Ken Burns, one of the most acclaimed documentary makers in America, knows how to tell a story. He and his team have dug deep into the histories and stories of several important subjects – from national parks, baseball, and jazz to the Civil War, the Central Park Five, and the Vietnam War, and more. And now he has turned his clear vision to the story of country music!
On Sunday, March 24, Burns along with his Emmy Award-winning creative team including producers Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey, arrived in Bristol on a large tour bus to kick off the promotion for this latest documentary: Country Music. As the bus arrived at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, they were also joined by Old Crow Medicine Show’s frontman Ketch Secor, whose love of the history of country music made him a frequent collaborator with the team.
The kick-off event at the museum was the start of a 30-city road show tour promoting the 8-episode, 16-hour series that begins airing on September 15. The film explores the questions “What is country music?” and “Where did it come from?” while focusing on the biographies of the fascinating trailblazers who created and shaped it — from The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, and Bob Wills to Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Garth Brooks, and many more — as well as the times in which they lived. Much like the music itself, the film tells unforgettable stories of the hardships and joys shared by everyday people.
The 1927 Bristol Sessions are featured in the first two episodes of the series, as the documentary starts with the early recordings of what was then called “hillbilly music,” including those in Bristol by producer Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company. Peer saw the commercial viability of artists like Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family, who first recorded in Bristol in 1927, along with the continuing impact of Ernest “Pop” Stoneman, who he had worked with before. A portion of Episode 3 also includes the Stanley Brothers from Clintwood, Virginia, and the Farm and Fun Time radio show, which was broadcast from Bristol in the 1940s and 1950s. The Stanley Brothers were frequent performers on that show.
During his time at the museum, Burns and his team took a private tour of the exhibits, led by Head Curator Rene Rodgers, which was followed by a reception in the museum’s Special Exhibits Gallery. They also provided a real treat for the event attendees: a short screening with a clip from the film and an in-depth Q&A session, led by Radio Bristol producer Kris Truelsen, and filled with lively conversation and inside insights from Burns, Duncan, Dunfey, and Secor.
Within the filmmaking process, Duncan noted: “We discovered that country music isn’t – and never was – one type of music; it actually is many styles. It sprang from diverse roots, and it sprouted many branches. What unites them all is the way the music connects personal stories and elemental experiences with universal themes that every person can relate to. And as it evolved, from the bottom up, it created a special bond between the artists and fans that is unique among all other musical genres.”
A Ken Burns’ documentary is a work of many years, and that time, research, and attention to detail is always apparent in the finished film. Burns’ team conducted over 100 interviews with artists like Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Reba McEntire, Jack White, Elvis Costello and many more. Twenty of the film’s interview subjects have since died, including Merle Haggard, Ralph Stanley, and Little Jimmy Dickens. The team also looked through over 100,000 photographs and 700 hours of archival footage. There are also around 600 music cues in the film, and Legacy Records will release a comprehensive music set to accompany the film’s airing. We were fortunate and honored to play a small part in the team’s early research, including helping to facilitate some filming with a local collector.
If you are as excited as we are to see the full film, then start planning your nights in with the TV now! The first four episodes will begin airing on Sunday, September 15 and run through Wednesday, September 18, and then episodes 5–8 will air the following week on Sunday, September 22 through Wednesday, September 25 at 8:00–10:00 p.m. ET. Country Music will also be on Blu-ray and DVD in September 2019 from PBS Distribution at www.shopPBS.org, and available as a digital download. The DVD and Blu-ray extras include a preview program, a behind-the-scenes look at how the film was made, and material gleaned from the hours of interviews.
To view the official trailer of the film, visit https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/country-music.