Music documentary

PBS Documentary “Country Music” Has Several Links to Iowa


About a decade ago, famous documentary filmmaker Ken Burns called his longtime collaborator and friend, Dayton Duncan, from Iowa, to ask the producer and writer for his opinion on pitching a country music documentary. .

Duncan said he told Burns, “I think it’s the best idea ever, as long as I’m the one writing and producing it.”

The result, “Country Music,” begins airing Sunday on PBS. Duncan, who grew up in Indianola, explained in an interview with the Des Moines Register why the project was important to him and how a piece of Iowa country music history made the final cut for this documentary.

Burns and Duncan have been making films together for almost 30 years. Duncan, 70, started working on this project eight years ago, doing over a hundred interviews. Duncan then sat down and created a script, which evolved over the two and a half years of editing. “We take longer than most filmmakers to make our films,” Duncan said. “But we hope the extra time we spend on it will show up in the final quality of the documentaries we make.”

Forty eminent voices interviewed for the project have been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

“Emmylou Harris is one of the reasons I came back to country music in the 1970s. It was a pleasure to talk to her about the history of country music and her career,” Duncan said. .

In the series, Duncan and Burns also honor African Americans for their significant influence on country music. One of the legends mentioned in the documentary is DeFord Bailey, also known as the Harmonica Wizard. Bailey was the first artist to be featured on the Grand Ole Opry and the show’s first African American artist.

“We demonstrate that one of the roots of country music is blues and African American work songs, gospels and spirituals. Contrary to the stereotype, country music has always been linked to African American artists and musicians.” Duncan said. “We tell the story of Charley Pride and Ray Charles, who was already a legendary rhythm and blues artist – 1962 was (the) first time in his career that he was given artistic control of an album and wanted to do an album of country songs. “

For Duncan, music, especially country music, has always crossed racial lines. “Black musicians listened to white musicians, and white musicians listened to black musicians,” Duncan said.

Jimmie Rodgers, called the father of country music, worked in the 1910s as a water boy for African-American railroad crews laying tracks in Mississippi. According to Duncan, he picked up the blues from them, an obvious influence in his records. Rodgers also recorded with Louis Armstrong and Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass.

A journey begins in central Iowa

Duncan recalled that his journey with country music began in a church in Ackworth’s basement, although he didn’t grow up with just one specific musical taste. “The radio station I was listening to in Indianola was coming out of Des Moines, and on a given half hour, you could hear Johnny Cash singing ‘Folsom Prison Blues’. And then you hear the Beatles, then you hear Frank Sinatra, Peter , Paul and Mary sing a Bob Dylan song, ”Duncan said.

In high school, Duncan moved away from the sounds of country music and fell more in love with folk. He dedicates his return to country music to his late best friend Joe Blake: “I had moved after college, and he called me up and said, ‘You gotta go get the new Waylon Jennings album. , ‘Dreaming My Dreams.’ “

Duncan bought the album and sold it out.

For him, working on “Country Music” has been a labor of love. He described his relationship to the genre in country song terms: “We were in love for a while. We fell in love and ultimately reconciled, and now we’re going to hang in there, like Tammy Wynette and George. Jones song says, ”Duncan said.

Shenandoah in southwestern Iowa appears in “County Music”.

“It was an interesting story in the development of radio and country music,” Duncan said. “Country music started to spread like kudzu when this relatively new radio technology appeared in the 1920s.

“I came across the story of these two seed companies competing from Shenandoah. One of them decided to broadcast on this new radio station. country musicians to play for them.

A competing company launched its radio station in Shenandoah, and it became somewhat of a precursor to the Grand Ole Opry. “People wanted to come and see the performances live,” Duncan said.

What to expect from the documentary

“I hope people who don’t like country music will come out saying, ‘I didn’t realize it was country music too,’” Duncan said. “If you already come into it loving country music, you will appreciate how wide it is. In our introduction, Dolly Parton says, you can dance to it, you can play it at a funeral, you can make it the love. Just something in there for everyone. “

How to watch

The first of eight parts of “Country Music” airs this Sunday, September 15 on Iowa Public Television at 7:00 p.m. Central. The second part will air on Mondays at 7 p.m.

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