Filmmaker Ken Burns: Country Music ‘Is Not Just One Thing, and It Never Was’
The forthcoming PBS documentary, Country Music, produced by beloved filmmaker Ken Burns, runs through nearly a century's worth of country music history. The genre's storied past is an ambitious subject to synthesize into a film, but Burns' experience lies in telling the tales that make up the patchwork that is America, and country music is an important part of that.
"I’ve made the same movie over and over again. It’s the same film asking this deceptively simple question: Who are we? Who are those strange and complicated people who like to call themselves Americans?" Burns told The Boot in May, at a press event for Country Music. "Country music is just another way to not [only] answer that question, but to sell the question again in a really amazing way. For me, I can’t think of any topic more appropriate than country music."
The country music story involves many elements: hundreds of musicians, entities, places, experiences and songs. It contains many tall tales, and often seems larger than life, meaning there's no clear, linear direction when it comes to navigating its history. Burns and company spent eight years compiling information and deciding what pieces of the genre's story were essential. Through the process, he became a country music convert himself, and realized the greater universal themes behind the music: "I realized this would be a great story, firing on all cylinders, multi-generations, sort of ordinary folks and superstars melded together, intertwined within a story that tells us a little bit about who we are," Burns explains.
The reason it's both urgent and important to document country music's journey through time is multifaceted. There are many misconceptions about what defines country music and who's a part of it, and Burns and his team sought to dissolve those assumptions and reveal the omnivorous aspects of the genre's origins, painting it as more of a reflection of America itself, which is a melding of cultures and experiences. From the incorporation of blues and folk to geographical and political influences, country music is much more complicated and encompassing than its reputation would have you believe.
Country Music connects the dots on happenings that are decades apart, and explains the evolution of the genre's sound and story. The documentary is a chance to set the record straight, emphasize the importance of the genre's long-term effects on American culture and art, and highlight some of the glossed-over players from the past.
"So country music touches on the themes that are central to who we are, central to who we’ve been and who we are right now. Much of country music is about freedom. Much of country music is about class. A lot of it is about race," Burns says. "I think this affords us a chance to say no, this is not just one thing, and it never was."
A recurring theme in the documentary is the intersectional aspects of race and class in 21st-century America. The film notes that trailblazers such as A.P. Carter, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash were all trained by African-American teachers, despite most people tending to view the genre superficially as "white music."
"You’re talking about the Mount Rushmore of the early years of country music. There is this huge theme here," Burns says. "The banjo is from Africa, and the fiddle is from Europe."
The fusion of characteristics of multiple genres to make country music, and the genre's existence as a precursor to rock 'n' roll and all that followed, are also recognized throughout the film. Burns cites the "country music Big Bang" of Rodgers and the Carter Family's 1927 recording sessions in Bristol, Tenn., as evidence of how expansive country music was, even in its foundational stages. "He’s definitely Saturday night, and the Carter Family are definitely Sunday morning," the filmmaker muses.
"And that was only the beginning," he continues. "Then we went out and grabbed cowboy, went out and grabbed Western swing and the Bakersfield sound, string band music from Appalachia, [the] Nashville sound, countrypolitan, all this sort of stuff. And a lot of its greatest stars were jazz: Chet Atkins owed more of his guitar stylings to jazz than it did to country rhythms. Willie Nelson, to this day, is more jazz in his phrasing than in anything else."
Country music is built on collaboration and innovation, and Country Music tells the story of unity through our differences. What Burns and his team uncovered in making the series challenges the typical narrative surrounding the beloved, if stereotyped, genre, and urges viewers to walk away viewing it differently than they may have before.
"You can’t proclaim an orthodox or say it is only one thing. I think that’s a good story. We are never one thing," Burns says. "Because we’ve tended to get back into our tribal stances, country [music] gives us a chance to remind ourselves what we share in common."
Country Music's first episode will premiere on Sept. 15 at 8PM ET. The second, third and fourth episodes will air at the same time on Sept. 16, 17 and 18, respectively, while the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth episodes will air at the same time on Sept. 22-25.
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