Music documentary

Ken Burns on the making of his new documentary series “Country Music”

Ken Burns pictured at the Harris Concert Hall in August.
lynn silversmith

In Ken Burns’ editing room, a neon sign reads “It’s complicated”.

The motto has held true in all of American history the documentary filmmaker has covered and it certainly is in his latest series for PBS, “Country Music”. which begins 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 central roles played by women and African Americans in country music history.

“That’s why it’s not just a K-tel record offering, it’s not the TimeLife country music series – it’s a story,” Burns said backstage at Harris Concert Hall on the Month. last, before a preview of the film organized by the Aspen Music Festival and School.



The documentary traces the history of country from the early 20th century and the days of the Carter family to 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, and its place in gender equality and race relations.

Country music has been closely linked to Burns’ work apparently since the start of his career and his 1988 documentary on painter Thomas Hart Benton, so it’s surprising that it took him nearly four decades in his filmmaking career to tackle it.

“It couldn’t have happened a moment sooner and I’m glad we didn’t start a moment later,” said Burns.

Self-proclaimed “the child of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll,” Burns was not a fan of country music until this venture, which spanned eight years of production. Making the movie, however, converted it.

“I wasn’t prepared at all,” Burns said. “It shattered any preconceptions I had.”

The film comes in a moment of cultural debate about the 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 the longest-reigning No. 1 song in history. The song’s success and its unorthodox approach to the country sound underscore the film’s thesis that country is – and always has been – more complex and inclusive than it looks.

“Thanks to Lil Nas X for coming on stage and preparing our audience for us,” Burns said. “We don’t have to prepare anyone or worry about, ‘Oh, here’s Burns again with his racing thing.'”

Each episode of the series addresses issues of race in country music. It includes sections focused on the banjo, which descends from African instruments that were brought to the United States by slaves, on how the primitive country was built from a foundation of spirituals and field songs. , and on the fascinating evolution of the melody in “This by Woody Guthrie Land Is Your Land” back to the Carter family’s “Little Darling, Pal of Mine” to its original source as a black church hymn.

Kris Kristofferson calls country “white man’s soul music” in the film, but Burns seems to make an argument against that definition. His film highlights the contributions of African-American artists who have been wiped out of history, the incorporation of country music recording sessions as early as the 1920s, and he devotes a lengthy segment to the fame of Charley Pride at the mid-1960s.

“No one ever believes it, but every time I finish a movie it seems like exactly what the culture wants at that point,” he said.

Each episode also highlights the central role of women in country music, from Maybelle Carter to pioneering proto-feminist songs by Loretta Lynn. Burns said he was personally most moved by the story behind Dolly Parton’s “I’ll Always Love You,” which she wrote out of the tutelage 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.

Aspenites will be particularly interested in the sixth part of the series, which delves into the early days of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The segment focuses on making the band’s 1972 triple album, “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” and how it brought together an older, more conservative generation of country music fans with the hippie kids of the era.

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 Maybell 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,” John McEuen says in the film. “We wanted to make an old record. “

“Country Music” is built on a seemingly comprehensive research, comprising 101 interviews, 1,000 hours of film and some 100,000 photographs, narrowed 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 folkloric and straightforward woman who served as Willie’s office manager. Nelson and The Outlaws at their peak in the mid-1970s.

Burns’ research for “Country Music” overlaps with his 2017 documentary on the Vietnam War and with upcoming films on Ernest Hemingway and Muhammad Ali.

“They talk to each other all the time,” he said of his ever-busy list of projects.

Burns has four production teams working on films simultaneously, so he’s constantly jumping between seemingly disparate topics for films at various stages of development. For example, Burns was leaving the editing room for “The Vietnam War” to do interviews for “Country Music,” and he is now at the start of editing the Hemingway movie and finalizing his voiceover scripts for the Ali project. while promoting “Country Music,” while at the start of the films about Benjamin Franklin and the War of Independence.

“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 covered America in the 1920s, he noted, and as he put it, “The 20s are always different. Flappers appear, 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.

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