Eight years. 101 artist interviews. Nearly 600 music cues. An in-depth study of the stories, songs and artists behind a century of country music.
On Sept. 15 the highly-anticipated eight-episode, 16-hour documentary Country Music will premiere on PBS stations, helmed by acclaimed director Ken Burns.
Burns, alongside producer/writer Dayton Duncan and producer Julie Dunfey, and a team of 15-20 researchers and filmmakers, sifted through nearly 100,000 photos (3,400 of which made it into the final series).
“I was surprised at how open people were,” Burns says. “They were going into attics, pulling out old boxes of photos and footage.”
Since the debut of 1981’s Brooklyn Bridge, Burns has built a reputation for painstakingly researched, unflinchingly authentic documentaries such as 1994’s Baseball, 2009’s The National Parks: America’s Best Ideas, and, in 2017, the harrowing 10-part, 18-hour examination of the history of the Vietnam War. He first set his scope on music with 2001’s 10-part, 19-hour series Jazz.
A friend of Burns’ suggested the idea of following the intense Vietnam War documentary with a series on country music, noting that like jazz, country music is a uniquely American art form. Burns presented the idea to Duncan, who quickly agreed. “I said, ‘Yes, as long as I can write it,’” Duncan says. “At its best, country music is filled with universal human experiences or emotions, and does what great art does.”
“We want to either be introducing people to this great American music, or for people who already like country music, we hope they will hear some stories that they weren’t familiar with,” Burns says. “For some people who might have a stereotype of what they think country music is, or a bias against it, we hope if they watch our film, they will find things that surprise them.”
Instead of relying heavily on historians, Country Music allows artists including Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Rosanne Cash and Kathy Mattea to guide viewers throughout the series.
“There are a number of artists who have important things to offer in our early episodes, where it talks about things that happened before they were alive or when they were little,” Duncan says. “Then, at a certain moment around episode, say seven or eight, they enter the story as characters in their own life.”
Burns and his team began doing interviews in fall 2012. Of the 101 artists who were interviewed throughout the making of the film, 20 percent are now deceased, including Merle Haggard, Roy Clark and Little Jimmy Dickens.
“We started by age and worked our way back,” Duncan says. “The very first interview was with Little Jimmy Dickens. The second interview we did, that same day, was Harold Bradley. Our third, which we did in Tulsa, was Roy Clark. The fourth was Wanda Jackson, who of course is still with us. We just missed getting an interview with George Jones,” he notes; the legendary entertainer and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” singer died in April 2013.
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