Ken Burns Country Music Documentary Sets PBS Premiere
As first reported on Saving Country Music in September of 2018, the long-awaited Ken Burns documentary covering country music will debut on PBS in September of 2019. Now further details have been revealed for the film, including a solid premier date of September 15th, while a special concert to be held at the Ryman Auditorium has also been announced.
Encompassing over 16 hours of coverage over eight separate episodes, 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. Some of the principal commentators include Marty Stuart—who producer Dayton Duncan calls the “Human avatar thread in our tapestry”—as well as Willie Nelson, Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, and Ray Benson. The film will also utilize ample archive footage, including from the iconic film “Heartworn Highways,” footage from country music variety shows, and other archive 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. In between, the story of country music is told, but the film is not to be considered an 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.
“In country music we found a love for storytelling that translates everyday experiences into universal truths that we can all identify with,” says Ken Burns. “We’re very excited to share this film with the country, in towns large and small, from one coast to the other. But we are most excited to share it in those areas that gave birth to this most American of art forms.”
There is an episode specific to Texas music (Episode 7), which is the only episode that stretched over 2 hours, clocking in at 2 hours and 16 minutes. Peter Coyote—who has narrated multiple Ken Burns films—returns to work on the country music project.
On March 27th, a special concert will be held at the Ryman Auditorium featuring Dwight Yoakam, 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, and Holly Williams. The concert will also be filmed to be broadcast on PBS at a later date. “Bringing our film to Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of Country Music, and a character itself in our film, is a dream for us,” says Ken Burns.
PBS is planning for the Country Music documentary to be the network’s premier event for their fall season.
February 5, 2019 @ 9:47 am
Haven’t been this excited to see something on TV since my Mets were in the World Series.
February 5, 2019 @ 9:49 am
I also can’t wait for Marty Stuart’s museum to open in Philadelphia, MS. Hopefully, I guess the year after next?
February 5, 2019 @ 10:27 am
This is 15+ years too late. If it had been done in the 90’s or early 2000’s, we’d get contemporary interviews from Waylon, Merle, Jones, Reed, Monroe, Stanley plus guys that actually played/toured with Hank, Lefty, etc. I’ll probably watch it, but if its anything like Baseball or “Civil” War, it will be a bunch of court history.
February 5, 2019 @ 10:41 am
I agree, I can’t believe Burns thinks he can come so late to the game and still think he’s giving us anything relevant. But why stop there? Maybe he should have done it in 1978 so he could interview Maybelle Carter. Or 1933 so he could have interviewed Jimmie Rodgers.
February 5, 2019 @ 10:47 am
Well, obviously one could continue to walk it back to the point of wanting to interview Jimmie Rodgers on the couch he died on. My point is that if this had been done in the mid 90’s, you’d have actually been able to talk to Don Helms and Jerry Rivers. There were actual living connections to the beginnings. Maybe there still are a few guys in their 90’s who were around then.
February 5, 2019 @ 12:16 pm
And my point is that I’m just thankful that a respected filmmaker has chosen to undertake a project of this scope at any point in history.
Sure, they could have made it before 2008 and interviewed Don Helms, or before 1996 to interview Minnie Pearl, or before 1984 to interview Ernest Tubb, and so on, and so on. But they didn’t, and trying to decide what the best point to make the documentary would have been in terms of interviewing the most pioneers possible first-hand versus capturing the latest moment necessary to tell the who story is as futile as Walter White trying to decide what the best point in time for him to die would have been in Breaking Bad.
February 5, 2019 @ 11:23 am
Yes, you could have done this earlier in almost any era, and still feel like you’re missing out on something. One thing that’s important to note though is they’ve been making this documentary for a very long time. I first heard murmurings about it in 2011, and in 2012 they were already interviewing people, including Don Maddox of the Maddox Brothers and Rose, which takes you back to the very beginning of country. George Jones and Elvis opened for them when they were coming up.
From everything I’ve seen about this film, including an hour-long presentation on it last year, I remain very optimistic. It could be a dud. We’ll just have to see. I thought Burns’ work on the Civil War was one of the greatest American documentaries of all time. His recent Vietnam one was well done too. I agree the baseball documentary was pretty mild as have some of this other films been. But I think for this one he got the right people around him that brought the right passion, knowledge, and insight it needs to be done right. If nothing else, Marty Stuart will make sure it doesn’t suck.
February 5, 2019 @ 1:11 pm
Jeez Louise people…. you think 16 hours of completed film just grows on a tree out in the back yard? To complaint of being too late – you got no idea how long this series has lived in concept or treatment stage while media / rights / budget were gathered up prior to production. Ponder what it takes to clear rights to 500 songs. To complaint of Mr. Burns work – let’s see if we can get Simon Cowell to do a version. I’m really looking forward to this series…. do your best not to ruin it for me. Thanks.
February 7, 2019 @ 2:02 pm
Another important thing to keep in mind is that the country music community has always been one of storytellers. I don’t know that there’s anything Ken Burns could ask Hank Thompson or Gene Autry that hadn’t already been asked by other interviewers before those gentlemen died.
Everyone who took part in the Civil War died long before he made that documentary, it seems to have turned out alright.
John T Booker
February 5, 2019 @ 11:18 am
Hopefully this documentary will include a large amount of non-white singers, musicians, etc who the New York owned record labels chose to NOT promote. Huge numbers of white country music fans as far back as Jimmy Rogers time enjoyed the talents of these under promoted and unsigned talents. Sadly this will be stated as a white consumer prejudice and not the social engineering of New York controlled record labels.
February 6, 2019 @ 12:12 am
Right. It was the “New York owned record labels” that enforced segregation and Jim Crow in the South. In fact, if not for the “social engineering of New York controlled record labels,” not only the Grand Ole Opry, but also Ole Miss, the Sally League, Augusta National Golf Club would have been fully integrated back in 1947. And half of Bull Connor’s deputies would have been black.
John T Booker
February 6, 2019 @ 3:47 am
All those laws were instituted by Democrats from New York to L.A. .
My hope for Country music historical accuracy in this documentary remains as stated.
February 6, 2019 @ 8:38 am
Right. Southern segregation was implemented by Democrats from New York to L.A. And all those lynchings in the South were committed by activists from New York City. And the crowds of people standing around laughing an having a good time in those b&w photographs were all tourists from L.A.
I would tell you to cut out the garbage, start being honest living in the real world, but that would mean to stop lying to yourself. It seems to me you’re incapable of that.
February 5, 2019 @ 11:24 am
Really excited for this.
Heck, I’d watch it just to hear Marty talk!
February 5, 2019 @ 12:30 pm
I’m curious if this doc brings about a big resurgence of interest in vintage country much like O’ Brother Where Art Thou got everyone into bluegrass and string band music.
Looking forward to it. Burns is methodical and detail oriented.
February 5, 2019 @ 12:40 pm
Is there anything worse than people who tell you that they love country and bluegrass, but their entire depth of knowledge is Man of Constant Sorrow and Johnny Cash, because they have seen two movies? I’m not a fan of Queen, but I imagine that the same thing will now happen with them.
February 5, 2019 @ 1:00 pm
Yeah, I still get that from folks. Cash is their only old country reference. Possibly Garth. Mention Lefty Frizzell or Tubb and it’s crickets. Most folks still cant name a single bluegrass artist either. But, Burns did a decent job on Blues and on Jazz so I’m thinking it will educate more non-listeners to be curious.
February 8, 2019 @ 6:17 pm
I’m 44 and my best friend is 43. He told me he’d been listening to a lot of bluegrass lately. I said, “Oh really?” He then sent me a video of some granola-munching hipsters playing bluegrass instruments and yelling expletives in political rebellion. There was no high lonesome sound in anyone’s voice. I said, “Don’t you have any Bill Monroe, Flat & Scruggs, or Ralph Stanley?” His response: “Who are they?”
February 8, 2019 @ 6:33 pm
Dadgummit. I just saw that I left a “t” off of “Flatt”.
February 5, 2019 @ 2:10 pm
@RD, funny you mention Queen. My 20-something barber, previously almost exclusively a hip-hop listener, just told me he’s getting into Queen now, because he saw the recent movie. I mean, as much as we’re tempted to call these kinds of folks “posers” ’cause they saw a movie, is it really so bad? If a movie can inspire people to expand their musical horizons, that’s a good thing. Maybe this Ken Burns series will do the same.
It’s also my experience that many people namedrop O Brother and Cash (sometimes Merle or Hank) frequently when talking about bluegrass or country, but it’s only obnoxious when they’re trying to speak from authority, talking about “real country” or “outlaw” etc. STFU.
February 7, 2019 @ 2:24 pm
Even on this page, whose followers I believe are more sophisticated than the general population when it comes to the subject of the legends of the genre, it seems like the same half-dozen or so legendary names are dropped over and over again when someone is talking about how much he likes “real” country.
That being said, if for every 100 viewers who do no more than skim the cream off the top of this program there are one or two who take it upon themselves to dig a little deeper and maybe become true believers I think it’s worthwhile.
February 5, 2019 @ 3:35 pm
I definitely think this film could spark a resurgence of interest in classic country. Instead of using “O Brother Where Art Thou” as a model, a better one might be how the Civil War documentary spiked interest in books, films, increased visits to battlefields and memorials, etc. I’m hoping for the same fate for country music, and it could go a long way in helping to define what country music is for a generation. Marty Stuart may get a big boost specifically.
February 5, 2019 @ 5:25 pm
Even if not, someone who’s only reference to bluegrass is “Man of Constant Sorrow” is a lot better than someone who thinks Mumford & Sons are.
February 5, 2019 @ 7:38 pm
Some country radio stations actually played “Ashokan Farewell” (“The Civil War”‘s iconic theme song by Jay Ungar) as a current when it wasn’t even pushed as a single. That’s how big the impact of that documentary was.
If it stops at 1996, I wonder if we’ll be subject to bitching from the Kane Brown and FGL fangirls when there’s no mention of their heroes in the documentary. Then again, I’m not sure most of them know how to find PBS on their TVs.
February 8, 2019 @ 6:02 pm
This is the time to buy those one dollar vintage LP’s at Goodwill. I’ve already got my copy of The Cold Hard Facts of Life.
February 5, 2019 @ 12:48 pm
For those interested in reading more about the documentary, the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison wrote last May about Bill Malone’s participation:
As many of you know, Malone is the author of “Country Music USA,” a major source for the documentary. Malone, who lives in Madison and hosts a weekly radio show here, says he will appear in all eight episodes.
February 10, 2019 @ 12:14 am
Bill’s show “Back to the Country” on WORT/Madison every Wednesday is really good, though the audio quality of his voice and collaborators is often uneven. No biggie. The playlist is always killer. You can download MP3s of his shows from here, just look for the files with “bttc” in them:
February 5, 2019 @ 12:59 pm
With the current state of commercial Country Music what more could you ask for?
February 5, 2019 @ 2:32 pm
Not sure if this question has been answered sorry if it has. For those of us not living in the USA is there any indication it would be available for download or even better DVD?
February 5, 2019 @ 2:56 pm
Typically, Ken Burns documentaries are available for purchase on DVD shortly after they air on TV
February 7, 2019 @ 2:25 pm
I’m sure it will be available on DVD, and most PBS series can be streamed from the website after they air live.
February 5, 2019 @ 3:23 pm
I ho hope this comes better than the jazz series. My main beef with the jazz series was it’s lack of female representation (especially female instrumentalists and composers). I think with country music is will be MUCH harder to ignore women in country music because they have been so integral to the genre right out of the gate front and center with people like Cindy Walker, Rose Lee Maphis, Wilma Lee Cooper etc. but still… people today know those names less than know names like June Carter or Hank Williams and most people hardly know those names!
But I’m crossing my fingers.
Side note: I just learned my grandfather who I knew to be a star accordion player in the days of vaudeville ad radio, actually started out in a group called The Mavericks playing cowboy music in the 1920s, which he was quoted as saying, “…is some of the most honest and well written stories in all of music”. I knew there was a reason I loved country music so much.
February 6, 2019 @ 2:20 pm
I suppose Ken Burns could have included more female jazz musicians, but really?
Jazz music was historically overwhelmingly male. Burns covered it as it was. I suppose if he had more hours of programming, he probably would have fit in more women.
But does every program have to employ quotas and “affirmative action” to pass muster? Even a pretty strong, well-credentialed liberal like Burns is now suspect, for failing to be sufficiently p.c.?
February 7, 2019 @ 10:57 am
Well specifically my main beef was he did not cover Lil’ Armstrong, Louis wife who composed and arranged many of his songs. And no mention of Blanche Calloway a big band composer who was the one got her brother Cab to start his own band. Or Alice Coltrane a respected composer pianist and harpist. Just little things like that.
And yes it was overwhelmingly male (certainly in terms of instrumentalists, which would have been a good thing to discuss as to why that was IMO.
I guess I came off more jaded than I actually am but as a music fan the way women often get slighted in the history does bug me a little sometimes. For example RS leaving Shron Isbin off a list of 100 greatest guitarists. But I get they want to sell magazines not cover the bases as such. Anyway, best not for me to get worked up or I’ll be on a tangent all day. LOL!
February 8, 2019 @ 5:59 pm
If Country Music is like Jazz, it’ll probably focus on major stars who exemplify a larger trend, because the intended audience will be people who don’t know much about country music. Probably no Lily May Ledford or Cindy Walker, but lots of Loretta Lynn; Dolly Parton rather than Norma Jean. A bit of Kitty Wells. Maybe a segment about female performers.
February 5, 2019 @ 4:53 pm
I’m so excited about this I could just spit! Why do we have to wait until Fall???
February 6, 2019 @ 5:31 am
thank God it will stop at 96
February 6, 2019 @ 9:40 am
Marty Stuart is in the first rank. I hope the Burns film makes him as household a name as the Civil War film did for Shelby Foote. And if a new “Ashokan Farewell”-level tune comes out of the new film, all the better. We should hope for the best, but I agree with those who say the Burns style can get tedious and schoolmarmy. I hope Marty parties it up.
February 7, 2019 @ 2:29 pm
Well, in this case I would hope that the tune that emerged would be an actual historic country recording rather than a contemporary piece that just sounds like it’s old. But good is good, I guess.
February 6, 2019 @ 7:54 pm
Will we see the real musicians? Will we see the songwriter`s?
They are the real stars of the show!!
February 8, 2019 @ 1:48 pm
Maybe I missed it but I see no mention of the greatest of them all Jerry Lee Lewis when he sings Country. I cannot believe he is not in the Country Music Hall of Fame. When he sings Country, he could make a dry rock cry. Get him in before he passes for goodness sake. How could one do a documentary without the “Killer”. Please….
February 8, 2019 @ 5:29 pm
But of course you would also include Moon Mullican, whom Lewis frequently credited as a major influence. It’ll be interesting to see how Burns incorporates or ignores rockabilly.
December 6, 2022 @ 4:03 am
It is amazing that this documentary, which started out real well with Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, etc., did not include either Moon Mullican or Jerry Lee Lewis, who are 2 of the greatest and the most important singer pianists in country music. There has been too much repeat parts about some singers and other important ones like the above 2 along with Marty Robbins and several more are left out.
February 8, 2019 @ 9:43 pm
I assume Burns started his career by dealing with projects that combined his interests and projects that could be funded. Then he’s worked his way through stories about America based on his interests. Getting to Country at this point likely suggests that the topic wasn’t his top choice, but the topic helps flesh out his larger exploration of America. I’m glad he’s doing it because I can’t see any other way that a multi-part well-made documentary is going to be made about Country. Plus, using the Baseball film as an example, he focused a lot on the early history of baseball and very little on (what was then) contemporary baseball. There’s not another documentary filmmaker that can pull the type of funding to make a multi-part film about country (maybe Scorsese but he seems more interested in rock). I’m not a big fan of his style but I think he’ll cover the historical content via archival footage and having a narrator read archival documents.
February 9, 2019 @ 10:44 am
If anyone wants to come to Bristol, TN – birthplace of country music, Burns is doing a premiere event and screening of this at the Paramount on Sunday, March 24.
The new Birthplace of Country Music Museum is incredible as well.
February 10, 2019 @ 11:06 am
I can not wait for this to be released. If this heavily features Marty and Dwight I will be more than pleased, they are both walking encyclopedias of the genre and know so much about the history. Ken Burns is fairly unmatched in what he does and I would say the best of the “docu-series” film.
September 8, 2019 @ 8:15 pm
Does Hank Jr. make the cut??
September 8, 2019 @ 9:04 pm
Not sure if they interview him, but he’s definitely covered in the film.
September 23, 2019 @ 9:18 pm
Can someone name the people that play the introduction music, Rock Me Like a Wagon Wheel?