Ken Burns on His New Doc and the Long, Complicated History of Country Music

Dolly Parton, writer Dayton Duncan, and Ken Burns
Dolly Parton, writer Dayton Duncan, and Ken BurnsCourtesy of PBS

Ken Burns goes long. Since releasing his first major documentary, in 1981, the 66-year-old filmmaker has become renowned for his sprawling, multipart epics about big, all-American subjects—baseball, jazz, the Vietnam War. His latest, Country Music (debuting on September 15 on PBS), is no exception, tracing the rise of the genre from hillbilly music in the 1920s to Garth Brooks’ arena-filling peak seven decades later. Men’s Journal caught up with Burns by phone from his home in New Hampshire.

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Are you a longtime country-music fan?

I grew up on R&B and rock & roll. But in the late ’60s, I worked at a record store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I started listening to a lot of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson. Still, whenever my team and I start making a film, you always think you know something about the subject. But as you dive in, you realize you know nothing. That was certainly the case with this film. I thought The Vietnam War [2017] was the most complicated thing I’d ever done. But Country Music is a Russian novel, with dozens of characters and lots of literal and metaphorical families.

Johnny Cash in California, 1960
Johnny Cash in California, 1960 Courtesy of PBS/Sony Music Archives

What was something you didn’t know?

I was unaware of the level of poverty Dolly Parton, for one, had to escape. Her father paid the doctor who delivered her with a sack of cornmeal in lieu of cash. She was the first real breadwinner in her family. I count it as one of the great privileges of my career that I got to interview her. I also found it interesting that Garth Brooks once signed autographs for more than 20 hours at a festival. In country music, the fans’ and musicians’ relationship is unlike that in any other genre.

The film includes a section on Charley Pride. Two other country singers of color, Kane Brown and Jimmy Allen, had big hits this year, but they’re among the few since Pride’s ’70s heyday to do so. Why is that?

Many of the issues in country music are issues in the country at large. America has a race problem, period. The film makes the point, though, that country music and the blues aren’t as segregated as they might seem. DeFord Bailey, an African-American harmonica player, was among the first [Grand Ole] Opry members, and Hank Williams and Johnny Cash each had an African-American mentor. On the flip side, when Ray Charles got creative control of his music, he cut a country record first. I have a neon sign in my editing room that says, “It’s complicated,” and with country music, there was certainly a lot of complexity to explore.

Loretta Lynn, 1965
Loretta Lynn, 1965 Courtesy of PBS/Les Leverett

The film resembles your past work. Do you ever feel an urge to experiment?

I can point you to a room of Cézanne paintings, and you’ll go, “Wow, they all look similar!” You’ll never say, “Cézanne, do you worry about this?” There’s no formula for making a film; what you’re referring to is style, and mine works because it’s authentic to me. I long ago gave up being different for different’s sake.

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Do you ever think about your legacy when making a film?

Never. It’s just about telling a good story, to free people from their assumptions about a subject. For instance, the lyrics to “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” by Hank Williams, might seem simple on the surface, yet it’s also one of the most complex songs in the history of recorded music. If you don’t come away from the film believing that, I can’t help you.

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