Friday, February 1, 2019
– Director Ken Burns' "Country Music," a massive 16-hour documentary about the history of country, will air in mid-September on PBS, it was announced today.
The eight-part series, produced by Burns and his long-time collaborators Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey, premieres Sunday, Sept. 15 through Wednesday, Sept. 18, and Sunday, Sept. 22 through Wednesday, Sept. 25 at 8-10 p.m. eastern.
The documentary, written by Duncan, who also wrote the illustrated companion book (coming from Alfred A. Knopf on Sept. 10), chronicles the highs and lows of country music's early days, from southern Appalachia's songs of struggle, heartbreak and faith to the rollicking Western swing of Texas, California's honky-tonks and Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. The film follows the evolution of country music over the course of the 20th century as it eventually emerges to become "America's music."
The documentary explores questions, such as "What is country music?" and "Where did it come from?"-- while focusing on the biographies of the trailblazers who created and shaped it - from the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe and Bob Wills to Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Garth Brooks and many more - and the times in which they lived.
A national campaign exploring the history and music through screenings and discussions will take place in more than 30 markets across the country leading up to the film's premiere. Kicking off the promotional roadshow is a country bus tour along Tennessee Music Pathways with stops and events with local stations and other partners in Cookeville, Bristol, Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville, with a special concert at Ryman Auditorium that will be recorded for broadcast later this year.
Dierks Bentley, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Rhiannon Giddens, Vince Gill, Brenda Lee, Kathy Mattea, Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Asleep at the Wheel, Holly Williams and Dwight Yoakam will appear in concert.
"At the heart of every great country music song is a story," said Burns. "As the songwriter Harlan Howard said, 'It's three chords and the truth.' The common experiences and human emotions speak to each of us about love and loss, about hard times and the chance of redemption. As an art form, country music is also forever revisiting its history, sharing and updating old classics and celebrating its roots, which are, in many ways, foundational to our country itself."
"We discovered that country music isn't - and never was - one type of music; it actually is many styles," said Duncan. "It sprang from diverse roots, and it sprouted many branches. What unites them all is the way the music connects personal stories and elemental experiences with universal themes that every person can relate to. And as it evolved, from the bottom up, it created a special bond between the artists and fans that is unique among all other musical genres."
The documentary uncovers the roots of the music, including ballads, minstrel music, hymns and the blues, and its early years in the 1920s, when it was called "hillbilly music," and was recorded for the first time and played across the airwaves on radio station barn dances. It explores how Hollywood B movies instituted the fad of singing cowboys like Gene Autry and shows how the rise of juke joints after World War II changed the musical style by bringing electric and pedal steel guitars to the forefront.
The film includes the rise of bluegrass music with Bill Monroe and reveals how one of country music's offspring - rockabilly - evolved into rock and roll in Memphis. The documentary focuses on the constant tug of war between the desire to make country as mainstream as possible and the periodic reflexes to bring it back to its roots.
Burns and Duncan connect the history of country music to the larger story of America, looking at how artists and songwriting reflected periods of depression, war and cultural upheaval, and how radio and later television impacted the art form. The series also tells the story of how Nashville came to be not only the epicenter of the country music industry, but Music City USA.
The narrative ends in the mid-1990s as Brooks emerges from a small venue in Nashville to achieve phenomenal success, brings country music to an entirely new level of popularity, and yet shows up to sign autographs for more than 20 hours at the Country Music Association's Fan Fair.
Duncan, Burns and Dunfey spent eight years researching and producing the film, conducting interviews with more than 100 people, including 40 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame (17 of those interviewed have since passed on). Among them historian Bill Malone and a wide range of country artists such as Gill, Yoakam, Harris, Rosanne Cash, Merle Haggard, Marty Stuart, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Naomi and Wynonna Judd.
This fall, Sony Legacy Recordings will release a comprehensive suite of soundtrack music products timed to the broadcast.