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EDUC How Ken Burns Connected Every Dot of Country Music’s Rich History in New Doccumentary Film Series
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  1. #1
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    How Ken Burns Connected Every Dot of Country Music’s Rich History in New Doccumentary Film Series

    https://www.rollingstone.com/music/m...ry-doc-878470/

    (Premieres Sunday, Sept. 15th)


    Ken Burns was in Dallas some years ago visiting a good friend, philanthropist Cappy McGarr. The filmmaker was working on his 2012 Depression-era miniseries, The Dust Bowl, and as usual for a workaholic who often has six or seven films brewing, Burns was turning over ideas for his next project. When McGarr suggested tackling country music, “it just exploded in my brain — like, of course,” Burns says. “And as we got into it, we saw that it was as real, important, and emotionally compelling as any film we’ve made.”


    Country Music (which premieres on PBS on September 15th) is Burns’ first major release since 2017’s unsettling, highly acclaimed The Vietnam War, and his second deep dive into American music, following 2001’s Jazz. It’s scarcely less exhaustive: At 16.5 hours spread across eight episodes, Country Music distills 101 interviews, more than 700 hours of archival clips, and 100,000 still photos into a story as complex and multifaceted as the nation it mirrors. It takes a sweepingly broad view of the genre, from so-called hillbilly songs (in truth a stew of Anglo-American folk, African American blues, and multicultural spirituals) to Western swing and bluegrass, cowboy and honky-tonk tunes, countrypolitan ballads and outlaw jams. There are also detours into the styles that country music irreducibly informed: rock & roll, rockabilly, country rock, and Americana. Country fans will be gobsmacked. And those who think they have no interest in the genre will have to think again. Country Music might well be the most ambitious, culturally resonant music documentary ever made. (The tie-in book and CD box set take it still deeper.)


    As the series notes, all four Beatles were country fans; so was Charlie Parker. Figures outside the country ecosystem — Jack White, Paul Simon, Wynton Marsalis — supply perspective, along with an estimable historian (Bill Malone, author of the recently updated 1968 cornerstone Country Music USA). But mostly the story is told by the music’s own stars and side people, many of whom are passionate historians themselves. “We went in assuming we’d have a more substantial representation from ‘experts,’ and from outside of country,” says Burns. “We didn’t need them. [The country people] know their story really, really well.”

    That story begins with the music’s so-called big bang: The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers recording at the legendary Bristol Sessions in Tennessee in 1927. Their stories weave through the series — part via the Carter-Cash dynasty, beginning when Johnny Cash falls in love with June Carter; part via Rodgers acolyte Merle Haggard, whose own life intersects with Cash’s when Haggard sees him perform at San Quentin State Prison while Haggard is an inmate there. That was a life-changing encounter, spurring Haggard on a path to become one of America’s greatest songwriters, and his account of it is one of the series’ many wrenching moments. “Merle is in virtually every episode,” notes writer Dayton Duncan, the series’ co-producer with Burns and Julie Dunfey. A longtime Burns collaborator, Duncan spent several hours with Haggard, who served, in some of the final interviews of his life, as both subject and ad hoc history consultant.

    Rosanne Cash was also among the first artists Burns and his team approached. She had initial reservations about how the music’s story would be presented, especially the sections that involve her dad, Johnny Cash, whose death in Episode 8 is effectively the series’ end point. “The more [the filmmaking process] went on, the more reassured and impressed I was with what they were doing,” she says. “They went as deep as you could go.”

    Cash was also among the first to see the finished film. “They connected every dot,” she says, “from Appalachia to Bob Wills to Bakersfield to my dad. It was artfully done, and so moving.”

    Burns is a child of the Sixties — by his own description, a hippie in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who sold the first issue of Rolling Stone as a clerk at Discount Records on South University Avenue. His mom died when he was 11, and his dad was an academic ill-served by the academy, a legacy no doubt informing his son’s path.
    Loretta Lynn at the Grand Ole Opry, 1960s.


    Burns has been living in rural New Hampshire since 1979, not long after he finished at Hampshire College. In 1991, flush with the success of The Civil War, he bought a rambling Victorian house, which would become the editing hive of his company, Florentine Films. One day this spring, a team there was focused on a six-hour Ernest Hemingway documentary. Lined with posters of musicians and baseball players, with dog beds, imperfect wooden floors, and employees in T-shirts, the building is like off-campus housing tricked out with cutting-edge postproduction gear.

    The rest of the New Hampshire site, including the 66-year-old filmmaker’s home, is perched on top of a hill about 1.5 miles outside town. Burns’ office is a museum of American history and his own work. He likes to show people around; in a gesture you sense he’s repeated a few times, he hands a visitor an iron manacle, dating to the days of American slavery. “This is the United States also, you know?” says Burns.

    Among Burns’ past visitors is Marty Stuart, one of Country Music’s secret weapons. He’s something of a genre Zelig. As an 11-year-old, he met hit singer Connie Smith at a concert he attended and told his mother he’d marry Smith someday (he did). Stuart hit his career stride at 13 playing virtuoso mandolin with bluegrass architect Lester Flatt; he joined Johnny Cash’s band (and married his daughter Cindy) in the Eighties, became a solo hit-maker in the Nineties, and an Americana standard-bearer in the 2000s. Stuart is also one of the world’s foremost country archivists; he owns Jimmie Rodgers’ guitar, Cash’s first black performance suit, a handwritten copy of Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light,” and the boots Patsy Cline was wearing when she died.

    Stuart was impressed by how Burns’ film engaged with country’s diversity issues. “Women have had to fight — and at this minute are having to fight — for their equal share in the world of country music,” he says, alluding to the gross underrepresentation of women on country radio. That fact is especially outrageous given how integral Maybelle Carter’s signature “scratch” guitar style, Sara Carter’s vocal approach, and the legacies of Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and others are to the music, as Country Music makes plain.

    The film also points out how many country greats had African American musical mentors, and how little-known their contributions are. Hank Williams learned from Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, Bill Monroe from Arnold Schultz, Johnny Cash from Gus Cannon. Lesley Riddle helped the Carter Family collect and learn songs; Rodgers learned to sing and play the blues from black musicians as a railroad water boy, and made one of his most famous recordings, “Blue Yodel No. 9 (Standin’ on the Corner),” with Louis Armstrong. The film doesn’t sidestep racism in the music’s history. DeFord Bailey, one of the Grand Ole Opry’s biggest stars, was fired for dubious cause. Johnny Cash, thanks in part to his progressive politics, was the target of a proposed boycott by the Ku Klux Klan, which circulated fake news stories that his Italian American wife, Vivian, was black. Prior to a Seventies CMA broadcast, Loretta Lynn was warned of the optics of getting too close to African American country legend Charley Pride when presenting him with an award (she made a point of both hugging and kissing him). Pride is one of the film’s most profound commentators.

    ‘It’s really important people know country music is a hybrid, a creolization that comes out of African and European cultures mixing,” says singer Rhiannon Giddens, an early-American-music scholar who drove that point home earlier this year on a concert program with Burns, Marsalis, Stuart, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. “Also, most importantly, it comes from working-class people mixing. That’s the thing that’s often forgotten, that where people made these interactions musically was in the fields, on the riverboats, or wherever — and that this music is our music, all of us together. It’s very dangerous to subscribe to it as ‘white music,’ or as this monolithic thing, because it’s not. And that’s the beauty of America, I think — all the positive stuff comes out of that aspect of the mix.” In a year when country’s biggest story is a queer black rapper from Georgia, these lessons couldn’t be more timely.

    Ultimately, the core power of Burns’ documentaries is their emotional potency, and Country Music is no different. Its single most stirring moment might be Vince Gill choking up during a rendition of “Go Rest High on That Mountain” at George Jones’ funeral. “It was hard to be the one to completely fall apart,” says Gill, looking back with a faint chuckle, “but it kind of gave -everybody the license to fall apart too.”

    There’s also the scene where Rosanne Cash, after a backstage disagreement with her dad, describes watching him walk away from her, as he’d done “so many times before,” most notably when he abandoned her and her mother. It’s heartbreaking, but she was willing to go there. “By that time, I trusted [Ken and his team],” Cash says. “And you know, what’s the point of not going there? Truth is powerful.”
    Dolly Parton with writer-producer Dayton Duncan and Burns.


    The series coda is a slide show of modern artists — Taylor Swift, Little Big Town, Sturgill Simpson, and others — but it effectively ends in the Nineties, Johnny Cash’s death notwithstanding. Those who want framing on the Dixie Chicks’ mid-2000s blacklisting, the gender politics of modern country radio, or the cultural ramifications of “Old Town Road” may be frustrated. But Burns, whose Jazz series was criticized mainly for its final episode’s reductive run-up to the present, demurs. “We’re in the history business,” he says. “This modern period, 20, 25 years out, is nothing I can touch. I don’t know who in our gallery of contemporary stars is going to be as durable as a Merle Haggard, or as important as a Johnny Cash or a Loretta Lynn.”

    Stuart is pragmatic about what Country Music might accomplish. “I don’t expect this to affect contemporary country music radio,” he says. But he does believe it “will bring awareness and understanding about where country music comes from, and how deep it goes. And I think for any culturally minded contemporary country singer or songwriter — a star or a would-be — it will help them understand what they’re really a part of.”

    “This is a history of an art form whose roots are dark and complex and part of our collective unconscious,” says Cash, “rooted in our migration and history and who we became as Americans. It’s all there in this story. All these songs that came from Scotland and England and Ireland into Appalachia, and the slave songs and work songs that came from Africa, the melding of that: That’s our history. And it’s important to know your history.”

  2. #2
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    I for one am looking forward to watching this series.
    People are quick to confuse and despise confidence as arrogance but that is common amongst those who have never accomplished anything in their lives and who have always played it safe not willing to risk failure.

  3. #3
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    Today was the first time I'd heard of it. That's why I posted...figured many would not have seen it. Looks in depth and interesting.

    American musical history has been yanking at my fringes lately...a friend got me into playing dulcimer last couple months so I could figure out what she was talking about with her struggles on the thing and help out. A really different take from guitar, but so "American" a sound and instrument. Roots deep in our mountains and the Scots/Irish...such a simple, even primitive instrument, yet so many of our traditional songs seem written for/on one. Anyway...having been exposed to all of this old stuff and the groundbreaking artists as a kid, I'm looking forward to it, too.
    Last edited by WalknTrot; 09-11-2019 at 03:44 PM.

  4. #4
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    Quote Originally Posted by WalknTrot View Post
    Today was the first time I'd heard of it. That's why I posted...figured many would not have seen it. Looks in depth and interesting.
    I watched a brief "ad" for lack of a better word on PBS on Sunday... yeah we're going to watch this one!
    People are quick to confuse and despise confidence as arrogance but that is common amongst those who have never accomplished anything in their lives and who have always played it safe not willing to risk failure.

  5. #5
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    contemporary country music

    just ain't country----should be called commercial music

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by Murt View Post
    contemporary country music

    just ain't country----should be called commercial music
    ...
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    People are quick to confuse and despise confidence as arrogance but that is common amongst those who have never accomplished anything in their lives and who have always played it safe not willing to risk failure.

  7. #7
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    Bumping this to remind people that episode 2 is tonight on PBS, 7:00 pm CDT.

    Last night's opener was really good. Covered The Carter Family and Jimmy Rogers extensively.

  8. #8
    Saw it last night. I'm not a fan of what today they call country music, but they covered early country music beautifully. If the first episode is any indicator this series might be a must watch.

  9. #9
    I didn't know about this thread so I made another post.

    But, if you want to watch it online, here's the link I'm using.

    https://www.pbs.org/video/ken-burns-...ode-1-the-rub/

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by Border Collie Dad View Post
    I didn't know about this thread so I made another post.

    But, if you want to watch it online, here's the link I'm using.

    https://www.pbs.org/video/ken-burns-...ode-1-the-rub/
    Thanks for the link!
    "Communism has never come to power in a country that was not disrupted by war or corruption, or both." - John F. Kennedy

  11. #11
    I've watch the better part of two of the series, last night was part 7.

    Impressive!
    I'm off to the coast..

  12. #12
    Quote Originally Posted by Murt View Post
    contemporary country music

    just ain't country----should be called commercial music

    The series shows the evolution. IIRC Last night was 1973-198?

    If you don't watch because the stuff now is not real country, your really missing out.
    The level of detail on the evolution of country is outstanding! If you have ANY interest
    In country you gotta find the right era that you appreciate the most, this is so comprehensive
    Everybody interested will be impressed.

    Lots of old photos and film clips. The flashed one photo when I was walking by the TV
    I stopped and looked, my lord that's Emmy Lou.

    More that once, I had a dry an eye.
    I'm off to the coast..

  13. #13
    I watch it all. Burns did a wonderful job and I enjoyed it very much especially on the Carter Family.

  14. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by packyderms_wife View Post
    I for one am looking forward to watching this series.
    Just finished watching the series.......................absolutely excellent!
    "Some men live by fate and accept things as they are; Some men live by determination and are willing to die for what they believe in! It is said that a wise man lives by neither. But a wise man is not wise unless he realizes that a choice must be made." Dennis C. Bruce

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    Watched the entire series, just excellent!!

  16. #16
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    Saw the first 2 episodes,fascinating.
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  17. #17
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    If you have AppleTV you can go to the “PBS Channel” and you can watch it that way as well. No commercials, like watching something on Netflix or similar.

    I’m watching episode 1 now.
    Find my free fiction stories here.

    "Isn’t it interesting that the same people who laugh at science fiction listen to weather forecasts and economists?” - Kelvin R. Throop III

  18. #18
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    Couldn't watch Vince Gill break down while singing at George Jones' funeral......."Go Rest High on that Mountain".......Patti Loveless trying to help him out.
    True North Strong and Free

  19. #19
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    Great series on Country Music....

    The wife and I are watching the series....

    One of the few series worth spending the time to watch....

    Texican....

  20. #20
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    It was a comprehensive overview till last episode. 15 minutes on Kathy Mattea (who is being heavily promoted for an upcoming tour of her own) and 10 seconds each on Alan Jackson and Tim McGraw? Very rushed, condensed 70-74, no Tanya Tucker, no Rita Coolidge. And not one mention of John Denver's impact, he recorded in Nashville too! Kitty Wells barely mentioned also, his focus was weighted heavier toward Patsy. A solid A- to B+ but it wouldn't be a Burns Doc without some quibbling.

  21. #21
    Probably couldn't cover them all. Maybe there will be another one

  22. #22
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    Very well done. Was so struck all through by thinking...I can't even remember when I learned those songs, but I know the words to every one. Something like "Long Black Veil"....haven't thought of that one in 30 years, yet, it's right there on tap.

    They weren't ever going to be able to profile everybody, but was impressed that they spent so much time on so many of the greats and not so great (names) who made a huge impact. Haha! Was reminded why they nearly lost me in the 60's until the outlaw movement started. That over-produced milktoast in the 60's was pretty awful. Also confirmed my opinion that the death of popular music was cemented by the death of autonomous AM radio.

    Puts into perspective how desperate times were for people, and why the turned to music..for a coping mechanism, and for a paycheck. So many were scarred for life...alcohol, drugs, emotional problems...and the toll that the road and pressure takes. I think for me, none of this registered until Elvis died, and we got a glimpse of what a hell their lives could be. For my Mom's generation, it was when Hank Williams died.

    I hope there is a cyclical return to roots. I frankly don't know how...but maybe they'll they surprise me.

  23. #23
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    I have really enjoyed the first 4, between hunting and kid having stuff to do it’s hard to watch as it appears, but I plan on catching up this weekend.
    agmfan3
    Madness does not always howl. Sometimes, it is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, "Hey, is there room in your head for one more?"

  24. #24
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    As mentioned on Burns twitter feed, 20 of the interviewees have since died when taping began in 2013. It was a race against time to get their first person testimonial anecdotes down. The first 5 episodes are all stand alone great histories. But you see indeed when the old Ryman was left to crumble in favor of the bigger palace coincided directly with the rise of strings and smooth pop Nashville Sound, heavy on studio production gloss favoring crooners over trad bluegrass banjo and fiddle was the falling away. Willie felt betrayed by Nashville and left for Texas not only launching the Outlaw movement but also creating Austin City Limits and hosting 30+ yrs of Farm Aid shows. What a legacy. I was there at last wknd, only 2nd time in Farm Aid history for a sold out show and they played to a packed hillside at Alpine Valley in steady downpour. People are craving Americana, a return to common sense and folk sounds. Rejection of this pop culture sewer of filth. I pray kids watching are inspired to take up the banjo and guitar. After decades of high brow UK Masterpiece Theater, PBS finally discovers Grand Ol Opry, what took you so long petroleum broadcasting service? Yeah its good, you will cry at the end of several episodes, deeply poignant personal sacrifices. It is another television landmark, rightfully so. Worth watching every episode.

  25. #25
    That's a good summary, homecanner1.

    My house must have been dusty at the end if episode 3, The Hillbilly Shakespeare.

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