In early August, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns was in full evangelist mode. Five weeks before the September 15 debut of Country Music, his latest television epic, Burns rhapsodized over country music pioneers the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. He quoted verses from Hank Williams, the singer-songwriter whose heart-wrenching lyrics earned him the title “hillbilly Shakespeare.” Burns, despite having already promoted the eight-part, sixteen-hour Country Music in dozens of cities, reveled in his role as the film’s most fervent advocate.
Eight years in the making, the film features more than 80 new interviews, including Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Rhiannon Giddens, Loretta Lynn, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Marty Stuart, Ralph Stanley, Vince Gill and Garth Brooks. Third-generation-country artists Holly Williams, Rosanne Cash and John Carter Cash give their insight into their celebrated ancestors.
Country Music follows such previous Burns films as 2017’s The Vietnam War and 2001’s Jazz. His first multi-hour documentary, 1990’s The Civil War, drew a record-breaking 40-million viewers to public television. “Documentaries up to that point, with few exceptions, where expository,” Burns said of The Civil War. “But here was something that had all the emotion of feature film.”
Burns’ many shorter films include Huey Long, Jackie Robinson and Mark Twain. He’s won 15 Emmy Awards and received two Oscar nominations. Most importantly for the Brooklyn-born, 66-year-old storyteller and filmmaker, his 45-year career continues at a feverish pace. His seven in-progress subjects include Muhammad Ali, the American Revolution and Ernest Hemingway.
In an era where thoughtful reporting and context are increasingly rare, Burns and his collaborators do the time-consuming labor that yields nuanced storytelling. “I have a little neon sign in my editing room,” he said. “It’s in lowercase cursive script. It says, ‘It’s complicated.’ Most filmmakers, when a scene is working, don’t want to touch it again. But we always find more information. We’re researching the entire time. We’re writing the entire time. We’re shooting interviews before we have a script. That’s who we do. It takes longer.”
When did you get the idea to do a series about country music?
I feel like I was supposed to do this all my life. I’ve never had something overcome me with such certainty. But eight-and-a-half years ago, I was visiting a friend in Texas. He said, ‘You ever thought about doing country music?’ And everything popped in my mind. We’ve been trying to tell a good story ever since. And that’s all it is, trying to tell good stories.
You’re not a poet or a musician, but you totally recognize the timelessness, the universality in a Hank Williams song.
“Hear that lonesome whippoorwill/He sounds too blue to fly/The midnight train is whining low/I’m so lonesome I could cry.” As we say in the opening of the film, this music comes from the need that so-called ordinary people—people who feel like their stories aren’t being told—have to tell their stories. And it turns out those stories are universal, experienced by the billionaire as well as the impoverished Okie living in a drainage culvert in Oakland, California during the Depression.
You weren’t a country music follower before you made Country Music?
I wasn’t a huge country fan going in. I’m a child of rock and roll and R&B. I worked in a record store, though, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I sold all this stuff and listened to it. Johnny Cash was a crossover artist. We loved Merle Haggard and Emmylou Harris. But I don’t make films about stuff I know about. I’d rather share the process of discovery. And that keeps the fire, the enthusiasm present.
You’ve tackled very serious subjects such as World War II, the Vietnam War, cancer, the Mayo Clinic, but you’ve also made films about baseball, jazz and now country music. These latter subjects may be perceived as entertainment, topics less worthy of attention. But that’s not how you see it?
Not at all. Country music stands up. I have several different producing teams, which allows us to spend ten years on The Vietnam War and eight years on Country Music. We can release them two years apart. So, when we were finishing up with the Vietnam team and someone said, “I’m never going to work on a film this important again.” They were in tears. I said, ‘That’s funny. Because I already am working on a film this important.”
Country music is a different thing, but it tackles huge American things like race. We think of this as completely white music, but it turns out that the five-headed Mount Rushmore of early country music—A.P. Carter, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash—all had African-American mentors or influences. So, all of a sudden, you realize that country music isn’t simplistic. In fact, it’s an element attached to a complex molecule that abuts blues, jazz, folk, rock, rhythm-and-blues and gospel. It’s a two-way street on which the artists go back and forth.
What sort of resistance or skepticism did you specifically encounter regarding country music?
Even a little bit in myself, the sense was that country music is pickup trucks and good old boys and hound dogs and six packs of beer. That’s the artificial thing, the barrier that fans and non-fans alike construct. In fact, country music mainlines direct emotions. It deals with two four letter words many of us are terrified of talking about—love and loss. That’s what country music is about.
Is making a film about an ostensibly less serious topic such as country or jazz music less demanding than making The Vietnam War?
All of these are really tough to do. Country Music was as hard as The Vietnam War. But there aren’t four or five million people dying in Country Music. It’s about a few people dying in accidents and others dying of broken hearts and alcohol. But still the death of Hank Williams is no less emotional than some things in the Vietnam series. What we’re looking for are good stories in American history, firing on all cylinders.
For interviews with major figures such as Merle Haggard or Willie Nelson, are you in the room asking the questions?
I’ve been working with Dayton Duncan [Country Music’s writer and co-producer] for almost 30 years. I know he can do it. He ended up doing Merle. I did Willie and Dolly [Parton]. Interviews are where the rubber hits the road. It’s got to be an interviewer of the highest quality. We were briefed by Willie’s “people” that he wouldn’t be forthcoming. He was wonderful. We had pared down our three-and-a-half pages of questions to essential things that I starred, feeling like we could just force it. We got all three-and-a-half pages and then some. He was loquacious. He’s still offbeat, with jazz syncopation in his rhythm. That’s so hard to edit, but that’s the glory of Willie.
We did 101 interviews, 175-plus hours. And we’ve lost 20 of those people since then. God forbid we lose anybody before the broadcast, but it’s inevitable that somebody’s going to go. We’ll mourn them, but also be thankful that we’ve woven them into the tapestry of the film.
Was the country music community receptive to you and your team? Of course, you have a great track record.
It was more that everybody wants their story to be told. And everybody knows that, in a modern media culture, stuff is abbreviated. It ends up with superficiality and conventional wisdom and tropes. But we’re doing an in-depth thing. Which means that people’s lives, their careers, expertise will be honored and not pigeonholed.
You depict the talent and perseverance artists had as well as their faults and self-destructiveness. That’s especially true of three of the genre’s greats, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.
Superficiality tends to make everybody either good or bad, as if we live in some perfectly binary universe. We don’t. I’ve spent my entire professional life trying to say that a hero is in fact a complicated and deeply flawed person. Look at our Roosevelt series. Three heroes—Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt—all wounded, flawed and heroic.
Unlike your exhaustively researched films, many stories and reports that appear in contemporary news media and especially social media totally lack context, investigation and basic reporting.
And they grow like a cancer before there’s anything else more complex and researched. I’m blessed to be working in public broadcasting. Because I do have the time to develop these things. I don’t just travel the same old interstates. I get off on the backroads.
How many projects do you have in the works?
I’m working on seven films. If any filmmaker tells you they’re working on seven films, they’re either lying or they mean they have proposed films. But these are films I’ve already exposed film for, or I already have a script for, or a script is being written, or we’re already in the editing room. The older I get, the greedier I am for creativity. I want to make a film better every day of my life.
Country Music premieres nationwide on PBS stations Sunday, September 15 through Wednesday, September 18, and Sunday, September 22 through Wednesday, September 25. The series will stream on PBS.org and PBS apps. In advance of the premiere, the concert special Country Music: Live at the Ryman will debut September 8 on PBS stations.