From Johnny Cash, to Merle Haggard, to Dolly Parton, "It's American history firing on all cylinders."

By Rebecca Angel Baer
September 13, 2019

If you think you know country music, we'll bet a batch of Mama's buttermilk biscuits that you'll learn something new when you tune in to Ken Burn's new documentary, Country Music, premiering this Sunday night on PBS. Burns has long been the standard for others to follow in telling the stories of America's people. Burns and his team dive deep and give us rich, complex, and thorough history lessons in each documentary. From the Civil War, to baseball, to our national parks, Burns has taken us along to explore every corner of this country and now he's tackling a topic close to Southerners' hearts. Country music.

Burns recently spoke to Southern Living and shared what drew him to this subject.

"The very simple answer is that it's just American history firing on all cylinders. And you know, that's what I do. I'm interested in telling the stories of us. Both the lower case, two-letter, plural pronoun us which has some warmth and intimacy. But also, the majesty, complexity, and even the controversy of the US, the capitalized version of us…What could be a better story?"

Burns and his producing and writing partner Dayton Duncan, led a production team on an eight-and-a-half-year journey exploring the origins of this music from the pioneers like the Carter family all the way to modern day—sort of. They end their musical expedition in the mid 1990s with the contributions of familiar faces like Trisha Yearwood, Garth Brooks, and Vince Gil because as they say, they are historians, after all. During that eight-and-a-half-year period they conducted 101 interviews that yielded 175 hours-worth of footage, they scoured through 100,000 photographs and selected 3,300 to use, and those photos, interviews, as well as archival videos resulted in a grand total of 1000 hours of footage that they whittled down to a 16-hour film that will be aired in two-hour segments once a week on PBS beginning Sunday, September 15 at 8PM EST.

To those who aren't familiar with it, country music often gets a bum rap that it's just one note; white men in fringe-lined shirts with cowboy hats singing about their pick-up trucks. But Burns takes it all the way back to the beginning and moves forward in time and in detail to explain that it is, in fact, so many things with so many influences. The film shows how even at its infancy, this musical style draws from blues, jazz, African American religious songs, and Appalachian string music. Burns points out that each of those influences were in turn, influenced by many other things. "Anything in the United States is a mix…It's got all {of} these different influences. That's the nature of who we are. We are an alloy. Culturally, politically, symbolically. That means we are made up of constituent metals that are stronger in their combination than they are on their own," Burns said.

The common thread that sets country music apart, according to Burns, is a universal theme of love and loss. "{H}ow you fall in love, how you stay in love, what you feel when you lose love, when you're lonely, how you seek redemption. These are the things that every human being goes through. And what's interesting about country music is, like all the other forms of music, it's addressing this stuff but it's doing it in this very elemental way."

Watching the film, another theme becomes obvious. Country music owes a lot to the women who helped build and foster it. Burns noticed this too.

"This is a story about women. That really blew my socks off from Mother Maybelle and Sara Carter…but then Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn who is writing about stuff that nobody in rock and roll is writing about. "Don't come home from drinking with loving on your mind." And the pill, in the mid 60s. Come on…And Loretta Lynn is and writing from her own experience too. So, it has the hallmark of truth, not just a song. I think that's the biggest thing for me is all the strong women."

He went on to acknowledge one of our favorites, the Smoky Mountain Songbird herself. "Dolly Parton. There is no finer voice. That kind of flawless voice who also happens to be an incredibly great songwriter, who happens to also be incredibly smart, and a great business woman, and her own person, and honest. She is it. {Other than} Maybe Merle, for the total package."

Burns also reflected on how much he learned that he didn't know while doing this film and that he hopes that is what viewers will experience as well—from the country music obsessed to those who thought they didn't like that kind of music at all. When asked who the film is for, he simply answers "everybody."

"Country music tells us that we're in this together…I hope in some way, some small infinitesimal way, that seeing people across the political spectrum, by seeing people black and white, young and old, that you just realize, you just let go of the very simplistic binary things that have divided us and remember that we're all in it together…'E Pluribus Unum' is the Latin motto of the United States. ‘Out of Many, One.' I am wholeheartedly, in every film I've made, about unum. The one."