This past Thursday evening, hundreds of civically engaged residents from the D.C. metro area congregated in George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium to get a small taste of what promises to be one of this fall’s most comprehensive (and publicly funded) emotional journeys. No, we’re not talking about the Democratic Primary Debates. We’re talking about Country Music, the newest documentary film from Ken Burns and PBS, which, after eight long years of production, is finally set to premiere this Sunday, September 15.
Thursday’s special preview event, which followed a long summer spent by Burns and his team taking the Country Music bus on tour to 30 U.S. cities, was set up in part as a perk for members (including this reporter) of WETA, D.C.’s local PBS station. In addition to the promised screening of several choice clips from the full 16-hour film and a brief panel discussion, moderated by journalist (and country musician) Bob Schieffer, between Burns, producer Julie Dunfey and musician Kathy Mattea, the program was capped off with a surprise three-song set by Mattea and her longtime collaborator, guitarist Bill Cooley.
As one might expect, the audience’s loudest cheers and hollers came in support of WETA’s public broadcasting mission—most notably following Burns’ impassioned assertion that there isn’t a business model anywhere outside of PBS that could (or would) support the kind of long-lead, deep-dive documentary work his team takes on. But while WETA, PBS, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—not to mention anecdotes about a much younger Mattea having happened to be the guide for the first official tour taken by members of Congress at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame—all had this particular D.C. crowd hooting, it was ultimately the process behind bringing Country Music from the porch to the screen that we were all there to learn more about.
To that end, here the nine most interesting things we learned about Country Music (the film), country music (the art form), and the method behind Ken Burns’ documentary genius:
Ken Burns and WETA have been working together for more than thirty (30!) years. This may sound like more than enough time for 28 documentaries to make it to screen, but just consider the fact that Country Music alone—which was directed by Burns, written by Dayton Duncan, and produced by both in collaboration with Burns’ longtime creative partner at Florentine Films, Julie Dunfey—took more than eight years to produce. That it’s the team’s twenty-eighth project? Staggering.
All Ken Burns projects are epic, of course—where Country Music spent more than eight years in production, The Vietnam War spent ten—but the sheer amount of material Burns, Duncan and Dunfey had to work with for Country Music is still incredible. More than 175 hours of interviews with 101 interviewees. Over 1,000 hours of archival footage. More than 100,000 photographs. It was so much material, Duncan’s original script intentionally ran twice the length of the planned final cut. (“Dayton wants us to know everything that we’re cutting out,” Dunfey explained.) Getting from the first script to the final cut alone is a process that took two and a half years, the team sitting down every 6-8 weeks to rewatch new cuts of episodes to figure what to trim and what to finesse, the research never stopping along the way.
That’s Burns’ colorful way of saying that even with so many extraordinary American stories under his belt, he was still overwhelmed by the emotional intensity uncovered in the process of bringing Country Music to life.
“It was a surprise, from beginning to end,” he explained in his opening remarks. “I knew in my gut it would be a lot of good stories; I had no idea how profound and powerful those stories would be. More than anything else, country music deals with extraordinary emotion, and I thought that was something that I knew about. I’ve always considered myself an emotional archaeologist, not as interested in excavating dry dates and facts and events of the past as I am in coming to terms with the emotional archaeology that would bind all those dates together—not nostalgia or sentimentality, but something higher. But I just was not prepared for the level of emotion in this film. And it’s not just us. It’s the interweaving; it’s Dayton’s script; it’s the hard work of Julie and her team trying to find the images and find the songs; it’s the extraordinarily talented editors. But there’s something else at work, too. And I just go back to Merle—it’s about dreams, and songs, and souls.”
Less glibly, Burns thinks of his process as “exaggerated” or “animated” listening, which means going into every interview not only armed with a list of deeply researched questions, but also ready to be entirely, actively present.
“There’s that moment when interviewing somebody when the art of listening, which is a dying art, comes in,” he explains. “We don’t have any script. We know the contours of [the subject’s] life, we’ve done real research. So we’re asking questions, and you have to be prepared, if you’ve got 150 questions, that, say, on maybe question twenty-one, they’re going to twitch, something happens, which shows there’s a 21A, B, C, D…
I still get nervous before every interview, because it’s so important, and if it doesn’t work out, if something’s wrong, it’s never the subject’s fault. It’s always my fault. So the most important thing is listening, and being as present for them as they are for you. And one of the most amazing things is to have a loved one sitting there saying, ‘honey, you’ve never told us that,’ or ‘Pop, you’ve never said that,’ and then you realize you’ve been present at the birth of expressed memory. And that’s a really great gift that you have to cherish and honor.”
“One, it’s really fun to interview Dolly Parton,” Burns laughed. “I find her one of the most authentic and honest and funny and self-deprecating people… well, let’s now go back and realize, this woman has one of the most perfect voices ever given by God to a human being, she is one of the greatest singer-songwriters who deserves to be on anyone’s Mount Rushmore, and she’s a phenomenal business woman, and she still retains that stuff. So the interview is all those things. She’s singing stuff her granddaddy sang to her for us, she’s talking about what it’s like to sit in a holler in east Tennessee and have songs passed down like heirlooms. But she could also be brutally honest, and other times she’s a kind of genius of understand where we needed to go. She’s all those things.”
“And there’s this other phenomena,” Mattea jumped in to add, “which is, when you meet Dolly for the first time and you sit in a room with her, her appearance is so iconic, you almost can’t take it in. It’s like, she’s not supposed to be real And then she is!”
“We presumed, going in, that in addition to all of the historical advisors we had, that the film would be chockablock with historians and critics and the cognoscenti of country music,” Burns said. “We have one historian. That powerful tidal wave of emotion that we were not prepared to understand or come to terms with when we began this project was delivered to us whole by the musicians themselves, who have taken it upon themselves to know their own history. Unlike any other musical form I’ve ever come across, everyone was dedicated to understanding who their ancestors were, who their granddaddies and grandmamas were and who their parents were and who their cousins are. It’s a wonderful, wonderful family.”
“Until Garth came along,” Mattea said, expanding on Schieffer’s observation that country musicians are the nicest people in all of showbiz, “country musicians didn’t play stadiums, you know? You played at fairs, you played outside, you played wherever would have you. Because the whole genre started sitting around on someone’s porch, right? You couldn’t get the radio. It was how you passed the time, processed emotion, connected with each other. You would sing about it. So this tradition of connection started long before it ever got commercialized. I used to say, even way back at the beginning of my career, if I ever get too big for my britches, my fans would hold me accountable. But it’s also the fact that the stories are so close to the bone, and so much about real life, that people don’t want to come have a picture with me—they want to come tell me a story about their life. And that’s about a human connection, that’s what the music’s for. They’re watching us saying, that’s me. That’s ME.”
As time wound down, Schieffer asked the panel where they thought the genre was headed in the future.
“It’s so interesting, when you’ve been doing it for awhile, to see where it’s gone, even since I started in the 80s,” Mattea said. “I think there’s always this tension in country music, between the traditional, that goes all the way back to the mountains, and then the progressive push into the other influences that are going on in the world. So it’ll start to go really far over here and somebody starts rapping in country music songs and everybody goes nuts, and then somebody comes along and does a ballad that sounds like it’s straight from the holler. Over time, that’s what makes it interesting. It’s a wide net. There’s room for everybody.”
“The thing that you learn right off the bat,” he explained, “is that country music is not just one thing. Commerce and convenience have categorized and imprisoned it as one thing, but from its very beginning it was always a mixture of things, as is everything good in America—like an alloy, much stronger because of all of the diverse roots that go to make it up. When we get to a position in time where someone tells you that the extraction of one thing, the “pure” American thing is what’s needed, then you have weakened that alloy. You have made it brittle and fragile.”
“I have had the great privilege over the last 40 years of working in public broadcasting,” he continued, “of existing in a funny space between the two-letter, lower-case, plural pronoun us, and its capitalized version, the U.S. All of the intimacy of us, and all of the majesty and the breadth and the complexity and the contradiction and even the controversy of the United States. It’s been a magnificent space to live in. And even more than anything, working on Country Music over these last many years has reminded us that in regards to us, there is no them. There’s only us.”
The first four episodes of Country Music air nightly on WETA this Sunday, September 15, through Wednesday, September 18. The remaining four episodes will air nightly starting again next Sunday, September 22, through Wednesday, September 25. All eight parts will be available to PBS Passport members beginning Sunday, September 15.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She
can be found @AlexisKG.