Ken Burns is a goddamn American treasure. For more than three decades, the award-winning documentarian has dutifully chronicled the people and pastimes of our nation, from the seemingly ordinary, like baseball and national parks, to such heavy subjects as his groundbreaking 1990 series on the Civil War. Burns and producer Julie Dunfey recently sat down with the Mercury to talk about their latest project, Country Music, an eight-part, 16-hour series on the quintessential American art form. The filmmakers explained why they chose this subject, what they’d learned, and even weighed in on “Old Town Road,” which Burns called “a perfect country song.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MERCURY: First of all, why country music? What was it about this story that you felt needed to be told?
KEN BURNS: This is a music of which a lot of people have a superficial idea. Country music is almost dismissed because of these tropes that are part of a very small subset of it—pickup trucks and good ol’ boys and hound dogs and six-packs of beer. But the story we tell is from the beginning of recorded country music in the 1920s to around 2000. And in between is this incredible march through a music that’s never been one thing, that’s embraced lots of other music, and doesn’t have a separate border with the blues or jazz or rhythm-and-blues or rock.
In your 2001 miniseries Jazz and in this series, jazz and country are described as uniquely American art forms. One was created by and is associated predominately with African Americans, while the other is associated with whites. While working on these series, what similarities did you find between these two?
BURNS: They’re both born in the American South, and they come from the same tensions, good and bad. And both are suffused with the blues, which is that roux in the gumbo of jazz, and an important part of the early works of a lot of the great country singers who had African American mentors. If you listen to Willie Nelson, his phrasing is closer to jazz than it is to country. If you listen to the way Chet Atkins phrases [his guitar playing], he’s closer to Django Reinhardt than he is to any other country guitarist. That’s an important thing to understand—that everybody’s borrowing from everybody else, everybody’s listening to everybody else. The musicians themselves don’t see themselves as one thing or another.
Even though this series clocks at 16 hours, you still must’ve had to leave a lot on the cutting-room floor. How do you decide what to leave out?
JULIE DUNFEY: Dayton Duncan, who’s a writer on this series, comforts himself—and we comfort ourselves—with a story Loretta Lynn told us when we interviewed her. When she wrote “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” it was four verses longer than the song we all know, and her producer said, “It’s too long, cut four verses.” And she said, “It’s my life story, I’m not going to cut four verses.” We’re all pretty sure that those four verses were wonderful, but we’re also sure that “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” as we know it, is a classic, and an incredible country song. Guy Clark said, “You have to be willing to let go of the best line of a song if it doesn’t serve the song, so keep an eraser handy.”
Why has this music endured for as long as it has? Why does it resonate so deeply with us?
BURNS: The songs are about basic, elemental, universal human truths—about the joy of life, the sadness of death, falling in love, trying to stay in love, falling out of love, missing somebody, seeking redemption. Everybody goes through one or more of those things in their lifetime. Country music artists understand that by writing these songs, they have tapped into something universal. What country music singers are so incredibly good at is looking their fans in the eye as equals.
Art—which transcends the limitations and borders that we impose—tells the tale of us coming together. The first time that Merle Haggard makes an appearance [in Country Music], he says, “It’s about things that we believe in, but can’t see, like songs and dreams and souls. And we just reach up and bring them down.” Vince Gill says, “I don’t know whether I write the song or the song writes me, and all I’ve ever wanted is to be moved.” And I think that’s it. As filmmakers, as artists, all we want to do is be moved and move others. Country music does that completely.
Country Music premieres Sun Sept 15 on Oregon Public Broadcasting.