Dolly Parton signs Martin D-28 guitar. Parton is among the 76 of the 101 country music artists interviewed for the series who signed two Martin D-28 guitars.
Photo: Credit: Courtesy of Katy Haas
Photo: Credit: Courtesy of Katy Haas

Ken Burns takes dive into ‘Country Music’ history on PBS series debuting Sept. 15

Originally posted Thursday, September 12, 2019 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Ken Burns is nothing if not thorough. The man of the modern American documentary typically spends five to 10 years on any particular project, an eon compared to virtually anyone else in the trade.

“Country Music,” his latest opus, debuts on PBS (GPB locally) Sunday at 8 p.m. The eight-part series follows Burns’ deep dives into jazz, baseball, the Civil War, the Vietnam War and national parks, to name a few. 

In this case, Burns and his team trace the history of this very American genre going back to Atlanta in 1923 where a producer Ralph Peer recorded what was known as the first country song and later discovered Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family

Burns and his staff interviewed 101 people over eight-plus years. About 40 are in the Country Music Hall of Fame, including Dolly Parton, Bill Anderson, Connie Smith, Willie Nelson, Reba McEntire and Vince Gill. Some country artists were effective historians and provided Burns great commentary throughout the entire series such as Marty Stuart and Rosanne Cash

About 20 of the subjects have passed away since Burns captured them on camera to tell their stories, including legendary producer Cowboy Jack Clement (2013), Jean Shepard (2013), Dr. Ralph Stanley (2016) and the ever colorful Merle Haggard (2016). 

The stories behind some of the biggest songs in country history are included such as “Crazy” by Patsy Cline, “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash and “I Will Always Love You” by Parton.

Photo: Johnny Cash at his home in California, 1960. Credit: Sony Music Archives

Burns cited the famous quote by country scribe Harlan Howard: “Country music is three chords and the truth.” (Howard wrote songs for everyone from Patsy Cline and Ray Charles to Willie Nelson and k.d. lang.)

“It’s not sophisticated or complicated like classical music or some forms of jazz,” Burns said in a recent interview. “It’s universal truths summed up in two four-letter words; love and loss. It’s just stunning how incredibly rich it is.”

To Burns, country music is “completely attached molecularly to blues and jazz and rhythm and blues and folk and gospel and rock and pop and even classical.”

He highlighted the influence of African Americans and women in the early days of country, which is now seen largely as a format sung by white people and where country radio relies heavily on male singers.

Female singers such as Georgia native Brenda Lee, Cline and Loretta Lynn get plenty of airtime. Lee, Burns noted, started so young during the 1950s that it’s hard to believe she’s only 74 now. “She was the Mozart of American singers,” he said. 

Vocalist Brenda Lee poses with her plaque at The Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum during the 2016 CMA Music Festival at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on June 11, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn.. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum)
Photo: Rick Diamond

And Burns makes it clear that the earliest big stars of the genre such as Hank Williams, BIll Monroe and Johnny Cash all had black musician mentors who made them better. 

He also pointed out that the early rock world is very much influenced by country.  The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan were all influenced by country legends, Burns noted. (The Beatles’ “Act Naturally” was  a cover of a Buck Owens hit.)

On the other hand, country acts also impacted black artists such as Georgia native Ray Charles. 

“You take country music. You take black music,” said Charles. “and you have  the same [expletive] thing exactly.” One of his biggest hits ever was “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” a No. 1 single in 1962 and sold millions. 

Nelson said Charles“did more for country music than one artist has ever done.”

And black artist Charlie Pride became one of the biggest country stars of the 1960s and is featured during the fifth episode. His early songs were released with no mention of his race. Once he was revealed as black, he overcame no shortage of barriers and became a huge success. When Loretta Lynn announced Pride as winner of a CMA male vocalist of a year award, she was previously told to step back when he hit the dais. She hugged him instead.

Burns said he received a lot of guff over his baseball and jazz projects because some critics didn’t like how he dealt with more current matters. 

So “Country Music” purposely ends around 1996. That was also the year Monroe died. (There is one coda regarding Johnny Cash’s death in 2003.)

“We’re in the history business,” Burns said. “We’re not going to try to parse Taylor Swift. You want perspective.” 

There has been debate over the decades what constitutes authentic country, which threads itself throughout his series. And he said it’s simply good timing that Atlanta’s Lil Nas X fueled that question yet again with his hip-hop/country hybrid hit “Old Town Road,” which recently spent a record 19 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100.

And many women in the series battle the prejudices and forwardness of men, Burns said. “People will not believe that this series was mostly finished by the time Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement came along,” he said. 

“You realize how much human nature doesn’t change over time,” Burns mused.

For Burns, every project has the same underlying theme: “They all reflect who we are as a people. We are a strange, complicated people who call ourselves Americans.”

Photo: Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart on the Grand Ole Opry, 1991. Photo by Bill Thorup, courtesy Grand Ole Opry Archives

TV PREVIEW

“Ken Burn’s Country Music,” eight-part series begins at 8 p.m. Sunday, September 15 and concludes on Wednesday, September 25 on PBS (GPB locally)

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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