BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA – Before a birthday cake was even handed out for Ken Burns ’66th birthday, the panel discussion on Burns’ new documentary series “Country Music” during Television’s 2019 Summer Press Tour Critics Association was a celebration of love.
The 4-hour documentary, which premieres on PBS on September 15, is a fascinating journey through the history of country music, illuminating how European tunes, Appalachian melodies, African instruments, hymns church, African-American soul and more have merged into the ultimate American Sound that includes country music.
Burns is a familiar presence on TV press tours, but this time he was joined on stage not only by longtime collaborators, writer Dayton Duncan and producer Julie Dunfey, but also country music stars. who are interviewed in the “Country Music” docuseries.
Rosanne Cash, Marty Stuart and Dwight Yoakam were all in attendance, and their comments at the press conference recalled just how much their expertise and passion for the artists that came before added to the pleasure of watching “Country Music”.
Burns said one of his goals while directing “Country Music” was the same motivator that had driven him when he made his first PBS movie, “Brooklyn Bridge.” He didn’t want to just recite historical facts, he said, but to get “an emotional archeology” of the material.
That’s not to say sentimental, Burns continued. But “we weren’t prepared,” he said, for the emotions they would encounter while making “Country Music”. The film, he said, is an “opportunity to understand who we are.”
Yoakam, who appears in the documentary Getting moved when he talks about the simple beauty of the late Merle Haggard’s lyrics, said “country music” touches on, like Burns’ projects on the Vietnam War and WWII before. she, monumental subjects.
What he admires in these works and this one, Yoakam said, is a sensitivity to nuance, something that we don’t see enough of. “These are not sound bites,” Yoakam said, adding that “country music” is about, like the United States, all races and cultures. “This film is about our country.”
Burns addressed the stereotype that country music is created by whites, for whites. Instead, he said, the music is “pooch” and “mixed race,” adding that “the art tells the story of our meeting.
As an example, Stuart recalled country star Porter Wagoner presenting rhythm and blues legend James Brown at the Grand Ole Opry. Wagoner urged Brown to make his own style of music, Stuart said, so Brown sang his hit “Sex Machine,” something Stuart called “It’s pretty good.”
Stuart said the documentary series pays homage to the performers, songwriters and others who have made this music what it is. “It elevates country music,” Stuart said of the show.
Cash, whose father, Johnny Cash, features prominently in “Country Music,” said that when he was first approached about being on the project, “I was nervous about it.” But, she added, once she saw “the depth of their respect and the quality of their research,” she changed her mind about being interviewed by Burns and her team.
We’ll have more on “Country Music” as the premiere date approaches.
Stay tuned for more information and notes on the 2019 TCA Summer Press Tour.
– Kristi Turnquist
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