Ken Burns’ ‘Country Music’ Documentary: What We Know So Far
The world is only one month away from the premiere of PBS' Country Music, a massive documentary that explores the history of the beloved genre. The multi-part film is directed and produced by Ken Burns, co-produced by Julie Dunfey and written by Dayton Duncan, the masterminds behind PBS documentaries about everything from the Civil War and Lewis and Clark to baseball and national parks.
Our staff members have been making their way through the documentary's eight episodes, but we can't share everything with you just yet. However, after gleaning information from three press events, documentary previews and an interview with Burns himself, here is everything The Boot can share about the upcoming Country Music documentary.
What Parts of Country Music History Does Country Music Cover?
Country Music has a total running time of 16 hours, broken into eight information-packed episodes. The first is titled "The Rub (Beginnings-1933)," while the following seven episodes are titled "Hard Times (1933-1945)," "The Hillbilly Shakespeare (1945-1953)," "I Can't Stop Loving You (1953-1963)," "The Sons and Daughters of America (1964-1968)," "Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (1968-1972)," "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? (1973-1983)" and "Don't Get Above Your Raisin' (1984-1996)."
As can be inferred from each episode's title, the Country Music documentary will cover nearly 70 years of the genre's history from the 20th century. The episodes run through the early days of barn dance radio programs to the height of Garth Brooks' commercially successful career in the 1990s, telling hundreds of individual stories in between that make up a larger thread.
Country Music focuses on many untold stories and unsung people that are essential to understanding the genre's importance to our culture. While most of country music's classic stars and institutions, from the Grand Ole Opry to Johnny Cash, are mentioned at some point throughout those 16 hours, Burns admits that he had to make some difficult decisions and leave more than 40 hours of usable content on the cutting room floor.
"It’s about saying yes, that person is important, but we think that these stories are more important," Burns told The Boot in an interview at Belmont University on May 29, after unveiling two Martin D 28 guitars that were signed by many of the stars in the film.
Who Is Featured in Country Music?
Burns and his team conducted interviews with the people who directly made country music history themselves, their families, other musicians and culture experts. They interviewed 101 country musicians, including Ketch Secor from Old Crow Medicine Show, Rosanne Cash, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Marty Stuart, Rhiannon Giddens and Merle Haggard. More than a dozen of the participants died before Burns and company were done filming, making those perspectives even more rare and important.
Multi-genre artists including Paul Simon, Jack White and Wynton Marsalis also weigh in throughout Country Music, speaking to the genre's impact in other corners of music. Every timeline explored and story told includes firsthand accounts that culminate a rich chronicle of events that make up country music as we know it in 2019.
Eight years of interviewing, research, filming, writing and production went into Country Music. Burns, a self-proclaimed "child of rock 'n' roll and R&B," and now a country music fan, calls the film's making "a pure-hearted investigation." In fact, because of the sheer volume of information and content found and created during this process, PBS is donating several hours of video to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and launching an educational initiative with lesson plans and accompanying media to which more than 1 million students and teachers across the United States will have access.
“We don’t like to make films about things we know about. We’d rather share with you a process of discovery," Burns said at a stop on the Country Music bus tour at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on March 27, adding that making the film was “a huge, joyous and complicated learning curve."
“All of us felt we had to check that preconception at the door and just dive into very elemental questions," he continued. "That freed us from the tyranny of the pigeonholing that happens.”
What Can Viewers Expect From Country Music?
Country Music avoids pigeonholing its titular genre to long-held stereotypes by going beyond its surface-level narratives. The documentary traces country's roots from the early days of blues and hillbilly music to the Bakersfield sound, the lonesome plains of Texas and the bustling music business created in Nashville. It's a fresh perspective that digs deeper than expected, making a beloved and familiar story even more touching and relatable.
A large theme throughout the film is that country music holds a mirror to American history as a whole. "We all share in common much more than we don’t, and yet, almost everything in this modern world, in this moment, suggests that we’re apart by accentuating differences. I like the fact that country music -- it’s about universal truth," Burns says. "It is dealing with universal events: the joy of birth, the sadness of death, falling in love, trying to stay in love, who’s in love, being lonely, seeking redemption. No one on the planet is without a relationship to at least one of those things. Country music addresses them very directly.
"I think that we make jokes about it -- we talk about pickup trucks and hound dogs and six-packs of beer -- because we’re not willing to say that country music deals with a couple of four-letter words that we’re uncomfortable with: ‘hurt’ or ‘pain’ and ‘love,'" he adds.
What Will Country Music Do for the Genre?
The film is expected to increase public interest in country music. After Burns' The National Parks: America's Best Idea aired, tourism to those parks skyrocketed. His advice to the Country Music Hall of Fame? "We hope they oil the doors," Burns says with a laugh.
While many country music fans are on board with the film, its appeal is much wider, much broader than some might think. Viewers can expect a multifaceted lens that examines the past to better understand not just a genre of music that's inspired and collided with many others, but a story about human beings and the survival of honest storytelling through the passage of time.
"[Country songs] help negotiate what all of us go through," Burns says. "And that’s why I’m a complete and utter convert, and I have looked to try to make with this film as many converts as possible."
When Can I Watch Country Music?
Country Music's first episode will premiere on Sept. 15 at 8PM ET. The second, third and fourth episodes will air at the same time on Sept. 16, 17 and 18, respectively, while the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth episodes will air at the same time on Sept. 22-25.
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