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Ken Burns documentary digs deep into "Country Music" history, heritage
Ken Burns considers himself "a child of rock 'n' roll and R&B."
But the award-winning documentary maker felt it was no stretch to make an eight-part, 16-hour documentary about "Country Music," which begins airing Sept. 15 on PBS.
"My grandaddy sang songs to me that I guess you would call folk and country. My daddy did the same thing," recalls Burns, 66, who grew up in Ann Arbor from the age of 9 until he graduated from Pioneer High School. But his real education in country music came while working at the Discount Records store on South University Avenue.
"We sold all that stuff, so I got to know it," Burns says by phone. "I was working for free, getting paid with an album every couple of weeks, and finally got minimum wage as an assistant manager. I heard a lot of music there that I might not otherwise have listened to, so (country) was a real discovery for me.
"I was very proud of myself that I recognized all the Merle Haggard (album) covers we show in the scenes on Merle in the film."
Country music is the latest subject Burns has taken on during a career that's included acclaimed in-depth examinations of the Civil War, baseball, jazz, the Roosevelt family, national parks and many more. He's been working on it for more than eight years, since a friend he was visiting in Texas asked Burns if he'd ever thought about country as a topic.
"(The idea) just exploded in me," Burns says. "I sort of got down on my knee, metaphorically, and proposed to country music. I went back home to New Hampshire and told my partner (Dayton) Duncan about it. We were thinking about another project, and I don't know where that went. We just focused on this for eight and a half years.
Like all of Burns' works, "Country Music" is sweeping, comprehensive and definitive — and scholarly without being stuffy. It's built from interviews with a who's who corps of more 100 artists, producers, songwriters, historians and experts, including 40 Country Music Hall of Fame members and 20 who've died since participating in the film. "Country Music" features more than two hours of archival footage and more than 3,200 photographs, many of which have never been seen before. The likes of Haggard, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, Kris Kristofferson, the Judds and Garth Brooks are only a few of the major voices who spoke for the documentary.
The film also has a strong point of view.
"It's storytelling," Burns says of the genre. "It's American history firing on all cylinders. (Songwriter) Howard Harlan called country music 'three chords and the truth.' The first half of that acknowledges this is elemental music. It doesn't have the sophistication or complication of classical or some forms of jazz.
"But the back half, the truth part, means dealing with universal themes everyone has gone through. It deals with two four-letter words most of us would rather not deal with — love and loss. All the songs, when you get down to it, are about that."
Burns also hopes "Country Music" — which is accompanied by a book as well as a soundtrack album — will mitigate some of the popular stereotypes that have grown around the genre.
"There's that superficial idea that we've always, through commercial and convenience, characterized country music as good ol' boys, pickup trucks, six packs," he explains. "Yeah, there's a funny, effective, modest sub-genre that tries to do that. But it's never been about one thing. Jimmie Rogers' Saturday night sounds nothing like the Carter family's Sunday morning. And you think about Hank Williams — 'I Wonder Where You Are' and 'I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,' but this man also wrote 'I got a hot rod Ford and a two dollar bill' (in 'Hey Good Lookin''), the joy and excitement of new love and the sadness of lost love, and everybody on the planet knows that hillbilly Shakespeare.
"So the enduring stuff is really about love and loss, and that's what's kept country music alive and vital for so many years."
Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, who served as a special consultant for "Country Music" and took part in a March 27 concert celebrating the film at Nashville's famed Ryman Auditorium, is confident Burns accomplished his mission.
"I learned so much from the film — and I grew up in country music and still play it now," Secor says. "I think it took an outsider to tell the story, to be able to contextualize it in the greater scheme of things. Country music is like the civil rights movement or the Kennedys or the Roosevelts or the Brooklyn Bridge in that it's an American institution and it needs to be talked about — yes, by the purveyors of the music and those who are fans, but with someone from outside it, like Ken, who can tell a greater story than we can individually."
Though the film incorporates the voices of younger performers such as Secor, the Dixie Chicks and Rhiannon Giddens, Burns decided to stop his narrative in the mid-'90s, just after the ascendance of Garth Brooks.
"We want to let the last 25, 30 years breathe a little," Burns explains. "We did this in 'Baseball' ... or in 'Jazz,' people criticized us for stopping in the mid-'70s. But I feel that you don't really know how important something will be in the scheme of things for a couple of, three decades, maybe.
"So we put on the brakes and stop at a certain point and let the critics and journalists and near-historians argue and discuss what's going on today. That's fine, but in what I do we actually need the perspective that the passage of time gives us."
As "Country Music" rolls out, Burns has another seven projects in the works, on subjects such as the American Revolution, Ernest Hemingway, Muhammed Ali, Benjamin Franklin, U.S. Pres. Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society, the buffalo and the United States' treatment of the Holocaust during World War II. The reception of the industry, and from others, meanwhile, has him optimistic that "Country Music" will hit a resonant chord.
"A dear friend of mine was like, 'Ken, I love everything you do — but country music?' and he shook his head," Burns remembers. "After the eighth episode he was sobbing, in a puddle. He's undone. He's spent the last year and a half apologizing, calling me up, 'I just downloaded everything of Merle and the Louvin Brothers!' People don't realize how much they do not know, and once they see it hits them in the heart."
Are You Ready For The Country?
• "Country Music: Live at the Ryman," featuring Dierks Bentley, Rosanne Cash, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Asleep at the Wheel, Dwight Yoakam and more, premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 8, on Detroit Public TV (WTVS-Channel 56).
• Detroit Country Music, celebrating "Country Music" with highlights from the documentary and performances by Blanche, Dan John Miller, Frontier Ruckus, the Volebeats, Ethan Daniel Davidson, the Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic and others, takes place at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 11, at the Crofoot, 1 S. Saginaw St., Pontiac. Tickets $20; 248-858-9333 or thecrofoot.com.
• "Country Music" begins at 8 p.m. Sept. 15 on Detroit Public TV (WTVS-Channel 56), concluding Sept. 25.
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