Ken Burns can trace a direct line between country music’s founding in the last century and Lil Nas X’s current reign as king of the charts. “Old Town Road,” the duet by the rapper and Billy Ray Cyrus, is now the No. 1 hit in the history of the pop 100, with absolutely no signs of slowing down in its extraordinary run.
“‘Old Town Road’ was first carried on country charts, which it most definitely is, [but was] then taken off because [Lil Nas X] is a black rapper,” Burns said. “So it tells you that commerce and convenience” attempt to categorize when such classification is impossible, be it for Lil Nas X’s composition or its long-ago antecedents in country music.
The Oscar-nominated Burns, who is known for the multi-part documentaries “Jazz,” “Baseball” and 2017’s “The Vietnam War,” unveils his latest eight-part series, “Country Music,” on PBS beginning Sept. 15. Culled from hundreds of hours of interviews with figures ranging from Dolly Parton to Garth Brooks, “Country Music” traces the origins of the art form in Appalachia among Scots-Irish descendants as it united with the emerging forms of blues, jazz and gospel—all of which came from the Southern black community.
Over its 16 hours, “Country Music” starts at the humble origins of the Carter Family in rural Virginia and Mississippi’s Jimmie Rodgers, and proceeds right on up through today’s stadium-filling superstars like Carrie Underwood.
“Country music deals with universal human themes that everyone [relates] to: love and loss,” Burns said. “It’s so powerful that we disguise it and make jokes: ‘It’s about pickup trucks and good ol’ boys and hound dogs and six-packs of beer.’ It is rarely about that.”
He points to Hank Williams, the so-called “hillbilly Shakespeare,” known as much for the tender 1949 love poem “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” as for good-time odes like “Hey Good Lookin”.
“The same composer [sings]: ‘The silence of a shooting star lights up a purple sky, and as I wonder where you are, I’m so lonesome I could cry’ and ‘I’ve got a hot-box Ford and a two-dollar bill, and I want a place right over the hill,’” Burns says, quoting Williams’s lyrics. “One is the joyful excitement of new love, and the other this sadness of being alone and having lost love. That’s what everyone experiences.
“And in public broadcasting, we don’t have focus groups; we’re there for everybody,” Burns said. “We want to speak to Americans. And what country music is is American history firing on all cylinders.”
And what properly constitutes an “American” art form is continually shifting, for country music and its constituent parts especially. The banjo, long considered the staple of “hillbilly music,” in fact came from Africa, with the fiddle originating in the British Isles.
“The intermingling of groups is what makes ‘American’ anything,” Burns said. “There is no one pure American thing.”
Burns said that country music’s pioneers — A.P. Carter of the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash and Bill Monroe — all had African-American mentors or influences. Rodgers grew up hearing the work songs of field hands in southern Mississippi, and this would influence his later compositions, notably the mournful and bluesy “Waiting for a Train.”
Even as rock grew into its own in the latter half of the 20th century, its greatest practitioners were always looking to country as they found their own voices.
“Every single one of the Beatles was influenced by country music,” Burns said. “Bob Dylan came to Nashville” to record “Nashville Skyline” in 1969. “When Ray Charles had creative control of an album for the first time in his career, he stunned everyone by releasing ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,’ [featuring] a Hank Williams song, ‘Hey Good Lookin’.’
“It just tells you that if try to put up dividing lines or borders, you can’t do it. They always fall apart,” Burns said. “These musicians travel freely between them.”
“Country Music” also follows the art form as it headed west, where it found new expression on the wide open roads and gradually adopted the now-familiar cowboy motif. This led to a subgenre of “outlaw” country, among whose most notable performers was California’s Merle Haggard.
“Everyone is important [to the documentary], but with Merle we feel so fortunate that we recorded him five or six years ago,” Burns said of Haggard, who died near Redding on April 6, 2016, at the age of 79. “He’s so seminal in the film. I refer to him as ‘Zeus.’”
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Burns said that the normally taciturn Haggard came close to tears several times in his interviews, recalling details of his own hardscrabble days in Depression-era California. Burns calls Haggard’s life story “one of the most incredible I know” and says it would make for quite a fictionalized film.
As the interviews with the late Haggard attest, Burns’ films take several years to conceive, finance, film and edit — requiring the generosity of corporate underwriters like Bank of America.
“They came up with a tagline for this that I love,” Burns said of his longtime financier. “In their underwriting credit it says: ‘Nothing connects the country like country.’”
Although it’s a constant push to get money to fund his ambitious projects, Burns stresses that he will not relinquish any creative control to fiscal backers.
“We have a strict church-and-state line in public broadcasting with the underwriters. They can’t influence or be unhappy,” he said.
Burns left his native New York nearly four decades ago to complete editing “Brooklyn Bridge” at the home where he still lives in Walpole, New Hampshire. His rent in New York was fearsome, and he turned down a full-time producing job in the city to follow his own path.
“If I got that ‘real job,’ I was terrified I would put the footage on a shelf and blink, and I’d be 45 years old and not have done it,” Burns, now 66, said. “I didn’t make more than $2,500, but I finished editing [‘Brooklyn Bridge’] and it got nominated for an Academy Award,” he said.
Burns has since rejected overtures to return to Gotham or relocate to Los Angeles, preferring the bird’s-eye view and control that remaining in New Hampshire allows him to have over multiple teams working on various documentaries at once.
“I live about a mile and a half out of [Walpole]. I walk down the hill — rain or snow or freezing cold or blowing heat — every day, get a cup of tea, and walk back,” he says of his routine, during which he mulls over outstanding questions that need to be addressed in his projects. “I can just think about the enormous amount of work we have before us, and then get down to it.”
He also eschews any commercial work or freelance directing jobs in order to continue churning out the Burns factory assembly line of documentaries. Overseeing teams in New Hampshire and New York, he is now working on another project about Muhammad Ali.
And in such divisive times as those in which we now find ourselves, Burns believes that “Country Music” may be the celebration of Americana needed to bring us all back together.
“I’m all about ‘us,’ both the lowercase version of that and the uppercase — the U.S.,” Burns said. “The majesty, the breadth, the complexity, the contradiction and the controversy of the U.S., because the American story has [meant] being an alloy. An alloy is always stronger than its constituent metals. And when you say [America is] ‘only this,’ you become brittle and much less strong.”
The filmmaker also stresses that “Country Music” will appeal to viewers well beyond fans of the genre itself, just as audiences who weren’t perhaps sports or war history buffs gravitated to the human tales at the heart of his “Baseball” and “The Civil War.”
“We were unprepared for the strong women in [‘Country Music’], for the complex story of race. But we were mostly unprepared for the emotional wallop this story and that music provided,” Burns said of his new opus. “Because if you tell a story well, it doesn’t matter what it is.”
“I’m all about ‘us,’ both the lowercase version of that and the uppercase — the U.S.The majesty, the breadth, the complexity, the contradiction and the controversy of the U.S., because the American story has [meant] being an alloy. An alloy is always stronger than its constituent metals. And when you say [America is] ‘only this,’ you become brittle and much less strong.” Ken Burns