mountain” at George Jones’ funeral. “It was hard to be the one to completely fall apart,” says Gill, looking back with a faint chuckle, “but it kind of gave -everybody the license to fall apart too.”

There’s also the scene where Rosanne Cash, after a backstage disagreement with her dad, describes watching him walk away from her, as he’d done “so many times before,” most notably when he abandoned her and her mother. It’s heartbreaking, but she was willing to go there. “By that time, I trusted [Ken and his team],” Cash says. “And you know, what’s the point of not going there? Truth is powerful.”

Dolly Parton with writer-producer Dayton Duncan and Burns.

Dolly Parton with writer-producer Dayton Duncan and Burns.

The series coda is a slide show of modern artists — Taylor Swift, Little Big Town, Sturgill Simpson, and others — but it effectively ends in the Nineties, Johnny Cash’s death notwithstanding. Those who want framing on the Dixie Chicks’ mid-2000s blacklisting, the gender politics of modern country radio, or the cultural ramifications of “Old Town Road” may be frustrated. But Burns, whose Jazz series was criticized mainly for its final episode’s reductive run-up to the present, demurs. “We’re in the history business,” he says. “This modern period, 20, 25 years out, is nothing I can touch. I don’t know who in our gallery of contemporary stars is going to be as durable as a Merle Haggard, or as important as a Johnny Cash or a Loretta Lynn.”

Stuart is pragmatic about what Country Music might accomplish. “I don’t expect this to affect contemporary country music radio,” he says. But he does believe it “will bring awareness and understanding about where country music comes from, and how deep it goes. And I think for any culturally minded contemporary country singer or songwriter — a star or a would-be — it will help them understand what they’re really a part of.”

“This is a history of an art form whose roots are dark and complex and part of our collective unconscious,” says Cash, “rooted in our migration and history and who we became as Americans. It’s all there in this story. All these songs that came from Scotland and England and Ireland into Appalachia, and the slave songs and work songs that came from Africa, the melding of that: That’s our history. And it’s important to know your history.” 

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