Ken Burns' 'Country Music' will appeal to more than just the diehards

Chuck Barney, The Mercury News on

Published in Entertainment News

"Country Music," the latest opus from documentary-maker Ken Burns, is barely under way when Dolly Parton appears on screen singing the praises of the genre that made her a household name.

"You can dance to it. You can cry to it. You can make love to it. You can play it at a funeral," she says. "It just really has something in it for everybody ... ."

And with that, the doors swing wide open, inviting one and -- yes, all -- to hunker down for an enthralling eight-night, 16-hour deep dive into the history and colorful characters of what Burns calls "the art that tries to tell the stories of those who feel like their stories aren't being told."

Spanning six-plus decades, the series explores country music from its early days when so-called "hillbilly music" performed in small settings began to reach a wider audience. It goes on to trace its evolution through the Western swing of Texas, California's honky-tonks and Nashville's "Grand Ole Opry."

Along the way, it celebrates the trailblazing stars who shaped the genre. The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams all get their due. And so do Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Garth Brooks and many more.

Burns, who famously dissected jazz over a 10-part series in 2001, describes himself as "a child of rock 'n' roll and R&B." In fact, country music wasn't even on his filmmaking radar until 2010, when a friend he was staying with in Texas suggested it as a potential project.


"And it just hit me like a ton of bricks," he recalled.

He's confident it will have a similar impact on viewers -- even those who believe they have no interest in country music, and/or dismiss it as a lesser branch of pop culture.

"I think (some) cloak country music in one aspect it -- of hound dogs and pickup trucks and good ol' boys and six packs of beer," he said. "That's because it's really hard to acknowledge that it deals with some incredibly deep things and two four-letter words that are very difficult to talk about -- love and loss."

That, and it's a lot more universal than some might think. Throughout the series, Burns and his writing and producing partners Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey go out of their way to challenge the notion that country music is the exclusive province of white folks in cowboy hats, or that it can be easily pigeonholed.


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