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

Chuck Barney, The Mercury News on

Published in Entertainment News

Segments of the early episodes delve into the often overlooked contributions of African-Americans and how country music crosses borders and intersects with other forms of music, including jazz, R&B, the blues, folk and rock.

"One of the things that we learned and I hope comes through in the film is that country music was never just one type of music," said Duncan, who wrote the film's script. "It's been lots of types of music from the get-go, and it branched into even more multiple types of music."

As for crossover appeal, long before Lil Nas X ushered listeners down the "Old Town Road," Ray Charles had a huge hit with a "country" song -- "I Can't Stop Loving You." The Beatles recorded a Buck Owens tune. Bob Dylan and Cash were mutual admirers. And then there was jazz great Charlie Parker, who when asked by bandmates one night why he was wearing out a jukebox full of country songs, simply replied: "Listen to the stories."

For Burns, the project was "as real, important, and emotionally compelling as any film we've made." Indeed, it is packed full of remarkable human stories -- stories that delve into both triumph and tragedy. Of the latter, there are the kind of tales that would make for an entire double album of country heartbreak -- covering financial hardships, marital strife, substance abuse and the plane crash that claimed Cline at age 30.

There are also the stories behind the songs. How many knew, for example, that Parton's enduring ballad "I Will Always Love You," was written as a farewell kiss-off to an overbearing Porter Wagoner? He featured Parton on his popular TV show for several years and had continually resisted her efforts to branch out on her own.

As usual, a substantial number of interviews -- 101 in this case -- are used to guide the narrative. But unlike past Burns projects that relied heavily on historians, only one appears in "Country Music."

"What we discovered in doing our interviews is that so many of the artists, musicians and producers were historians of their work," Dunfey said. "They know where they came from. They knew the songs, they knew the traditions. ... That was really a revelation to us. And it's, in some ways, a more intimate way to approach (things). There is a different connection there. It's coming from their art."

Burns and his team spent eight years weaving the various threads of "Country Music" together. Over that span, 20 of their interview subjects, including Merle Haggard, died. They were lucky enough to sit down with him during a two-night stand at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas in 2014 and are glad they did. Haggard is one of the few artists who appears in every episode of the film, dispensing some of the most insightful quotes along the way.

"We tried to do justice to as many as we could, but him in particular," Burns said of the singer some refer to as the "poet of the common man." "I feel like he's God or Zeus in this film. Every time he speaks, it's like a thunder bolt coming down."



By Ken Burns, Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey

When: Premieres 8 p.m. Sept. 15

Where: PBS

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