Director Ken Burns has told the story of America through the lens of the U.S. Civil War, baseball, jazz and the war in Vietnam. Now, he's telling it again through the soundtrack and the struggle of country music.
Country Music, the new documentary film from Burns, airs Sept. 15 on PBS and has more than 16 hours of music history — from Jimmie Rodgers and the Dust Bowl to Dolly Parton, Nashville, Memphis and the heart of America. "This is a music in which you can hear the lyrics and it is about emotions and experiences and stories," Burns says.
Within the documentary, Burns wants to home in on the heart of what makes the genre special.
"I don't know why we denigrate country music," he says. "We superficially label it, you know, pickup trucks and good ol' boys and hound dogs and six packs of beer, when it is in fact dealing with the fundamental questions of the human project which is love and loss."
The film includes interviews with Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Charley Pride as well as surprises like Paul Simon, Elvis Costello and, as Burns also suspects, one of the last interviews with the late Merle Haggard, who died in 2016.
"We were so lucky," Burns says. "I think he was willing to share in some of the most intimate and poignant ways what it was like to be in San Quentin, what it was like to have a mama who still cared. ... And so, you begin to see that this is the music of working people — of poor working people — struggling to even have any kind of purchase towards an American promise."
Burns knows the ethos of country music still resonates, even as American workers are more likely to be at a keyboard or smartphone these days than working the land.
"Art is about friction and art is about loss," Burns says. "I do wonder in a modern age in which convenience will [win] out, whether we will be able to create the right conditions to express the kinds of things that Jimmie Rodgers and Maybelle Carter and Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and Dolly and Kris Kristofferson have been able to express. I think they will because human nature doesn't change and I think country is as vibrant as certainly this series that we've just made tries to chronicle."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Ken Burns, who's told the story of America through the U.S. Civil War, baseball, jazz and the war in Vietnam, now tells it with country music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “RING OF FIRE”)
JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) I fell into a burnin' ring of fire.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOLENE")
DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN")
CARTER FAMILY: (Singing) Can the circle be unbroken? Bye and bye, Lord, bye and bye.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: More than 16 hours on PBS stations beginning tomorrow night. Music, history, moving pictures and more - from Jimmie Rodgers, the Dust Bowl and Dolly to Nashville, Memphis, the Opry and the heart of America. Ken Burns joins us from New York. Ken, thanks so much for being with us.
KEN BURNS: My pleasure, Scott. Thanks for having me.
SIMON: Country music, three chords and the truth.
BURNS: Very much so. I think this is Harlan Howard, the songwriter, saying this. He's acknowledging that this is not complex, intricate music the way classical or some forms of jazz is. But that second part, that predicate, the truth is really what it's about. This is a music in which you can hear the lyrics. And it is about emotions and experiences and stories.
And so I don't know why we denigrate country music. We superficially label it, you know, pickup trucks and good ole boys and hound dogs and six packs of beer when it is, in fact, dealing with the fundamental questions of the human project, which is love and loss.
SIMON: One of the artists most responsible for the rise of country music as a national music in the United States, Ray Charles (laughter).
BURNS: Yeah, so just think about this. It's 1962. Ray Charles, one of the greatest singers in all of American history, is given creative control of an album for the very first time. He surprises his own folks by recording an album called "Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY, GOOD LOOKIN’")
RAY CHARLES: (Singing) Say, hey, good lookin', whatcha got cookin'? How's about cookin' somethin' up with me?
BURNS: He's got a Hank Williams song, "Hey, Good Lookin'" one of the greatest, wonderful new love songs that you could have.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY, GOOD LOOKIN'")
HANK WILLIAMS: (Singing) Say hey, good lookin', whatcha got cookin'? How's about cookin' something up with me?
BURNS: We talk about appropriation. Well, you know, Johnny Cash had an African American mentor, so did Bill Monroe, so did Townes Van Zandt. But it goes the other way. African Americans are listening to country music. They're steeped in it.
SIMON: And country music's all intertwined with every other kind of music...
BURNS: Every other. You know, I don't know why we have, you know, made it this separate thing as if it's an island nation in which you need a visa and a passport. The big bang of the beginning of country music is supposed to be in 1927, when the Carter Family were recorded and a few days later Jimmie Rodgers were recorded. But the Carters and Jimmie Rodgers are a mixture of things, including African American influences.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "T.B. BLUES")
JIMMIE RODGERS: (Singing) Lord, my gal's trying to make a fool out of me, trying to make me believe I ain't got that old TB...
BURNS: The interrelationship of all of this suggests that the strength in America, in any form, certainly in its art and in its musical forms is an alloy in which it's made up of many constituent parts. And to suggest that being American is to isolate one thing is to actually damage and weaken that alloy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "T.B. BLUES")
RODGERS: (Singing) I've got the TB blues...
SIMON: You know, it is show business. Chet Atkins was asked, what's the sound of Nashville?
SIMON: Tell us his answer.
BURNS: Yeah, he jingled the change in his pocket.
BURNS: In the '50s when rock 'n' roll was taking over and country music was just dying on the vine, people were trying anything. And to have some pop crossover success would mean survival. And so they were replacing the fiddles with violins instead of the brother harmonies and the nasal harmonies that had characterized the string bands and other country ensembles. A lot of the traditionalists were up in arms. And we take a much more ecumenical view. Let's remember that the No. 1 jukebox hit of all time, which is Patsy Cline's "Crazy" came out of that Nashville sound...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZY")
PATSY CLINE: (Singing) Crazy. I'm crazy for feeling so lonely. I'm crazy, crazy for feeling so blue.
BURNS: There's a constant battle going on between commerce and creativity. And there's a whole episode of our film in which a lot of people are choosing to be artists and not go into it. The great good news is that more than half of the people you meet in our film happen to have it both ways.
SIMON: I feel it just fits somehow to go out with the man who was called the hillbilly Shakespeare.
SIMON: And, you know, I - that also flatters Shakespeare.
BURNS: It should. And when Hank Williams says, I'm so lonesome I can cry, there's no one on the planet that doesn't understand what he means.
SIMON: Stephen Sondheim included. I don't think there's a bitter lyric to a song.
SIMON: Let's just...
SIMON: Let's just listen to what I'll call the (unintelligible) stanza here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I’M SO LONESOME I COULD CRY")
CASH: (Singing) I've never seen a night so long when time goes crawling by. The moon just went behind a cloud to hide its face and cry.
SIMON: Oh, my.
BURNS: Oh, my God. The silence of a falling star lights up a purple sky. And as I wonder where you are, I'm so lonesome I could cry.
SIMON: Ken, what do you see as the future of country music when so many American workers are likely to be active at a keyboard or smartphone?
BURNS: I don't know, Scott. I think that's really the key. You know, a lot of the discussions we have about country now, whether it's Lil Nas X and - that is to say a black, gay rapper having the No. 1 country song and whether you should be on a chart or not on a chart or the exclusion of women from country radio misses the point. They're just the constant common binary arguments we like to get in.
But the question you ask is the more fundamental one, what happens when we are not directly related day to day to the struggle for survival? What does the act of pain and loss in our daily lives give us in terms of the opportunity to create the kind of poetry? But art is about friction, and art is about loss.
And I do wonder in a modern age in which convenience will out, whether we will be able to create the right conditions to express the kinds of things that Jimmie Rodgers and Maybelle Carter, Dolly and Kris Kristofferson have been able to express. I think they will because human nature doesn't change, and I think country is as vibrant as certainly the series that we've just made tries to chronicle.
SIMON: Ken Burns' series "Country Music" begins tomorrow night on PBS stations across the country.
Ken, thanks so much for being with us.
BURNS: It's my pleasure, Scott. Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD TOWN ROAD")
LIL NAS X: (Singing) Yeah, I'm going to take my horse to the old town road. I'm going to ride till I can't no more. I'm going to take my horse to the old town road. I'm gonna ride till I can't no more. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.