Ken Burns reaches into his front-right jeans pocket to retrieve a small, burnished silver heart, then a coin awarded to learning-disabled students who memorize The Gettysburg Address. Next he pulls out a button from the uniform of a soldier who landed at Normandy on D-Day and, finally, a Minié ball fired from a musket at Gettysburg.
The Emmy Award-winning documentarian travels every day with these four mementos, gifts from fans of his more than 30 films. They represent a tiny fraction of the tokens he has received -- reminders of the impact his documentaries, from 1981’s Brooklyn Bridge to 2017’s The Vietnam War, have had on generations of viewers. “The hardest part is [carrying] the abutment to the Brooklyn Bridge,” jokes Dayton Duncan, his longtime collaborator.
For nearly four decades, Burns has been telling the story of America one topic at a time. For the past eight years, he has focused on country music, resulting in -- simply and definitively named, like so many of his films -- Country Music, a sprawling 16-and-a-half-hour, eight-part, $30 million budget film airing on PBS’ 350 member stations starting Sept. 15. Burns’ team interviewed over 100 people, including Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson, Reba McEntire, Rhiannon Giddens and, in one of his last sit-downs, Merle Haggard. (Nearly 20 of Burns’ subjects have since died, making his plan to donate 175 hours of interviews and transcripts to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum all the more resonant.)
“We wanted to tap people who had literal skin in the game,” says Burns, seated with Country Music co-producers Duncan and Julie Dunfey in the wood-paneled lounge of a tour bus rolling eastbound on Interstate 40 toward Nashville. It’s late March, and though the film’s debut is still two seasons away, they’re on the third day of a whistle-stop tour to several Tennessee musical landmarks for events with PBS affiliate stations.
There’s good reason for this level of early ceremony. Burns’ pedigree instantly signals that country music demands attention, especially from those who may have previously reduced the genre to outdated stereotypes. “Our hope is that it’s going to finally paint a complete picture of our industry,” says Country Music Association (CMA) chief marketing officer Damon Whiteside.
That the master documentarian is shining a light on country is “like the cavalry coming,” says revered country musician Marty Stuart, who is interviewed extensively in the film. “The traditional end of country music sometimes gets overshadowed by the contemporary, and to have 16-and-a-half hours’ worth of footage and interviews coming from the nation’s premier documentarian -- it’s an awesome gift.”
But respect isn’t the only thing at stake: A Ken Burns music documentary can mean huge commercial gains for the genre in question. Following the 2001 premiere of his 10-part Jazz, branded Ken Burns Jazz compilations and collections devoted to artists featured in the film claimed 16 of the top 25 spots on Billboard’s Top Jazz Albums chart. Now, in advance of Country Music, Sony Music’s Legacy imprint and Universal Music Group are already planning a slate of physical and digital products highlighting music from the series.
And that pull could extend well beyond album sales. Burns’ documentaries have a track record of getting people off their couches. After 2009’s The National Parks: America’s Best Idea drew over 33 million viewers in its initial broadcast, visitation at parks increased by 10 million. In 2014, after 33 million viewers watched The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, attendance at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s library and home spiked 24% over the previous year. Once Country Music airs, both Nashville and the State of Tennessee hope to see a similar boom. “This is a huge deal for Tennessee,” says Brian Wagner, assistant commissioner of marketing for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, which invested $1 million in the documentary. “The film will redefine what people think of as country music. From a marketing standpoint, this is the most credible, third-party validation of your brand and your culture.”
As for Burns, he fiercely dismisses the notion that country music is any less weighty a topic than his previous documentaries. “A lot of people have segregated and imprisoned country music in a very narrow band,” he says. “American history is much more than just the sequence of presidential administrations punctuated by wars. We are in this film reminding people that maybe an accent can’t travel very far, but the greatness of the music can.”
PBS broadcast Burns’ first documentary in 1981, the same year MTV launched and long before outlets like Netflix and YouTube existed. While those platforms have steered viewers toward shorter, more easily digestible programming, Burns vows he will stay at PBS “forever.” His current deal runs for another 10 years.
“We are always told that no one will watch long-form because everybody’s attention span was originally MTV. Now it’s YouTube and kittens and balls of yarn,” he says, sounding a little exasperated. “Everybody’s ‘OMG’ and ‘LOL.’ But, in fact, we carry the same big audience along, thing after thing.”
It’s true: His films remain some of the largest draws on PBS, averaging 32 million views in their initial runs, according to Nielsen. The first episode of 2017’s The Vietnam War earned a rating of 6.0, more than 300% greater than PBS’ average primetime rating. Given the educational slant of his work, Burns wants his films to be free and available to the widest possible audience. But most importantly, PBS -- the sixth-largest U.S. network -- gives him the latitude to make documentaries the way he wants.
“What the premium channels and streaming services have are suits that will tell you, ‘Yeah, I’ll give you $30 million for Vietnam or Country Music, but it’s not going to take you eight years -- you’ll have it done in a year-and-a-half,’ ” says Burns, his voice growing more animated. “Nobody would have done Jazz. Nobody would have done 18-and-a-half hours on baseball or 12 hours of still photographs from the Civil War. And, oh, by the way: We end up on those streaming services after the initial broadcast.” (The first four episodes of Country Music will be available for streaming on station-branded PBS platforms starting Sept. 15, with the second four rolling out Sept. 22.)
PBS is no stranger to country music -- it’s home to the long-running series Austin City Limits and a recent American Masters episode about Charley Pride -- yet the network sees Burns’ latest as another opportunity to reject the notion that the network is “only watched by a tea-sipping, Alistair Cooke kind of crowd,” says PBS president/CEO Paula Kerger. To help promote the production, PBS, along with Florentine Films and Opry Entertainment, taped a two-hour concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in March that features Dierks Bentley, Vince Gill and Giddens covering songs from the documentary. (It will air prior to Country Music’s debut.)
Burns’ exhaustive approach -- it took four years just to clear a staggering 584 music cues, the most in any of his series -- is somewhat out of step with modern music docs, which often come together relatively quickly and can sometimes resemble extended commercials for a particular artist. But the Nashville establishment was eager to rally around the project for just that reason -- like any good advertisement (albeit a very extended one), it presented country music in the kind of light any artist or executive would wish for.
By 2014, Duncan, who also wrote the documentary, was coming to Nashville regularly, and the CMA held a series of breakfasts for him with Opry Entertainment senior vp programming and artist relations/GM Sally Williams, as well as other industry executives and CMA board members, “to really frame what the project was about and what they were going for and to really get the community excited about it,” says CMA CEO Sarah Trahern.
“One of the great things was how excited they were that Ken was going to be taking them seriously as an art form,” says Duncan. “Not just the labels, but artists and other people almost without question were happy to give us their time and consideration. And then on a business level, they understood that if the story is told, it only helps them, particularly because we’re dealing with history.
Country Music opens in the early 20th century, covering pioneers like The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers before moving to such mid-century bedrocks as Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash and concluding in the mid-’90s with the meteoric rise of Brooks. It ends at that point because “we’re historians,” says Burns. With his trademark shaggy bowl haircut and gray-flecked beard, he is every bit the scruffy raconteur in person, even playing tour guide as the bus crosses the Tennessee River: “Leaving West Tennessee going into East Tennessee -- Battle of Shiloh.” Having decades of distance from his subjects, he continues, “allows you to see that the person who sold only 50,000 records might be more significant 30 years from now than the person who sold 5 million.”
That’s not to say Country Music is lacking in modern relevance. As women struggle for airplay on country radio, the film is a reminder of the indelible contributions they have made to the genre through the decades. “This film says as much about strong women as any film we’ve ever made,” says Burns. Adds Dunfey: “It’s not ‘the women of country music.’ They’re not in their little compartments. Women are country music.”
And at a time when Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” is inspiring fierce debate about the definition of country and its relationship with race, Country Music covers the genre’s breadth -- from the Western swing of Bob Wills and the rockabilly of Elvis Presley to the Bakersfield Sound of the ’50s and ’60s and the Texas troubadour movement of the ’70s and ’80s -- while also clearly acknowledging the influence of black musicians on artists like Bill Monroe and Cash. At its heart, the film says, country music is a storytelling tradition driven by the tensions that have shaped American history itself: between races and genders, between city and country, between Saturday night’s sin and Sunday morning’s salvation.
As wide-ranging as the artists appearing in Country Music are, few of the talking heads are mainstream acts who debuted on this side of the millennium. But the doc team and the CMA hope to bring in a newer crop of stars, such as Kane Brown and Luke Combs, to promote the film through a social influencer program. During CMA Fest in June, PBS also plans to interview young artists about their influences and cut those sound bites with clips from the film -- an effort to get a younger fan base “interested [in] those legends that influenced artists that they love,” says the CMA’s Whiteside.
Which, really, is all that the filmmakers want viewers of any age to take away from watching the series. Though the stakes of the movie make Burns a brand ambassador of sorts for the country music community at large, he doesn’t feel that way. “I love the music and want people to love the music and hear the stories,” he says. “That’s what our job is -- just storytellers and nothing more.”
Duncan’s take is a bit more emotional. “I hope that someone who watches it will decide, ‘I want to learn more about Patsy Cline,’ or ‘Wow, that [was] Townes van Zandt. I never knew about him,’ ” he says, welling up. “You hope you do the same thing that a good country song does: You touch somebody in their heart.”
Look Who's Talking
Across Country Music’s eight episodes, some of the industry’s most respected names offer their take on what defines the art form.
Rhiannon Giddens: “Country music, this music of the working class, is the music of people who don’t have a lot of power. We like to talk about the Founding Fathers a lot, but the people who built this country, that’s the people where country and blues come from. And you don’t have America without them.”
Dolly Parton: “It’s just simple ways of telling stories, experiencing and expressing feelings. You can dance to it, you can cry to it, you can make love to it, you can play it at a funeral... It just really has something in it for everybody. And people relate to it.”
Ketch Secor: “It’s what American folk music has come to be called when it followed the path of the fiddle and the banjo. All of American music comes from the same place. It’s just sort of where it ends up. And country music is one of the destinations.”
Merle Haggard: “It’s about those things that we believe in but we can’t see -- like dreams and songs and souls. They’re hanging around here, and different songwriters reach up and get them.”
Marty Stuart: “Songwriting is the most mysterious of all the trades. It cannot be explained. There’s a craft that goes along with it. But at the same time, it’s the divine gift... Hank Williams said it best when somebody asked him, ‘Hank, how do you write them old sad songs?’ He says, ‘I don’t write them. I just hang onto the pen, and God sends them through’ ... If you’re collaborating with God, the creator who made the mountains and the stars and the moon and the sky, a three-minute country song is not that big of a stretch. But those kinds of songs like ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,’ ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’? Unexplainable.”