With ‘Country Music,’ Ken Burns tunes into a sound that is uniquely American

An image of Bill Monroe circa 1958 from Ken Burns’s “Country Music”
An image of Bill Monroe circa 1958 from Ken Burns’s “Country Music”Les Leverett Collection

Since his 1981 Oscar-nominated “Brooklyn Bridge,” Ken Burns has seen himself as something of an “emotional archeologist” digging into American life, excavating bones, “avoiding the polemic,” and leaving the tagging up to his viewers.

So in 2010, when a friend in Dallas suggested he dig into country music, the subject seemed so obvious it was like “a punch in the jaw.”

“My stock phrase is that I make the same film over and over again. And it’s asking the question: Who are we? And what could be more of an American story than country music?” says Burns in a phone interview from his Walpole, N.H., home.


“Country Music,” his upcoming eight-part PBS documentary, aims to explore the genre from its roots, poking and prodding at what makes up that quintessential American sound via stories of its figureheads: the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and more.

Produced by Burns and his longtime collaborators Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey, the film premieres Sept. 15 and includes interviews with some 100 people. Since they started the project about eight years ago, a number of those interviewed have died, “which is both a tragedy, but also wonderful” that their stories were captured, Burns says, adding that the late Merle Haggard is “like Zeus in our film.”

The project kicks off March 27 at country music’s mecca, the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, with a concert featuring Rosanne Cash, Dwight Yoakam, Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, and many others. The concert will air on PBS at a later date. (Learn more about ”Country Music” at www.kenburns.com/films/country-music.)

Burns, 65, a 15-time Emmy winner and two-time Oscar nominee, edits at his home “up here in rural New Hampshire, where there are fewer distractions.” During an hourlong interview, the only background noise was the occasional bark from his dog.


Q. Many of your subjects are about truly American things — baseball, the Civil War, national parks. Do you see country music as truly American music?

A. Absolutely. It’s not just Appalachian, it’s not just jug band or string music, it isn’t just Deep South balladry and loss, it isn’t just the blues, it isn’t all the Texas guys and Oklahoma gals, and it isn’t just the Bakersfield and Central Valley of California — it’s all these things and many, many more. Harlan Howard said it: “Three chords and the truth.”

The story of Okies negotiating Central Valley in California, or poor whites negotiating what many people thought was their white-trashness, all becomes part of the same story. I’ve never had a film where so many people come out of abject poverty, and therefore lift, however symbolically, as many people as they can. Dolly Parton’s parents paid the doctor who delivered her with a sack of cornmeal.

Q. Wow.

A. She modeled her looks on the town trollop, who she thought was the ideal of beauty. And that’s OK. I like that. And she’s so flipping honest, and so unbelievably talented, and when you find out how her No. 1 song came to be written, it adds dimension to it. And that’s our job: to dig up the stories of how things come to be. To tell you that sometimes the opposite of what you know, as well as what you know, are both true at the same time, and that’s what art’s about. And that’s what music’s about.


Q. How many hours did you film? Does your vision of what you’re doing change as you’re going?

A. These are prodigal journeys where you set your goalposts and aspirations, and know you can’t do everything, and over the course of many, many years, you do stray pretty far collecting all the material. We got 16.5 hours in the finished film, and have probably 50 times that in material we collected.

Q. What did you find makes this sound so uniquely American?

A. What I think it has to do with is the universality of its themes, these elemental themes that speak very basically to human experience. We hope “Country Music” has that ability [for people] to say: Oh yeah, I do belong to this big American family, and it is complicated. And it is both one thing and another at the same time.

There’s nothing wrong with being part of a complicated American family. “Country Music” just seems like a continuation of trying to explore what this crazy place is all about.

Q. I like old country — Ralph Stanley, Hank Williams Sr. So it’s interesting to me that you end this story with Garth Brooks. Do you see that as the division between ethos: new country and old country?

A. Yes, and this has been an ongoing dilemma in “Country Music” from the beginning. We asked everyone that we interviewed: If you could be the NASA scientists sending one country music song out with the satellite, what would it be? And you know I’d say 80 percent said “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” by George Jones.


Q. OK, yeah.

A. Right? It is so Nashville, it is so syrupy with the strings. From the very beginning, the Carter Family sounds nothing like Jimmie Rodgers, and they sound nothing like Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. And he sounds nothing like Gene Autry. And none of them sound anything like Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams.

And so, I think that’s what your excellent question is, a concern about authenticity. Bluegrass has always had a relatively tiny but constant audience, right?

Q. Right.

A. So then people are saying “Well this isn’t selling, so why don’t we try to be more like pop music and we’ll add some strings here.” And the purists say, “OK, well, I’ll do it this [other] way.” And you begin to see what Louis Armstrong said — there’s two kinds of music in this world: good music and bad music. So is George Jones’s schmaltz great? Of course it is. And is Garth Brooks great? “Friends in Low Places”? Yes, it’s fantastic. And so I understand what you mean by saying you like [the old stuff], what you’re referring to is a kind of commercial dynamic.

Someone asked Chet Atkins what the Nashville sound was, and he clinked the change in his pocket and said, “That’s the Nashville sound.”


Q. How do you see folk and roots or Americana intertwining?

A. Well, we’re historians; we’re telling a story that ends in ’96, but Ketch Secor [of Old Crow Medicine Show] and Rhiannon Giddens are in episode one, telling the roots of the music. I think the film will introduce folks who hadn’t quite realized the sheer Americanness of the story to this really great music.

I was born in 1953, living outside Detroit. I turned 10 in ’63 with the Beatles and Motown. But I had my molecules more significantly arranged by working on “Jazz” and “Country Music” than almost any other projects I’ve worked on. Because it’s challenged the basic sense of what my DNA is made of.

Q. You’re also a partner in a New Hampshire restaurant [The Restaurant at Burdick’s in Walpole].

A. Yeah, I’m a silent partner. I ate there today, and I’ll probably eat there this evening too. There is a salad called the Ken Salad — salmon, avocado, and parmesan. It’s my go-to food when I’m in the editing room.

Interview was edited and condensed. Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com.