Ken Burns discusses the complexity of country music’s story

Ken Burns film documentary, Country Music, will air on September 15th on PBS stations.

When it comes to our musical heritage, there is nothing quite like the complex story of country music.  The people, instruments, and songs migrated from other parts of the world to form the genre that would last generations in different ways.  Ken Burns put together a team to document the history of country music for PBS.  “Country Music” may sound simple, but it is rather complex that will be showcased starting Sunday, September 15th.  Ken Burns recently talked to Kentucky Country Music about the story he has created for future generations.

“Country Music” took almost nine years to create due to the massive amount of details as to what encompasses the style.  One of the early expectations for Ken Burns was to form an extensive story of America’s history through song. According to Burns, “I think we are always drawn to tell the stories of American history that have dimension, that have complexity, that have depth that reveal us to ourselves.  I don’t know of any project that I’ve done that is more revealing of who we are than country music.”

Many would be surprised to know that Ken Burns and his fellow researchers went beyond the Country Music Hall of Fame, Grand Ole Opry, and Birthplace of Country Music Museum to get the stories, photographs, and memories. “When it came to research places, there were too numerous to name, from the private collections of individuals that we interviewed to the collections of the descendants of those that have passed that recovered the film,” Burns said.  “There were individual collectors of memorabilia to library archives throughout the United States that helped us find the images, videos, graphics, and more that helped tell our story.

“This documentary took 8 1/2 years, which is fairly long for a documentary.  It took so long because we were insistence on getting it right, which means we want to make ourselves available and the only way that could take place is through the passage of time for that kind of serendipity.  You go to an archive in Texas and point out a box and that person brings it down.  You discover some photographs that even the family didn’t know they had.  They lead you to a direction where someone says they may have some home movies out in the garage in a box.  You get to process some rare and never before seen home movies that no one besides the family had seen.  That’s the beauty of what we do.  Now the time we spend was to master the complexity of the story.  Sometimes those complexities acquire us to complicate an already working scene.  If you find out something new, your conscious won’t let you ignore it.  Today, schools are showing the ‘Civil War’ documentary, which is a testament in that we try to create something that can be used in the classroom,” according to Burns.

Ken Burns mastered the delicacy of telling the story that intertwines roots, blues, bluegrass, soul, rock, pop, western, and many more styling of country music.  He dives into subject matter such as race throughout the series to show how African Americans have influenced those involved in country music ever since it began.  Deford Bailey was the first black performer on the Grand Ole Opry and would be influential in his performance of “The Fox Chase” as he added shouts along with playing harmonica.  During a time of segregation, he would travel with Uncle Dave Macon as viewers would learn.

DeFord Bailey, one of the original headliners of the Grand Ole Opry, c.1935. Credit: Les Leverett Collection

One notable story was that of Charley Pride performing the first time in front of an audience.  Ralph Emery recalled that he introduced Charley in Detroit, who was met with applause then silence upon realizing that he was an African American.  Charley would joke about having a permanent tan and the audience laughed, soon easing any fears they had of him.  Later on, a radio disc jockey told Faron Young that they pulled Charley’s records after learning that he wasn’t white.  Faron told the DJ to pull his own records if they didn’t play Charley.  Needless to say, they didn’t pull either man after that.

Johnny Rodriguez was also featured with his Latino musical style that took notice of listeners.  The film also explored the Mexican influence when it came to the mariachi band used in Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” as well as with the Bakersfield sound.  Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard would record “Poncho and Lefty,” which always had a southwestern vibe to it.

When asked if he was afraid to cover subjects such as race, women’s rights, substance abuse and more, Ken Burns noted that he was not afraid to approach folks like the family of Johnny Cash or someone like Charley Pride to discuss those hot subjects. “This is part of the powerful message that country music sends to us,” according to Burns.  “It is three chords and the truth, as Harlan Howard once said.  If that’s the case, the truth will come out and human beings are complicated, flawed, and with grace all at the same time.  It’s possible to be a Johnny Cash or Hank Williams.  I think it is important to bring up the issues of race.  We were so startled to see what a prominent role woman played from the very beginning in music. It is like a conventional wisdom in a deep southern male thing.  There’s Mother Maybelle, who’s the chief guitarist of it all, and then there’s Rose Maddox and there’s Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn addressing issues of feminism without calling herself a feminist.  All throughout the film we were just startled by the surprising role that African Americans played in country music and continue to exert influence.”

Loretta Lynn and her husband Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn, 1965. Photograph by Les Leverett

One thing that we can all agree on is that there are so many influences inside country music.  I always tell people that country music is like a wagon wheel. The center is the roots of the instrumentation and songs that came from overseas.  Then it branched off like wagon spokes with jazz, Latino, blues, rock, hip hop, gospel, Appalachian, pop, and much more.  As a whole, the wheel turns to keep the music flowing.

“I think we segregate our musical forms too much,” recalled Ken Burns.  “We understand why – commerce and convenience suggests that we should have a separate thing called country, a separate thing called blues, a separate thing called rhythm and blues, and jazz, folk, pop, rock, classical, etc.  But in fact they all blend in together and they are encompassing one another.  You don’t need a passport or a visa to pass between them.  We see this exchange of ideas as a great thing and richness of America that country music never started out as one thing.  It was the Carter Family, which represented a Sunday morning.  It was Jimmie Rodgers, which represented a Saturday night.  Within their sound, it was already a mixed, already an alloy.  What we know is that an alloy is much stronger than its constituent metals.  I think that this is the great American story that country music reminds us all the time.  If you learned that Jimmie Rodgers was influenced by the black Delta blues trains; and then A.P. Carter, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, and Johnny Cash had African American mentors that took their abilities way up to here, you suddenly change the impression of it.  You realize when you hear Ray Charles sing ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You,’ in his album, ‘Modern Sounds of Country and Western Music,’ you realize that is a country song.  He’s got a country chorus, he’s singing like a country person, yet you hear the soulfulness in it as well.  It’s a wonderful reminder I think that country music, and indeed all art, reminds us that we’re all in this together.  There’s no us, there’s no them.  Unfortunately, politics tries to create ‘them’ and create the enemies.  I think art tells the tale of us coming together.”

From the very beginning, country music has had women that sang the songs that millions could easily relate to.  “Country Music” documents the tales of Loretta Lynn’s controversial songs such as “The Pill” and “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’.”  The later would come at the same time when women rights happened.  The topics of Loretta Lynn’s songs were heavy duty even to this day, yet she didn’t mind.  She gave what the listeners wanted to hear – stories of what they were going through in real life.  That’s the wonderful thing on country music – the listener can relate to what the singer is singing.

Women of country music are featured throughout the entire “Country Music” documentary and how they have influenced other styles.  From Mother Maybelle, Connie Smith, Bobbie Gentry, Jeannie C. Riley, June Carter, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Reba McEntire, Kathy Mattea, and more are featured with their songs and stories into the music business.

Loretta Lynn and Buck Owens on Tacoma’s BAR-K Jamboree, c.1960.
Credit: Buck Owens Private Foundation

One of the first interviews conducted for the documentary was Little Jimmy Dickens.  It would be one of the final interviews that Little Jimmy would do.  If you think about it, he was one of the last true connections to everyone in country music from the Carter Family, Hank Williams, to modern day acts on the Grand Ole Opry.  “Little Jimmy was a pure hoot to talk to as he would talk about the old stories,” Burns said.  “He talked about when he was friends with Hank Williams and Hank mentioned that Little Jimmy needed a song.  He would write ‘Hey Good Lookin’,” and the next thing Little Jimmy found out is that Hank recorded that song before Jimmy could.”

In talking with Ken Burns, I mentioned about my first interview was with Dr. Ralph Stanley right after the popularity of ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’ movie.  Ken recalled that, “we conducted one of the last interviews that Ralph ever did.  That’s a bittersweet thing for us because we enjoyed getting to know him.  It also means that he’s gone, but at the same time we have this record of what he said.  It’s just wonderful in the film I think.”

Ricky Skaggs, Ralph Stanley, and Keith Whitley performing. (From Ricky Skaggs website)

For the 101 interviews, 40 of them are members of the Country Music Hall of Fame and 20 have since passed away.  There were 80 of the interviews that made it into the final film, but the Country Music Hall of Fame has a copy all of the interviews.  Little Jimmy Dickens was not the only one that have passed away since their interview.  Many on screen included Merle Haggard, Fred Foster, Hazel Smith, Mel Tillis, and more.

“With Merle Haggard, it was like you were talking to Zeus.  Then you realized that Marty Stuart, Rosanne Cash, Vince Gill, Ketch Secor, and some of the younger ones that give us the understanding of the deep history of it.  You couldn’t live without those.  Could you live without Hazel Smith, or Mel Tillis, or Larry Gatlin, or Kris Kristofferson?  I had the privilege of interviewing Vince, Marty, Dolly, Bill Anderson, and Connie Smith, and many others.  It’s like having a favorite child.  You would be a terrible parent if you had one,” Burns joked when it came to the interviews.

Sadly, there is one interview that was in the works, but had never happened.  “We were in conversations with George Jones’ folks and we were narrowing the time to come down to Nashville to speak with him,” Burns recalled.  “He passed away and we were unable to do that.  I’m very proud of the scenes that we have on George, several scenes, but it would have been wonderful to hear from the Possum himself.”

Throughout history, there has always been an influence of other genres and races into country music.  Immigrants brought over the fiddle, while the banjo originating from a fretless neck gourd from Africa.  The guitar has become the most diverse instrument of multiple cultures coming from Europe, along with the mandolin.  When all of those instruments met, the songs of the people and cultures emerged.

News of the day was passed on through songs.  One of those was “Barbara Allen,” which would be 300 years old when Kentucky native Bradley Kincaid recorded it.  Ralph Stanley was best known for his Appalachian style of music, which originated for many in church as they lined the notes.  Traveling medicine shows helped spread the music as well.

The 8 part documentary series dives into the musicians, songs, and culture that made what we know about country music through the decades.  It begins with the story of Fiddlin’ John Carson recording at WSB Radio in Atlanta, Georgia.  Soon the music would reach households, which led to radio barn dances.  Ralph Peer would lead the effort of making phonograph recordings, including “Little Old Cabin in the Lane,” by Fiddlin’ John Carson.  He would also record several African American performers for race records at the time.  Many people would ask Mr. Peer for the genre of his recordings.  He would get it from an Al Hopkins recording talking about hillbillies from North Carolina and Virginia.  Thus, the style of hillbilly music was formed.

In July 1927, Ralph Peer would join Victor Talking Machine Company to record performances.  He would put in advertisements in the newspaper to pay people to record in what is now known for the Bristol Recording Sessions.  An electric carbon microphone was used.  The Stoneman Family, Bull Mountain Moonshiners, West Virginia Coonhunters, and then The Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers would be recorded.  The songs were captured and documented forever in what is known as the big bang of country music.

Soon Ken Burns turns to the fashion of country music as performers wanted to be outfitted with the finest outfits.  People would seek the styles made by Nudie Cohen and Manuel.  It also shows how the fashion changed throughout the years, even to include Jeannie Seeley talking about how she had to deal with Opry managers after wearing a mini-skirt on stage.  As fans began learning about their favorite musicians, they sought out to see where they recorded and perform.  Nashville would become known as the Music City Capitol of the World and tourists came to visit.  These days it is still a very popular tourist destination with attractions along Broadway, along with the historical buildings and museums.

One part of the series speaks in detail about the Outlaw Music movement brought on by the likes of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Tompall Glassar, Jessi Colter, and others.  Hazel Smith spoke in detail about the atmosphere at Hillbilly Central and the sound that was being created.  She would also be the one to coin the phrase “outlaw” to describe what they were doing.  As they were becoming popular, more artists were demanding change of their music.  Waylon and others were looking to recording songs in the studio to sound just like they did live in concert.  As a result, the “Wanted: The Outlaws” album would become the first to be certified platinum in country music.  The tune “Good Hearted Women” with Waylon and Willie performing would become the first number one song from the album.

Waylon Jennings, Austin, Texas, 1974. Photograph by Scott Newton

Bluegrass music was on display with the story of Bill Monroe and his influence for many generations along with Ricky Skaggs, Flatt and Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, Vince Gill, Sam Bush, and much more.  In depth discussion is throughout the documentary highlighting the popularity of bluegrass music acts, along with the impact of being heard on television shows like “Beverly Hillbillies,” or movies such as “Bonnie and Clyde.”  It was evident that bluegrass music got marginalized and placed separately from country music around 1963 on the radio.  Yet, college students and middle class citizens sought out folk, roots, and bluegrass music.  Newport Folk Festival started to help bluegrass and folk music stay alive with a younger audience.  Vince Gill recalls the time of his bluegrass band, Mountain Smoke, opening for KISS, the rock band.  Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart also recall stories of growing up as kids into adults in the music industry.

PBS recently aired a much more complete history of bluegrass music in a documentary, “Big Family: The Story of Bluegrass.”  Click here to view it.

Bill Monroe on the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville, c.1958. Credit: Les Leverett Collection

Duets also take shape in the documentary with highlights of the careers of Bill Anderson with Jan Howard, Dottie West with Kenny Rogers, Conway Twitty with Loretta Lynn, and more.  The most dynamic duo that a lot was spent on exploring was that of George Jones and Tammy Wynette.  Despite their troubles, they both loved each other in the end.  The love fueled the flames for some of the best duets in music, even after they divorced.  Ironically, Tammy Wynette and George Jones recorded “Golden Ring” and she heard it on the radio the day she married her fourth husband.  The song would go to number 1 on the charts on the day she filed for divorce, 44 days later.

There is also talk of outside influences that came into the country music scene when they were popular in other fields of music.  In the notion of Olivia Newton-John and John Denver being awarded for their music, you hear Jean Shepherd speak on the screen that, “we were losing our identity.”  There was a change in Nashville once again.

Two musicians who would grow out of the shadows of their famous fathers are interviewed and showcased.  The story of Hank Williams, Jr. detailed how his mom would push him to perform just like his daddy, but later he would break it out on his own despite what the fans wanted to hear.  He stuck to his instincts and it worked.  Rosanne Cash also forged her own path, but going to Europe first to record and release an album before coming back.  She was much different sounding than her father, Johnny Cash, but she resonated among country fans.

Probably the biggest crossover success story would be that of Dolly Parton.  She would sing over 1 million singles for “Here You Come Again.”  She was everything beyond Nashville and even said, “I’m not leaving country.  I’m taking it with me.”  She would have her own publishing company, movies, merchandise, and more.  Her humble attitude and country sound made her relate to everyone worldwide.

Kentucky has many museums and institutes where our music is on display for many to see.  History comes alive with the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in Renfro Valley, International Bluegrass Museum in Owensboro, and the US 23 Country Music Highway Museum in Paintsville, just to name a few.  When asked about the importance of preserving our musical heritage, Ken Burns said, “First that is a wonderful question.  I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer it.  We labored in the vineyards of country music for now 8 ½ years and we’ve been so welcome.  People have generously shared their photographs and mementos and their recollections.  I think we need to continue these oral histories, not just of the stars, but of people involved in it.  We need to find ways to preserve them.  We just donated all 175 hours of interviews to the Hall of Fame so that students and scholars could have access to that in the future years.  I think it could be a great teaching tool.  We have to edit stuff down, even with someone as spectacular as Merle Haggard, we are only using a small fraction of what he said in our interview on the film.  What’s not used may be of interest to others in the future.  We need to preserve, protect, and restore and interpret.  We can’t have enough museums or attractions on the side of the road where you can stop and learn about something happened here of great importance.”

Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens, c.1988. Courtesy of Buck Owens Private Foundation

“Country Music” documentary ends with the neo-traditional era in the mid-90s.  It speaks of Vince Gill taking 25 years to write “Go Rest High On that Mountain,” which he began writing at the passing of Keith Whitley and concluded with Vince’s brother’s passing.  The song itself is a timeless classic, just like many others in country music.  Keith Whitley’s story is also told through photos and clips of his music.  Not much is mentioned about his early days in performing bluegrass music with the likes of Ralph Stanley, Ricky Skaggs, and J.D. Crowe.

The time of 1995 and later formed a booming time for country music, with a change of tide.  Legends such as Johnny Cash were declining in sales and airplay while others like Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Randy Travis, and The Judds were making waves on the radio.  It was a strong time for women with the likes of Trisha Yearwood, Reba McEntire, Pam Tillis, Suzy Boguss, and Patty Loveless.  Those featured continue to perform and maintain a strong influence on the music of today’s country music.

During the mid-90s, there was a major shift in radio when the government allowed the consolidation of stations.  The days of performers visiting stations to be added to the playlist had faded.  Corporate owned stations had playlists decided by one or two people, whereas independent stations continued to be listener driven.  Folks like Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash would soon see that their names were not added onto the playlists.  To this day, the corporate owned stations like Clear Channel and Cumulus maintain the playlist by what the program director says to play for a large portion of stations.  For the independent stations, artists still have a chance to perform and reach listeners who can call in and request their favorite song.

Naomi and Wynonna Judd, c.1984. Credit: Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

As many will know, with a documentary with this magnitude, it would be hard to cover every single song, performer, and moment in country music history.  However, there is so much included in the documentary that you know that 16 1/2 hours isn’t enough to showcase each and every person that made an impact.

“Country music was built one handshake at a time, one autograph at a time,” Marty Stuart recalls in the documentary.  If it wasn’t for the music fans, musicians would not have a career.  We share the stories and songs and how they make us feel.  Hopefully we all will continue to share the stories and photos of those that have influenced us.  It is a way to keep history alive.

Be sure to tune into your local PBS for the “Country Music” documentary by Ken Burns, Dayton Duncan, and Julie Dunfey.  It will premiere on Sunday, September 15 through Wednesday, September 18th, then on Sunday, September 22 through Wednesday, September 25.  Each episode will air 8:00-10:00 p.m. ET.  Furthermore, Legacy Recordings has released a soundtrack to the documentary, while Alfred A. Knopf, has issued a companion book.  Be sure to check out the official website on PBS for the Country Music Documentary by visiting www.pbs.org/kenburns/country-music/.

Dayton Duncan, Julie Dunfey, and Ken Burns, writers and producers of the PBS Country Music Documentary.

4 thoughts on “Ken Burns discusses the complexity of country music’s story

  1. Funny that, while Ken Burns included Conway Twitty in his comments about famous duets, Conway’s appearance during the documentary was a few seconds of a still, onscreen with Loretta Lynn. Conway Twitty produced more hits than anyone in Nashville, save for George Strait. Yet he is barely given a nod. Perhaps Burns limited the bulk of his country celebrities and interviews to performers who were members of the Grand Ole Opry. Conway was never a member, but I wonder if that was his own choice. Perhaps he wanted to avoid the elitist atmosphere that seemed to encompass the organization, hence, the glaring snub. At any rate, it seems that the documentary continuously goes back to the stories of Cash, Carters, Nelson, etc,… ad nauseam. Time could have been made for so many more performers who contributed a lot more to country music than The Byrds.

    1. I posted this comment this morning on my Facebook page.

      MY ONLY COMPLAINT ABOUT KEN BURNS’ “COUNTRY MUSIC:” Where was Conway Twitty? He is a WAY more important figure than Marty Stuart. Couldn’t Mr. Burns have cut one of Stuart’s numerous interview spots to make room for Conway?

      1. I totally agree that there is a huge lack of Conway Twitty’s influence in country music. He was mentioned briefly with Loretta Lynn on their duets, and later on another brief mention. Don Williams, Vern Gosdin, and a few others were lacking. Thanks for the comment!

        1. While I was a huge Vern Gosdin fan and Don Williams, too, they were not major, pivotal figures and if I had been working with Ken Burns on his film I would not have included them, either. Conway Twitty was.

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