The celebrated filmmaker gives EW the scoop on his newest project: an eight-night, 16-hour exploration into one of America’s most popular and enduring art forms
Ken Burns never begins a project with a specific intention. Yet, it seems, each one of his epic historical docuseries — whether it examines the Civil War or baseball — ends up speaking to the current moment.
“Please tell me why that is — it’s been [happening] my entire life,” says the 66-year-old filmmaker with a chuckle, before referring to a favorite Mark Twain quote that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”
The latest echoing intersection between then and now comes in the form of Country Music, directed by Burns and co-produced with writing and producing partners Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey, which will air across eight nights on PBS beginning Sept. 15.
“Our intention is to just tell stories,” says Burns. “We don’t have a political or another agenda. We do know that a by-product of a deep dive helps to rescue whatever the subject is from the barnacles of sentimentality that get encrusted around it.”
Over the course of the series, Country Music chronologizes instruments (fiddle, banjo, guitar), movements (countrypolitan, outlaw, neo-traditional), and artists (from Hank Williams to Garth Brooks) in the familiar Burns style — complete with Peter Coyote narration — and winds up explicating the roots of a genre that has traveled from walking the line to riding the old town road.
In the early episodes, the considerable and sometimes overlooked African-American contribution to the genre is deeply explored. “It’s not ‘politically correct’ to tell this story,” Burns says. “It’s actually correct to tell this story.
“Everybody who’s foundational [to the genre]—A.P. Carter, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, and Johnny Cash—all have African-American tutor[s]. The banjo is from Africa. Let’s stop pretending that [country music] is only one thing,” he says.
“Once we separate the wheat from the chaff, once you start talking about what the essence is of country music, the pickup trucks and the hound dogs and the good old boys and the six-packs of beer fall away in favor of incredibly deep things…the joy of birth, sorrow at death, a broken heart, jealousy, anger, rage, trying to get right with God, ‘look what my old lady did to me,’ ‘look what I did to my old lady.’ All of those things are elemental human emotions, and country music is as good, if not better [at expressing those emotions], than any other form because it’s three chords and the truth.”
Calling the genre “source material for the soul,” Rosanne Cash, one of the film’s talking heads and one of its many subjects—as is, of course, her dad, Johnny—believes the doc will be revelatory to viewers in that country music is “part of the American collective unconscious, whether you realize it or not.”
And for anyone in the “anything but country” camp, Burns has a conversion story to share. “I had a guy come into a screening. He goes, ‘Ken, I’ve loved everything you’ve done, but country music…’ He shakes his head. I said, ‘Okay, just give it a chance.’ By episode 8, he’s sobbing. He continues to apologize. He’s now steeped in country music. And that’s what we’re finding.”
Vince Gill, a frequent presence throughout the series, sums it up: “The telling of this history, finally, by [Ken], I think is going to completely annihilate people in how wrong they’ve been about their perception of this music. I think we’re going to finally get the respect that we’ve never had from the people that weren’t really steeped in it and don’t understand the history.” Adds Burns: “Vince, in our last episode, says, ‘All I’ve ever wanted out of music is to be moved.’ That’s all I’ve ever wanted out of filmmaking. The fact that I’ve had the privilege of working…to make a film about music that moves you, in a medium in which emotions are at the heart — that’s it.”