One of the reasons there is such a grand disconnect between what certain people perceive country music to be is because we’ve lost touch with the history and lineage of a form of music where carrying forward the history and lineage is supposed to be what the music is about. Living in an era where acts like Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line are now five or six years old and Taylor Swift was the biggest thing in country music ten years ago, there’s 20-somethings who very well may have never heard a real country song, and think this contemporary style is what country music has always has been. Even more alarming, many of these individuals now populate popular media, and spread these same misconceptions to the masses.
But all of that might change in a big way this September when America’s most famous and revered documentarian, Ken Burns, tackles the subject of country music in an 8-episode, 16 1/2-hour film. The documentary starts in 1923 and cuts the story off in the mid 90’s when the commercialization and stretching of country music’s boundaries really got out of hand. Marty Stuart, who’s the documentary’s lead contributor and a staunch preservationist of country music’s history, says the new film is “like the cavalry coming.”
“The traditional end of country music sometimes gets overshadowed by the contemporary,” Marty Stuart says in a new interview about the film. “And to have 16-and-a-half hours’ worth of footage and interviews coming from the nation’s premier documentarian—it’s an awesome gift.”
The Ken Burns documentary could act like a huge reset button on the entire discussion of what country music is and should be, and at a time when it never could be more needed. Whether it’s Sam Hunt, Lil Nas X, or someone else making country music with little or no characteristics to country music at all, traditionalists, or simply those concerned country music has lost its way might as well be talking to a brick wall when trying to explain to a generation what country music is when they’ve never heard it. The new film could breed interest and intrigue into the true nature of country music, similar to how the O Brother Where Art Thou film lit a spark under bluegrass, and Johnny Cash’s American Recordings opened up a new window into his entire career.
And don’t assume that since this is a PBS documentary about an older subject it will only be viewed by blue hairs and established fans of country music. “We are always told that no one will watch long-form because everybody’s attention span was originally MTV,” Ken Burns says, who released his first documentary in 1982 when MTV was also launched. “Now it’s YouTube and kittens and balls of yarn. Everybody’s ‘OMG’ and ‘LOL.’ But, in fact, we carry the same big audience along, thing after thing.”
And a big audience it is. Ken Burns documentaries earn huge ratings, with an average of 32 million views in their initial runs according to Nielsen. The films then receive rebroadcasts on PBS periodically, and wide distribution on places such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. Episodes will also be available for free on the PBS website. The first episode of Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War film earned a rating of 6.0 in 2017, which is more than 300% greater than PBS’ average primetime rating. PBS is the sixth largest network in the United States, and is widely available compared to many cable stations, and will be presented commercial free.
The film will also be a big boom for major spots in country music, like Bakersfield, CA, and Texas where the film’s focus leans in a special 2 hour and 15-minute episode, not to mention Nashville. “This is a huge deal for Tennessee,” says Brian Wagner, assistant commissioner of marketing for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. “The film will redefine what people think of as country music. From a marketing standpoint, this is the most credible, third-party validation of your brand and your culture.”
Some may think a film on country music may not be interesting or deep enough compared to other subjects given the Ken Burns treatment, but that’s not how he sees it. “A lot of people have segregated and imprisoned country music in a very narrow band,” he says. “American history is much more than just the sequence of presidential administrations punctuated by wars. We are in this film reminding people that maybe an accent can’t travel very far, but the greatness of the music can.”
The film will include footage from 56 separate interviews with artists and historians, including interviews with 40 Country Music Hall of Famers, and a few artists who have passed away since film production was commenced. Along with Marty Stuart—who producer Dayton Duncan calls the “Human avatar thread in our tapestry”—some of the principal commentators include Willie Nelson, Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, and Ray Benson. The film will also utilize ample archive footage, including clips from the iconic film “Heartworn Highways,” footage from country music variety shows, and other cataloged material.
Over 500 songs are featured throughout the film, from small snippets to full performances. The film starts all the way back in 1923 with Fiddlin’ John Carson who began performing at an Atlanta radio station and became a star, and goes to roughly 1996 with the death of Bill Monroe, and the revitalization of Johnny Cash’s career via his work with Rick Rubin and his American Recordings projects. The film is not to be considered a dry encyclopedia of country music. Instead, Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan saw themselves as storytellers, following country music’s history via artists, songs, and moments that went on to shape the music. Peter Coyote—who has narrated multiple Ken Burns films—returns to work on the country music project.
The documentary will premier on PBS September 15th.