Director Ken Burns has told the story of America through the lens of the U.S. Civil War, baseball, jazz and the war in Vietnam. Now, he’s telling it again through the soundtrack and the struggle of country music.
Country Music, the new documentary film from Burns, airs Sept. 15 on PBS and has more than 16 hours of music history — from Jimmie Rodgers and the Dust Bowl to Dolly Parton, Nashville, Memphis and the heart of America. “This is a music in which you can hear the lyrics and it is about emotions and experiences and stories,” Burns says.
Within the documentary, Burns wants to home in on the heart of what makes the genre special.
“I don’t know why we denigrate country music,” he says. “We superficially label it, you know, pickup trucks and good ol’ boys and hound dogs and six packs of beer, when it is in fact dealing with the fundamental questions of the human project which is love and loss.”
The film includes interviews with Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Charley Pride as well as surprises like Paul Simon, Elvis Costello and, as Burns also suspects, one of the last interviews with the late Merle Haggard, who died in 2016.
“We were so lucky,” Burns says. “I think he was willing to share in some of the most intimate and poignant ways what it was like to be in San Quentin, what it was like to have a mama who still cared. … And so, you begin to see that this is the music of working people — of poor working people — struggling to even have any kind of purchase towards an American promise.”
Burns knows the ethos of country music still resonates, even as American workers are more likely to be at a keyboard or smartphone these days than working the land.
“Art is about friction and art is about loss,” Burns says. “I do wonder in a modern age in which convenience will [win] out, whether we will be able to create the right conditions to express the kinds of things that Jimmie Rodgers and Maybelle Carter and Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and Dolly and Kris Kristofferson have been able to express. I think they will because human nature doesn’t change and I think country is as vibrant as certainly this series that we’ve just made tries to chronicle.”