Ken Burns has been involved in country music for the past eight years.
Burns and his team gathered more than 1,000 hours of film and conducted 101 interviews, with a total of 175 hours of footage.
Burns homework? Cure all that in a 16-hour documentary. “That’s the job, that’s what I get paid,” said Burns.
“Country music in his Big Bang was two different music,” says Burns. “The music of Jimmy Rogers, which is Saturday night, and the music of the Carter family, which is Sunday morning. That has been in tension in all American music and in American life, I would suggest, even the end”.
The series “Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns”
The eight-part documentary will be aired on PBS for the next two weeks, starting September 15.
Music is Nashville’s most prominent industry and is an important component of the city’s burgeoning tourism industry.
Burns spoke with the Business Journal about his ultimate goal in making his film and what he hopes people will learn about the sometimes overlooked aspects of the history of country music.
What made you want to do this project?
I’ve been working on it for 8.5 years, so I think any moment is a good time for country music. I’ve spent the last 45 years telling stories in the history of the United States, and country music is the history of the United States shooting at full throttle. It is a new way of understanding the complicated twentieth century, to do it from a music that is often defamed or at least isolated in its own category, apparently disconnected from all musical forms, which could not be further from the truth. It is the story of the African-American influence on American music. It is the story of strong women. It is the story of different geographical influences. It is the story of, most importantly, powerful emotions.
Harlan Howard once said that country music is “three strings and the truth.” What he meant is that it is not as complex or complicated as some classical forms, but that part of the truth means that it generates extraordinary emotions.
When you remember to start this project, what was your ultimate goal?
We just wanted to tell a good story. This is a kind of complex and Russian character novel. You will meet a couple of hundred people in the course of this. It is an incredible story of America. We wanted to tell a good story and ignite emotions. People make fun of country music: they say it’s trucks, good boys, hunting dogs and six packages of beer. There is a part of country music that is so. But it is mainly two four-letter words that most of us would prefer to ignore: love and loss. These are movies about love and loss.
What do you expect viewers to take away from this?
Just a good story. All the movies I’ve made in the last 45 years have been in the history of the United States, but I’m not interested in digging dry facts, dates and events that you have to memorize. The last time I checked that is homework, but there is no exam. This is an emotional archeology, so I want people to feel, be moved and understand the many roots. For example, the pantheon of the country’s first greats: A.P. Carter of The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, all had African-American mentors or influence. People do not know.
Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne was a mentor to Hank Williams, who could be said to be the best country singer / songwriter. He said: “Everything I learned about music, I learned from Rufus ‘Tee Tot’ Payne.” Bill Monroe had an African-American mentor named Arnold Shultz. A.P. Carter used to travel through Appalachia, collecting songs with a guy named Lesley Riddle, who was an African-American slide guitarist. When Johnny Cash arrived in Memphis for the first time in the 50s, he ran into Gus Cannon and learned to play the guitar and understand the blues. When people say it’s only white music, they forget about the enormous African-American influence. He also has very strong women from the beginning. The original American instrumental guitarist is Mother Maybelle Carter. Everything comes from her. There is a whole series of strong women.
Is there anything you learned about the commercial side of country music that caught your attention?
Business has always been an important part because we probably wouldn’t have it if there wasn’t a commercial side. There was a businessman named Ralph Peer who was recording what was called “race records,” that is, blues records and ethnic records. He went to Atlanta in 1923 with the intention of recording more African-American singers, but he ran out of things. Someone said that maybe there is a market for this old mountain country music.
He recorded a factory worker who had come from the hills of Georgia called John Carson, who at that time called himself John Carson of Fiddlin. It has always been a business proposal. Four years later, in the summer of 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee, he recorded The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, what is known as the “big bang” of country music. It has always been an American story where trade goes hand in hand with creativity.
If you had to choose one, is there any anecdote or story that stands out for you?
You can never get carried away by the story of Merle Haggard, whose parents fled the ravages of depression from the dust bowl to the Central Valley of California. His father died young and he was a troublemaker who ended up in San Quentin [State Prison]. After seeing Johnny Cash perform there, he decided to change his life and became one of the best singers / composers of all time. It is a phenomenal story. I guarantee that once this documentary comes out, Hollywood will try to make the biography of Merle Haggard. When we asked Emmylou Harris about what country music is, she simply said … put on any Merle Haggard record and you’ll understand everything you need to know about country music.