“Country Music” Ken Burns’ masterpiece a deep dive into the American spirit
America’s storyteller Ken Burns tells the great American story with “Country Music,” starting Sept. 15, and hosts “Country Music: Live at the Ryman,” Sept. 8 on PBS
America’s storyteller, Ken Burns continues to explore fascinating subjects in his films for PBS. Over the decades, Burns and his colleagues at Florentine Films have created a treasure trove of documentaries that capture the heart of America. Burns’ latest project Country Music is an eight-part documentary that starts Sunday, September 15 and does a deep dive into the American spirit that created the music in all of its forms.
Prior to that, Country Music: Live at the Ryman, A Concert Celebrating the Film By Ken Burns airs on PBS Sunday, Sept. 8, at 8 p.m. Burns hosts the show and a parade of great musicians who give performances of songs that transcend the genre and have become legendary. This concert soars with emotions.
Burns’ Country Music film is also packed with emotions. The beloved filmmaker said he directed Country Music with the same motivation that he had for his first PBS film, Brooklyn Bridge in 1981. “I did not want to excavate dry dates and facts, I was interested in an emotional archeology that’s an opportunity to understand who we are.”
In the middle of a 30-town tour to promote Country Music this summer, Burns appeared for the PBS presentations at the Television Critics Association press tour. Also on the interview panel were his longtime collaborators, writer/producer Dayton Duncan and producer Julie Dunfey, plus Rosanne Cash, Marty Stuart, and Dwight Yoakam, who are among the singers/songwriters featured in the show with compelling stories to tell.
Like so many of Ken’s landmark series, Country Music is a collection of stories, firsthand accounts from extraordinary artists who contributed to this uniquely American art form. This film reminds us to bless the storytellers, because they tell us about us. Whether you’re a filmmaker or a singer/songwriter, it’s the storytelling that goes straight to the heart.
So this reporter had to ask Rosanne, Marty, and Dwight to talk about the most personal songs they sing and why it’s so emotional for them. All gave a response that makes you want to add them to your record/CD collection.
Rosanne Cash revealed, “My parents [Johnny Cash, Vivian Liberto, and stepmother June Carter Cash] died within two years of each other, and I made an album (“Black Cadillac”) that was a concept album about loss and mourning. It was cathartic, and I didn’t think depressing. After the album came out, people who had just buried someone would come up to me, and it was a profound connection. Hospice nurses told me, ‘I’ve given that record to the families of the people I’m treating.’ That’s deeply meaningful to me and humbling.”
Rosanne added, “It is healing for people to recognize their own stories in something in art, and that’s the function. We are in the premier service industry of the heart and soul. That’s what artists do.”
For Marty Stuart the song about the Folsom Prison gallows “Hangman” is the most emotional because his mentor Johnny Cash helped him write it four days before the country legend passed. Stuart said, “I’ve tried to sing it a couple of times in concert, and I can’t get through it, so I just have to let it go and listen to the recording of it.”
Dwight Yoakam said, “It was never a hit, but ‘Miner’s Prayer,’ I wrote it for my grandfather, a coal miner for over 40 years, which was a miracle in and of itself. It begins in a personal experience, but it transcends to our common experiences.”
Burns explained the communal nature of the music saying, “I think we cloak country music in one aspect of it—pickup trucks, good old boys and six-packs of beer, because it’s really hard to acknowledge that it deals with two fourletter words that are very difficult to talk about, love and loss. You share feelings.”
At the end of the interviews, Burns’ Country Music team rolled out a cake with a guitar to help Ken celebrate his 66th birthday on July 29, followed by a reception with live country music in the Beverly Hilton’s Wilshire Garden hosted by PBS. Burns smiled, “What happens when you participate in country music, you join a family.”