Ken Burns and PBS follow up 2016's epic 10-part documentary "The Vietnam War" with an equally ambitious series "Country Music," airing over eight nights starting Sept. 15.
It will air over two weeks, with four episodes shown Sunday through Wednesday nights each week.
Burns (who worked with writer Dayton Duncan and producer Julie Dunfey) seems to have a far deeper connection to country music than he did to jazz, and this series finds its narrative based on a particular vision of what country music is and should sound like.
Music has played an outsized role in all of the filmmakers' war documentaries: "The Civil War," "The War" and "The Vietnam War" all discuss music's role in troops' lives, and songs feature prominently in every episode.
So, of course, "Country Music" (which sets out to cover the genre from its beginnings up to 1996) talks about the roles of World War II and the Vietnam War in the genre. As usual, Burns is interested in race, class and democracy, and the history of country music encompasses them all.
The series takes a definite position, emphasizing artists who draw on the past to make their music and giving special credit to the ones who write their own material. If you want to reduce 16 ½ hours to their essence, it's the story of country pioneers The Carter Family and, later, Johnny Cash, who married into the clan in the 1960s. The family and its music stand for everything that Burns and company hold dear about both the music and American history.
RELATED: 5 Ways Country Music Intersects With the Military in Ken Burns’ ‘Country Music’
That doesn't mean the series doesn't offer plenty of time to major artists like Hank Williams Sr., Loretta Lynn, Roy Acuff, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings, Buck Owens, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Jimmie Rodgers, Willie Nelson, Gram Parsons, George Strait, Bill Monroe and Garth Brooks.
There's amazing commentary from musicians who understand the genre's history: Marty Stuart, Vince Gill, Rhiannon Giddens, Ketch Secor and Wynton Marsalis offer the kind of commentary that academics usually offer in these documentaries, and their own experiences inform the stories they tell about the musicians who came before them.
"The Vietnam War" and "Country Music" rank with the best American history documentaries ever aired on PBS. Ken Burns talked to us about how country music crossed paths with the military and just how much the music means to him and to America.
I found this documentary to be especially moving, using music to detail a history of the United States that's every bit as important as the history revealed by wars or politics.
I work with maybe four different producing strands. That is to say, I'm the director and the producer, and then there's another producer or two and a writer. Those people are more or less solid on an individual film, and I move around between projects. That permits me to do some things.
The team with "The Vietnam War" is entirely different than the team with "Country Music," with the exception of the editing crew who, once Vietnam was done, moved to Country. When Vietnam was at the fine cut stage, one of my colleagues [who] was just in tears at the end of the last episode said, "I feel like I'll never work on something so important again." And I looked at her and I just said, "I already am."
We were in the early stages of script work on "Country Music," but I knew that it was dealing with scenes as powerful as anything from Vietnam. Somehow, wars and foreign policy and diplomatic stuff have that legitimacy. One doesn't question a filmmaker who does something on the Roosevelts or doing something on World War II or Vietnam or the Civil War.
My interest in battles has always been a source of extraordinary irritation on the part of many historians. I'm not supposed to do battles; I'm supposed to just do causes and effects. And I go, "Yep, we do them, but we're interested in what actually takes place." When mothers lose their sons in great numbers, it's important to me to find out what happened.
When I started "The Civil War," people thought I was all about causes or all about reconstruction. I said, "Look, I'm very much interested in that. But don't get me wrong, but I want to find out what happened in the Battle of Shiloh or Gettysburg or Chickamauga." And they said, "Oh, you need to talk to old Professor so-and-so, you know, the retired guy," as if it was conservative and therefore not academically/politically correct to care about what events took place.
On the other hand, the complement to that is … Dick Cheney, of all people, in 1991. After the first Gulf War was resolved, both air and land, I met him at a White House correspondents' dinner, and he took me over to meet General Schwarzkopf. Cheney said, "This is Ken Burns," and the general just sort of nodded. And then he said, "This is the guy, general, who made 'The Civil War,' and Schwarzkopf, who was not giving this Beatle-haired interloper one more second, turned around, grabbed my hands -- like both hands, like an aunt would do -- and said, "I looked at that every single day in my bunker in Riyadh, and I never thought I'd have the opportunity to thank the person who did it." It reminded me that the X's and the arrows on my maps were real human beings.
And that was old Professor so-and-so, who helped us bring alive the Battle of Shiloh. It was also very important to have Barbara Fields there, and she was fabulous. And she was perhaps no more prescient than when she said the Civil War is still going on, that it's still being fought, and regrettably it can still be lost. She said that back in 1988 for our 1990 film. Her statement then got trotted out and used right after Charlottesville two years ago. That war is still going on, and it can still be lost.
There seems to be a real intense, bone-deep love of country music going through this entire program.
Yeah, we love it. Dayton Duncan, the writer, has probably got the most serious love. Mine is next. My granddaddy was from the hill country of Virginia, and he'd sing me songs. My daddy, who was sort of an academic (although my grandfather was too), would sing me songs. And so, I'm part of an Appalachian heritage, if you will.
I worked at a record store in the late 1960s in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and had to know all the stuff: classical as well as the rock and roll and R&B. That was my music, but also the pop music and the jazz and the country. When we were making this, I was very pleased when there wasn't an album cover of Merle Haggard's in the '60s that I didn't recognize and hadn't sold. Willie Nelson, not so much.
What happens in every film is that I don't make a film about -- and I think Dayton would say this too -- what I already know about. It's what you want to know about, and you want to share the process of discovery with people rather than tell them what they should know from your already arrived-at end. That, to me, is homework, and we're not in that business; we're trying to tell stories.
We're just storytellers, right? We're filmmakers having to work in American history. We know that, over the course of 40 years of doing this, we've gotten a lot of American history covered. And there are a lot of things that are similar, and there are recurring themes like race, women's issues, and things like that. And those issues come up no more so than in country music.
I just showed a screening of episode 3 called "The Hillbilly Shakespeare" about Hank Williams and, of course, others who worked in the years '45 to '53. This was an entirely white audience of nearly a thousand people. Even in that group, one guy commented there was clearly race throughout it, that we'd remarked that A.P. Carter had an African-American mentor and so did Jimmie Rodgers. Hank Williams had Rufus "Tee Tot" Payne. In the next episode, Johnny Cash was going to get Gus Cannon as his teacher, and Bill Monroe had an African-American mentor, Arnold Shultz.
So country music -- the best, the pantheon, the Mount Rushmore of early country music -- the men I just listed were all informed and had their chops elevated by an African-American mentor. So the age-old American issue of race is there.
Though no one will believe us, this film was editorially set before the #MeToo Movement hit in the fall of 2017. Scenes still needed work and polishing, but our direction was established. But you can't tell anybody that. We just had our ears to the contemporary ground.
I could take every film that I've made and tell you that, after I had been spending 10 years working on a film, I could list five or six things that were going on at the exact moment the film was coming out. And yet our events were 50 years or 100 years or 150 years before.
That's not because history repeats itself, as people conveniently sort of like to say and then forget, or that we're condemned to repeat what we don't remember, which is poetic but false. It's just that human nature doesn't change. And so if you're in the storytelling business, you are constantly faced with the fact that, as Twain said or supposedly said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes."
If you watch human behavior, you might see equal parts of greed and generosity within the same person. We always say, "This is a good person" and "This is a bad person," but what we always find is the worst villains have compelling human aspects to them and the best heroes are deeply flawed. Right then, you've got a wonderful story.
In my editing room, I have a neon sign script that says, "It's Complicated." We like complicated stories. And as filmmakers, we've had to learn that over the last 45 years. Every filmmaker I know, including myself, when we get a scene that's working, we don't want to touch it. Just leave it alone if it's working.
If you're working in documentary, this dimensional stuff, the more you learn, the more you find material that erodes the security of that scene that is now "working." It's not working so well if it's unwilling to grapple with even more complicated issues, the undertow that inevitably attends everything. The water might be pretty placid on the surface, but that undertow can yank you out to sea. We've just learned to celebrate that. I put the sign up so that we would all just never get wedded to something that worked and was gonna let it go for the sake of the fact it was working.
Over the last year before Vietnam aired, it was locked and we probably made 150 changes. You're not supposed to make a single change after a film is locked, but we learned new information. A new piece of scholarship would emerge. We said, "Four regiments of NVA came down the Ho Chi Minh trail that month," but I've got to go with this scholar who says three. So, let's just be conservative. What we got to film is very dramatic. We don't need to put our thumb on the scale, so let's go with three regiments. Nobody cares. There's not a critic or a scholar that would take us to task if we said four, but we wouldn't feel as good about it. That's not so much complication but accuracy.
Our internal script, the footnoted scripts that cite where the material came from, in the case of Vietnam, was longer than the script itself just because of the massive notes about why we said three and not four regiments of NVA.
Back to country music. What did you learn about the influence of the Grand Ole Opry and country singers during World War II?
The conventional wisdom, the superficial history, something that I'm sure I helped promote with our jazz series back in 2001, is that this was the swing era, and so everybody loved swing. It was Artie Shaw and Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller and The Dorsey Brothers, and everybody loved it. In that film, we quite correctly showed its origins in the dancehalls of Harlem with Chick Webb and Fletcher Henderson in Times Square. Louis Armstrong is the original swinger of modern times.
But it turns out that the PXs are selling a lot of country records and the armed forces radio is playing them. Soldiers are listening to more country music than anything else. That, to me, is a wonderful thing, and that pattern continues through the war. This was Americans' first exposure to country music. Most had been weaned on the jazz and pop of the time.
Some Americans were familiar with folk traditions. But, at that time, folk was beginning to migrate and mean something that was more contemporary. Even though it might resurrect old songs, it also seemed to be voices of social protest and social causes and was more centered in urban areas and college campuses.
However, as Marty Stuart says in our third episode, who is more country than Woody Guthrie? It's just that the politics got in the way for what is at least seemingly a conservative firmament in country music. It's not, but it does seem like it was easier just to add Woody to the folk scene so that you didn't sort of rankle country's Eddy Arnold fans. But I was surprised at how well country music sold back then.
There's a sense that troops hated Frank Sinatra and country music presented itself as an alternative. Country singers were not threatening and reminded people of at least an idealized version of home.
I've not heard that. That's a pretty interesting thing, and I could understand that there's an anxiety about Frank Sinatra because who could be as handsome and as suave and have as silky a tone as him? It's interesting.
Well, Roy Acuff, of course. [That's a joke, son. -- Ed.]
You include these country music songs from World War II, and there seems to be a throughline. There may have been songs in swing or in pop music that reminded people of World War II, but the country songs seemed to be much more plainspoken and descriptive.
I don't think we need to be binary about it. It's not either/or. I don't think we need to make that case. It turns out that a majority of the music that soldiers listened to was country music, but "In the Mood" was certainly the classic swing tune of the second World War, along with "Begin the Beguine" and a few others.
In our series on World War II, Artie Shaw described to me what it was like to be on an aircraft carrier and to rise up on the elevator that brought the planes up from the interior of the aircraft carrier to the main deck and hearing the thrill of people's response. This is the jaded Artie Shaw who usually couldn't have cared less. If he was moved by that response, then I don't think we need to make it either/or. It's just that Americans listen to a lot of kinds of music. When we emphasize the borders or try to delineate the borders, we do a disservice to the music.
The Beatles were all inspired by country music. Country music people were listening to R&B, R&B people were listening to country music. When Ray Charles had an opportunity to have creative control of an album, he recorded "Modern sounds in Country and Western Music" and had a hit with Don Gibson's song "I Can't Stop Loving You." That was the crossover hit of the summer of 1962. That just tells you that everything is the blues, what these early country guys were into, whether it's the Jimmie Rodgers or Hank Williams or even Bill Monroe. It's all the blues.
Which means that we're all crossing borders. The trouble we get into is a completely understandable and completely forgivable human need to categorize. Oh, "This is this." But the musicians don't see it. Country music, if you think about its big bang, supposedly takes place in Bristol, Tennessee, in the summer of 1927. On successive weeks, Ralph Peer records first the Carter Family and then Jimmie Rodgers. There's no difference between -- I mean there's a huge difference between Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.
What I was getting at is there seems to be a much more descriptive way that country singers write about war. Whether it was World War II or Vietnam, there are a lot of country records that actually address the experiences of conflict as opposed to evoking it in more abstract terms, which a lot of pop music did.
I know what you're talking about, and I could probably bring up specific examples in pop and in jazz and even in R&B to say they did it too. I'd rather go back to Harlan Howard's description of country music as "three chords and the truth." Meaning, that this is an elemental musical form. It doesn't have the sophistication, the complication of classical music or some forms of jazz but, in a very elemental way, country music is about universal human experiences of joy at birth and sadness at death and falling in love and trying to stay in love and losing love and being lonely and seeking redemption.
All of these things happen to everyone. The fads of music, including country music, come and go. Country has always been many different things. Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family don't sound at all alike. After they became popular, the music went on an acquisition spree, grabbing hold of cowboy songs and western swing, and then the Bakersfield sound and developing all sorts of variations on the Appalachian string band, that culminates in Bill Monroe inventing bluegrass, a whole musical genre named after a particular style. That's just like [what] Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie did with bebop. And then you've got the smoothed-out in Nashville sound. That's great.
I was really interested to see the same Jan Howard interview footage in this film that you had previously used in "The Vietnam War." We talked about it then; you had pulled that footage out of her interview for "Country." It's really powerful, but it seems to play in slightly different ways between the two films.
[Country singer Jan Howard's son was killed in Vietnam, and Jan tells a story about how she didn't react well when a group of young war opponents knocked on her door and attempted to enlist her in the anti-war movement.]
In the Vietnam documentary, as in "Country Music," the clip serves to show an increasingly divided and polarized country over the issues of the war. And in the "The Vietnam War," there were several examples of a kind of an increasing militancy on the part of entrenched and intractable positions, [which] Jan's meeting the protesters at the door symbolized.
In "Country Music," we are doing exactly the same thing. Her clip is paired with one that shows Earl Scruggs showing up at the anti-war Moratorium March on Nov. 15, 1969. That is the scene that immediately follows. Earl was there with Charlie Daniels, the only country acts supporting the protest.
Earl's son, Randy, makes the point that [one of] the national papers said there were 300,000 at the march, and the other national paper said there were [750,000] to a million at the thing.
Preceding that, we've given Jan's story a lot more dimension by telling ... the origins of her song, "My Son," which is about what happened to her sons. Not just the one who was killed in battle, but the one who killed himself as a result of the loss of his brother. And so, it dives deep into the lyrics of country music and not just the specific lyrics of her tragedy. Her life itself becomes a kind of, if you will, country music song. It was important for us to then give the much fuller version for a film about country music. I'm not saying it's abbreviated, but it's just shortened for what I think is a very good effect in the Vietnam film. In both cases, it's chilling.
I have to say that the most shocking moment for me is seeing Charlie Daniels at a Vietnam War protest in 1969.
Yeah, think about the improbability of that. I think about what we said in the Vietnam film: Afterwards, it was so clear that many people could be opposed to the Vietnam War then, but their politics may have become wedded to one particular belief now, that they actually retroactively change their beliefs. Now they say, "No, no, no, we should have been there" even though they might have been an opponent of the Vietnam War at the time.
I haven't talked to Charlie about where he was at that moment, but he clearly seemed to feel that this was not a good thing to do, and his politics are now in a different place. So, no judgment in any way. It's just interesting that he was there.
"Politics follow the audience" is an old showbiz saying. Episode 7 was, to me, just a perfect film all by itself.
It's our longest episode. I've always enjoyed a kind of latitude with PBS, where they've allowed me non-standard lengths since "The Civil War" series. I don't think I've taken advantage of it because an episode lasts as long as it lasts, but the chief of programming came up to New Hampshire to look at an early version of the film.
And I said, "Look, I am the master cutter, I have knives instead of fingers, and I've gotten everything down to well under two hours, from sometimes four hours. But for this one I'm at two-and-a-half hours and I can't cut any more." She goes, "You're going to have to." And I said, "Well, look at it and you tell me where you'd cut it." And she looked at it and she said, "You got it, two-and-a-half hours."
It's actually 2:20 right now, and it feels like our shortest episode. I think it has to do with the genius of Dayton's writing, I think it has to do with Craig Mellish's unbelievable editing, and the weaving together of so many stories, the way Pancho and Lefty kind of weaves its way through in a way in which you feel very much a part of that era. Both of the kind of full-on pop George and Tammy but, at the same time, you know what it's like to be going to shows at The Exit Inn, and you understand the genius of some of the folks who are never going to become well-known and understand the great tension between art and commerce, which has always been at the heart of all music.
In the early years, Ralph Peer was out selling race records, meaning blues records, and he's also doing lots of other ethnic stuff. He wonders whether there might be a market for old-time hill country music, that later becomes hillbilly, that later becomes country and western, that later becomes country. So, you know it's all -- a lot of this stuff is governed.
You cover an incredible amount of ground in the film, but I'm sure you had some debates about what to leave out. Did you discuss doing a profile of Vernon Dalhart? He was arguably the first country music superstar back in the 1920s.
Yeah, we had a huge scene on Vernon Dalhart, huge, huge. So, you can blame it all on me. Dayton gets exonerated. I take the scripts, and we work over years and years and years. I'm a storyteller, and I tell stories in time. I know what happens when you're adding too much detail or too much stuff. I took out scenes that I love. It happens to me all the time.
Where's "The Tennessee Waltz," you know? We had a beautiful scene. I bet you our cutting room floor is filled not with bad scenes; it's all good scenes that just didn't fit. We remember "Amadeus," too many notes. I will answer all the letters and stand by it.
I do have to say how thrilling it is for me to hear people complain about what's not in a 16½-hour film about country music. Because, you know, we live in an era where 2½ minutes of kittens and balls of yarn is enough for some people. We're happy that people not only watch, but then say, "But what about this?"
My answer is that you don't just want the K-Tel, Time-Life list of all the stuff. We're storytellers, and we're braiding and intertwining a complicated, almost Russian novel over many generations and many, many decades. In this case, it's almost a century of American history. You can't tell everything. It is not the telephone book, it is not the encyclopedia, so it has to allow some stories to be signal and emblematic and stand in for others.
We're happy if it drives people to find out more about stuff. No one that I ever have shown the film to, with the exception of diehard country folks, knew who The Louvin Brothers were. Now, The Louvin Brothers are going to be known every which way because they're in four different episodes, from Paul Simon talking about them to Emmylou Harris talking about them to us introducing them. That's exciting.
With every single one, I just plead guilty. We got it, we got a scene, it was part of a mention, it was part of a list, it was whatever. And sometimes in those lists that we have of people, it used to be a three-page list, and I cut it down to half a page.
I particularly love that Gram Parsons shows up and then disappears. And then you have to wait until the next night to finish his story. For 24 hours, there are going to be some really angry Gram Parsons fans, some of whom are the angriest people in the world anyway. But it's a nice trick. Did you do that on purpose?
Well, it's not a trick. We're storytellers, and the law is their laws. It goes back to Aristotle, but there are storytelling laws. I've talked to Steven Spielberg about it. He and I obey the same laws. He can make things up; I can't. It may be more complicated for him because he's got to order up a dinosaur or an alien thing to walk through the town, but we also have to figure out how to integrate the stuff without violating any facts.
The Battle of Gettysburg always takes place on July 1st, 2nd and 3rd, 1863. And there's no fake news in that.
You flip a script on the history of country music: For the first time, the Carter Family story is more about Sara and Maybelle than it is about A.P.
And deservedly so, yeah.
In a way, the Carter/Cash family saga is the throughline of the entire series. Was there a point when you realized that was the story that you were going to tell?
Well, we did and we didn't. The left hand doesn't always have to know what the right hand is doing. We want to write unconcerned with whether there are images to illustrate what we're writing. In fact, we're avoiding illustrations. We want to search for images, not buried -- you know can you get us from -- can you give us a picture on page 7, paragraph 2 of page 7 of episode 4? You know, do you have a picture for that? We don't do it that way, as so many of my colleagues do.
We're hunter gatherers. You allow the material to begin to tell you. I guess I would have never said until the series was over, but of course the throughline is the Carter/Cash family. That's the skeletal structure. By the time at the end of episode 3, Maybelle and Helen, June and Anita have made their debut at the Grand Ole Opry with Chester Atkins. At the beginning of episode 4, Johnny Cash arrives. So, there's not a Cash or a Carter missing from any episode.
Merle Haggard is in almost every episode, and he's like God to us; he's like Zeus. What you want to do is not be too enthralled by some of these devices but understand that it's a good place to end in 1996 at the height of Garth Brooks' popularity. And when, coincidentally, Bill Monroe dies. Bill has been in every episode since episode 2, or influencing things in every episode since episode 2, and helps rearrange the molecules of Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart's personal lives, as well as their professional lives.
And then the coda becomes Johnny Cash, who at the beginning of the last episode loses his contract with Columbia. They always say an apple tree puts out its best crop in its last year. So here we are with Johnny Cash doing that. There was a nice closure to all of that, but its intentionality is both there and not there.
I would not have two-thirds of the way through editing said to you, "Now see, look, this is how it works." Because I wasn't even sure that's where it was going to go or how much of that we were going to do.
We're always corrigible, I think is what I want to say. Nothing comes down from Mount Sinai with the commandments. That's really good for us. Most production companies have a set research period and then a set writing period, and then whatever is written becomes the thing that informs shooting and editing. We never stop researching, and we never stop writing.
I'm so happy I work with two great writers, Geoffrey Ward and Dayton Duncan, who are perfectly willing to give stuff up. Good writing, in order to have the demands and the exigencies of this complicated medium, has to serve its needs. They evolve and change as we learn more, as we find new images, we find new footage, we talk to people. We add a new interview here.
It's so wonderfully perfect that the two youngest people we interviewed, Ketch Secor and Rhiannon Giddens, are the people who populate episode 1. Because these are people who could not dive into country music without having known its history.
Merle does show up, and Willie Nelson shows up. Rosanne Cash is there. They are the students. Rosanne is the third youngest. They are the students of this stuff, and they needed to know, as Rosanne says in episode 1, what the foundational stuff is. We learn in the last episode that her father humiliated her by telling her you don't know that song, you don't know this song, here are your essential songs that you have to learn. In some ways, he converted Rosanne to the family business earlier than that, but then he converted her to the evangelical nature that was Johnny Cash.
Rosanne and Marty are the two people who are in more than anyone else. They're the people who understand and can parse the complications of and understand why you can lament about the loss of something traditional in the Nashville sound. And at the same time, more people thought that George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today," which is not even Nashville sound, it's countrypolitan, was the best country song.
I'm much more of a purist. You give me "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," give me "I Still Miss Someone" by Johnny Cash or Hank Williams, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." I still don't know any poetry that's, like, more direct. It's like mainlining heroin. The words are perfect. But look at "I Still Miss Someone." Second verse: "I go out to a party, have a little fun, but I find a darkened corner because I still miss someone." There's nothing sparer and more communicative than those very, very small lines.
I was reading Wordsworth the other day, poetry, and I just went, "Oh, my God, this is like a country song." You know, there were a few verses of some poetry of his and I said, "Oh, my God, this is as mean as some of the stuff that Hank Williams was doing.
There are so many incredible images in this documentary, and there are probably hundreds that I've never seen before. I thought I'd studied this topic in great detail.
We touched 100,000 images, many of them rare and never-before-seen, to come up with the 3,300 that might be in the final film. We did 101 interviews that produced 175 hours of transcript. I think 80 of those interviews are in the final film, and 20 of those interview subjects have died. We collected nearly a thousand hours of footage.
The early drafts of the script were two or three times as big as they are right now. This is an eight-year project, and that's the genius in public broadcasting or our genius, perhaps, for staying in public broadcasting. Making a documentary on country music isn't a stretch for them or for us.
Being able to go and do the deep dives, to be able to ask the right person in the Carter family if they have any home movies? And then, all of a sudden, you've got footage that no one has seen the light of day. We're the first to see them since they first came back, and they looked at them and put them in a bag and it ended up in the garage. There is Carl Perkins, and there's Elvis Presley, and there's a beautiful picnic with Vivian Liberto, Johnny's first wife, who never gets mentioned, ever.
Are you working on anything that we should watch out for in a couple years?
I've got seven films that I'm doing. Ernest Hemingway is the next one, and then the U.S. and the Holocaust. We've also got biographies of Muhammed Ali and Benjamin Franklin. The next war is the American Revolution. And then there's LBJ and the Great Society.