Step back in time and journey through the compelling history of a truly American art form in “Country Music,” a new eight-part film directed by Ken Burns, and produced by Burns and his long-time collaborators Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey. The documentary premiered Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, at 7 p.m.
The documentary, written by Duncan, who also wrote the illustrated companion book, chronicles country music’s early days. From southern Appalachia’s songs of struggle, heartbreak and faith, viewers will follow the story to the rollicking Western swing of Texas, California’s honky-tonks and Nashville’s “Grand Ole Opry.” Over more than 16 hours, the film traces the evolution of country music over the course of the 20th century as it eventually emerges to become “America’s music.”
“Country Music” explores fundamental questions like “What is country music?” and “Where did it come from?” while also focusing the fascinating trailblazers who created and shaped it. Over the course of 16 hours, the film follows the stories of musicians from the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe and Bob Wills to Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Garth Brooks and many more — as well as the times in which they lived. Much like the music itself, “Country Music” tells unforgettable stories of hardships and joys shared by everyday people.
“At the heart of every great country music song is a story,” said Ken Burns. “As the songwriter Harlan Howard said, ‘It’s three chords and the truth.’ The common experiences and human emotions speak to each of us about love and loss, about hard times and the chance of redemption. As an art form, country music is also forever revisiting its history, sharing and updating old classics and celebrating its roots, which are, in many ways, foundational to our country itself.”
“We discovered that country music isn’t — and never was — one type of music; it actually is many styles,” said Dayton Duncan. “It sprang from diverse roots, and it sprouted many branches. What unites them all is the way the music connects personal stories and elemental experiences with universal themes that every person can relate to. And as it evolved, from the bottom up, it created a special bond between the artists and fans that is unique among all other musical genres.”
“As with so many of their films, Ken and Dayton guide us on a journey through history that educates and entertains, providing an intimate look into the creative lives of those women and men who came together to develop an authentic American art form,” said Perry Simon, PBS Chief Programming Executive and General Manager, General Audience Programming.
“Country Music” digs deep to uncover the roots of the music, including ballads, minstrel music, hymns and the blues. Discover how country was recorded for the first time in the 1920s, when it was called “hillbilly music,” and played across the airwaves on radio station barn dances. See how Hollywood B movies instituted the fad of singing cowboys like Gene Autry and how the rise of juke joints after World War II changed the musical style by bringing electric and pedal steel guitars to the forefront.
MORE: Enjoy an evening of performances by some of country music’s biggest stars, hosted by Ken Burns.
The film witnesses the rise of bluegrass music with Bill Monroe and reveals how one of country music’s offspring — rockabilly — evolved into rock and roll in Memphis. Throughout, the documentary focuses on the constant tug of war between the desire to make country music as mainstream as possible and the periodic reflexes to bring it back to its roots.
As Burns and Duncan weave together the musical stories, they connect the history of country music to the larger story of America, exploring how artists and songwriting reflected periods of depression, war and cultural upheaval, and how radio and later television impacted the art form. The series also tells the story of how Nashville came to be not only the epicenter of the country music industry, but Music City USA.
At the film’s heart are the stories of unforgettable songs and the artists who created them: their emergence from humble beginnings, their musical influences and their breakthrough moments. The film explores the extraordinary connection between country music artists and fans and notes the enduring influence of particular songs and musicians across generations. The narrative ends in the mid-1990s as a young Garth Brooks emerges from a small venue in Nashville to achieve phenomenal success, bringing country music to an entirely new level of popularity, and yet shows up to sign autographs for more than 20 hours at the Country Music Association’s Fan Fair.
Duncan, Burns and Dunfey spent eight years researching and producing the film, conducting interviews with more than 100 people, including 40 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Among those storytellers are historian Bill Malone and a wide range of country artists such as Marty Stuart, Rosanne Cash, Vince Gill, Reba McEntire, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, and Naomi and Wynonna Judd, as well as studio musicians, record producers and others. The film uses more than 3,200 photographs and over two hours of archival footage, including rare and never-before-seen photos and footage of Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash and others.
The Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, c.1960. Photograph by Les Leverett