In Ken Burns’ editing room hangs a neon sign that reads “It’s Complicated.”
The motto has held true throughout the American history the documentarian has covered and certainly does in his latest series for PBS, “Country Music.” which starts airing Sunday night.
The eight-part, 16-hour series details a surprisingly complicated history of the genre with Burns’ depth of archival research, rarely seen photos, and original interviews.
Burns himself has been blown away by revelations big and small, from the birth of some of the country’s most iconic songs to the pivotal roles that women and African Americans have played in country music history.
“That’s why it’s not just a K-tel record deal, it’s not the TimeLife country music series — it’s a story,” Burns said backstage at the Harris Concert Hall this month. last, before a preview of the film presented by Aspen Music. Party and school.
The documentary traces the history of country music from the turn of the 20th century and the days of the Carter family through the 1990s and superstar Garth Brooks, who defines country music as “three chords and the truth.”
Along the way, he traces the role of music in American culture and counterculture, the evolutions of its sound as well as its place in gender equality and race relations.
Country music has been intertwined with Burns’ work seemingly since the start of his career and his 1988 documentary about painter Thomas Hart Benton, so it’s a surprise that it took him nearly four decades in his film career to tackle it.
“It couldn’t have happened a moment sooner and I’m glad we didn’t start it a moment later,” Burns said.
A self-proclaimed “child of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll,” Burns was not a fan of country music until this venture, which took eight years of production. Making the movie, however, converted him.
“I was totally unprepared,” Burns said. “It shattered any preconceptions I had.”
The film comes at a time of cultural debate over country and its preconceptions as a regressive art form for and by straight white men. Sunday’s premiere follows “Old Town Road” – a country song by black and gay rapper Lil Nas X – breaking the record for longest No. 1 title track in history. The song’s success and its unorthodox take on the country sound underscore the film’s thesis that country is — and always has been — more complex and inclusive than meets the eye.
“Thank you Lil Nas X for coming on stage and getting our audience ready for us,” Burns said. “We don’t have to prep anybody or worry about ‘Oh, there’s Burns again with his racing thing.'”
Each episode of the series addresses issues of race in country music. It includes sections focusing on the banjo, which originated from African instruments brought to the United States by slaves, on how country was built from a foundation of spiritual and field songs, and on the mesmerizing evolution of melody in Woody Guthrie’s “This.” Land Is Your Land” returns The Carter Family’s “Little Darling, Pal of Mine” to its original source as a black church anthem.
Kris Kristofferson calls country “white man’s soul music” in the film, but Burns seems to take issue with that definition. His film highlights the contributions of African-American artists who have been written out of history, the incorporation of country music recording sessions as early as the 1920s and he devotes an extended segment to Charley Pride’s stardom. in the mid 1960s.
“Nobody ever believes it, but every time I finish a movie it seems like it’s exactly what the culture wants at that time,” he said.
Each episode also highlights the centrality of women in the form of country music, from Maybelle Carter to the pioneering proto-feminist songs of Loretta Lynn. Burns said he was personally most moved by the story behind Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” which she wrote to get out of the cut of her manipulative and controlling creative partner Porter Wagoner.
“Women will watch this movie and not believe it was editorially made before the #MeToo movement,” Burns said.
The Aspenites will be particularly interested in part six of the series, which delves into the early days of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The segment focuses on the making of the band’s 1972 triple album, “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” and how it reunited an older, more conservative generation of country music fans with the hippie kids of the time.
The section includes dozens of photos from the band’s historic six-day recording session in Nashville, showing a baby-faced Jimmy Ibbotson alongside country-western legends like Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs and Roy Acuff, and includes interviews with Dirt Band members John McEuen and Jeff Hanna.
“For us, it was like going back to 1928 and making an old record,” McEuen explains in the film. “We wanted to make an old record.”
“Country Music” is built on seemingly comprehensive research, including 101 interviews, 1,000 hours of film and some 100,000 photographs, whittled down to the 3,300 featured in the final product.
Twenty of the film’s interview subjects have since died, including some of the last on-camera interviews with Merle Haggard, Ralph Stanley and series star Hazel Smith – a folksy, outspoken woman who served as Willie’s office manager. Nelson and The Outlaws at their peak in the mid-1970s.
Burns’ search for “Country Music” overlapped with his 2017 Vietnam War documentary and with upcoming films about Ernest Hemingway and Muhammad Ali.
“They talk to each other all the time,” he said of his always-full list of projects.
Burns has four production teams working on movies simultaneously, so he’s constantly jumping between seemingly disparate topics for movies in different stages of development. For example, Burns was leaving the editing room for “The Vietnam War” to shoot interviews for “Country Music,” and he’s now in the early stages of editing the Hemingway movie and finalizing his voice-over scripts for the Ali Project. while promoting “Country Music,” while in the early stages of movies about Benjamin Franklin and the Revolutionary War.
“It’s a tapestry,” he said. “Everything is woven together.”
Each project informs the other and deepens their understanding of American culture. He made 15 films that cover the United States in the 1920s, he noted, and as he said, “It’s always a different 20. The flappers appear, the gangsters appear, but the other stuff underneath – whether it’s ‘Jazz’ or ‘Baseball’ or ‘Country Music’ or ‘The Roosevelts’ – it’s different 20s. That’s wonderful. I didn’t think you could extract so much information from something.