Ken Burns' Country Music Comes to Bristol - Birthplace of Country Music

Ken Burns’ Country Music Comes to Bristol

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 Ken Burns' Country Music bus, wrapped in an image of four musicians to promote the documentary, pulls up to the front door of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
Ken Burns kicked off the national road show for his documentary on country music at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum;
photographer: Earl Neikirk Music a Film

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.

Left: Leah Ross and Ken Burns pose in front of the Ken Burns' Country Music bus; Right: Ketch Secor, Ken Burns, Dayton Duncan, and Julie Dunfey pose in front of the bus as they point at the PBS logo.
Left: BCM Executive Director Leah Ross welcomes Burns to Bristol. The excitement of the day is written on their faces! Right: Ketch Secor, Ken Burns, Dayton Duncan, and Julie Dunfey. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum; photographer: Earl Neikirk

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.

Left: Rene Rodgers talks to Ken Burns in front of one of the museum exhibits; Right: Dayton Duncan points out something on one of the museum exhibit panels to Ketch Secor.
Head Curator Rene Rodgers gave a tour of the museum to Ken Burns and his entire team. Producer Dayton Duncan got the chance to talk with Ketch Secor about the 1927 Bristol Sessions in the museum exhibits. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum; photographer: Earl Neikirk

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 view of the Q&A panel from the back of the room showing the crowded theater with the listening audience.
The Q&A session at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum held the audience’s rapt attention as they learned more about the making of the film and the topics covered. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum; photographer: Earl Neikirk

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.

Several members of the BCM staff pose with Ken Burns and his creative team in front of a branded backdrop with the logos for BCM, the museum, Bristol Rhythm &  Roots Reunion, and Radio Bristol.
Members of the BCM Team take a picture with Ken Burns,
Julie Dunfey, Dayton Duncan, and Ketch Secor. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum; photographer: Earl Neikirk

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.

A close-up showing Ken Burns signing the Green Board with a dry-erase marker, and then a detail of what he wrote: "So moving! Ken Burns".
Ken Burns signing the Green Board at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum; photographer: Earl Neikirk
Director of Marketing for the Birthplace of Country Music

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