On Wednesday (Feb. 13), the first day of the 50th annual Country Radio Seminar, attendees got an early look at the upcoming Ken Burns PBS documentary Country Music.
The 16-hour, eight-part series includes discussions from more than 100 interviews, 3,500 photos and film snippets, and spotlights 570 of country music’s most important songs. The documentary traces country music’s early roots, including its many offshoots and influences, from bluegrass, early rock ‘n’ roll, Americana, and more.
Dayton Duncan, writer and co-producer of the documentary, introduced seven clips from various episodes of the film to CRS attendees.
In one clip, Willie Nelson recalled driving to Patsy Cline’s home in North Nashville with her husband Charlie Dick during the early morning hours, to play her a song he had just finished. The early wakeup call was worth it—Cline later recorded Nelson’s composition, which would become her signature song “Crazy.”
Kathy Mattea recalled her time as a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame (a position Trisha Yearwood also held as a newcomer to Nashville), and talked about the “only in country music” kind of event Fan Fair (now CMA Music Festival) was and is, as a unique way for fans to meet their favorite artists. She discussed some of the powerful fan interactions she has had at the event.
Another segment featured the career of Vince Gill, from his early work playing in groups alongside artists including Ricky Skaggs and the late Keith Whitley, to taking the lead role in Pure Prairie League and spending time as a session musician for other country artists, before ultimately breaking through with his own hits such as “When I Call Your Name.” The segment also focused on the writing of “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” a song Gill began following the passing of his former bandmate Whitley, and finished after the death of his own brother. The song would become a classic in the country music cannon. Gill recorded the song with Patty Loveless and Ricky Skaggs performing sublime harmonies. Gill and Loveless would be called upon to perform the song at George Jones’ memorial in 2013.
Heartbreaking footage from that memorial performance, held at the Grand Ole Opry, was shown, as Gill struggled through the song, ultimately stepping away from the mic, overcome by emotion, as Loveless’ powerful harmony held the lead. When the footage concluded, there was not a dry eye in the room at the Omni.
The series ends in the mid-‘90s, as Garth Brooks rises to an unprecedented level of stardom, and lifting country music with him. One clip recalled “That Summer” in 1996, when the music supernova Brooks drove up to Fan Fair in his truck, unannounced, and began signing autographs for fans. As word spread that he was at Fan Fair, the line for autographs grew…and grew…and grew. Brooks famously signed autographs for 23 hours straight, with no breaks.
Duncan noted that 18 of the people interviewed over the past few years for inclusion in the project have now passed. Late publicist and journalist Hazel Smith was featured in one of the clips shown during the CRS session, as was late guitarist Harold Bradley.
Other clips included artists such as Dolly Parton and Trisha Yearwood.
“We tell the story of what we consider a deeply American art form; what came to be known as country music, acknowledging its incredible diverse roots,” Duncan said, “and we follow that through the 20th century when it first began being recorded and, more importantly, when it first began to be broadcast on the brand new medium of radio.”
Country Music will premiere on PBS on Sept. 15.
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