An evening with Ken Burns, preview of Country Music
An evening with Ken Burns, preview of new Country Music
Imagine sitting down with the trailblazers of country music and hearing their stories. Renowned filmmaker and storyteller Ken Burns interviewed over one-hundred people over the course of eight years, twenty of whom who have now died, for his new documentary Country Music. On August 20, Burns will show a special preview of the eight-part, sixteen-hour film in Harris Concert Hall and offer commentary alongside panelists Edgar Meyer and Alan Fletcher.
“Country music is a broad, complex intergenerational story that’s American history firing on all cylinders,” Burns says. “I don’t know why it took this long in my professional life for me to get to it. It has been so satisfying, so surprisingly deep and rich and more important, moving—like a fine piece of music in any genre.”
The film starts in the pioneer days of country music in the 1920s, when it was called “hillbilly music.” Going back to its roots, when it first played across the airwaves on radio station barn dances, country music started with ballads, minstrel music, hymns, and the blues.
“Suddenly, it’s this idea that hillbilly music was beneath the attention of anyone else,” Burns says. “The music has the power to address universal human themes of love and loss, things that we don’t like to talk about too much. In country music, we disguise it—we say it’s about pickup trucks, good ole boys, six packs, and hound dogs, and it’s not. It’s about love and loss. I can’t imagine a better story to tell.”
Burns reminds us that country music is not just one thing. Commerce and convenience categorize country music into this narrow thing as if it’s unconnected with R&B, the blues, classical, rock, and pop. When in reality, the music is so intertwined that it’s impossible to see where the borders are.
When discussing the parallels of country music and classical music, Burns turns to his film Jazz that he worked on in the 1990s. Louis Armstrong, arguably one of the most important musicians of the twentieth century according to Burns, says, “There ain’t but two kinds of music. Good music and bad music. And good music, you tap your foot to.”
“You don’t need an advanced degree to understand jazz, you don’t need it to understand classical, and you certainly don’t need it to understand country,” Burns says. “Vince Gill, the great guitarist and singer-songwriter said, ‘At the end of the day, all I really wanted out of music is to be moved.’ We agree completely. All we want is to be moved. Everyone who comes and sits at the Aspen Music Festival wishes to be moved.”
“We spend our lives understanding that 1+1 = 2,” Burns says. “But the thing we actually want in our lives is the improbable calculus where 1+1 = 3. That’s what Beethoven is after and that’s what Hank Williams is after. That’s modestly what I’m after. I hope my films do that. I hope there are moments in my films where 1+1 = 3.”
Iconic country legends like Marty Stuart, Rosanne Cash, Vince Gill, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and Dwight Yoakam are some of the many notable interviews that help to tell the story of how country music came to be. The film reveals rare and never-before-seen photos and footage of Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash, and others.
“The songwriter Harlan Howard described country music as ‘three chords and the truth.’” Wynton Marsalis told Burns, “You’re dealing with stuff that everyone has experienced in their lifetime.” Burns concludes by saying, “At the end of the day, we were unprepared for how powerful the music was.” Directed by Burns and produced by Burns and his long-time collaborator Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey, the film premieres Sunday, September 15 on PBS.