Ken Burns’s new documentary, Country Music, premieres on PBS on September 15. Over the course of eight episodes spanning more than sixteen hours, the film traces the long and complex development of the genre—from the early days of “hillbilly music” in the 1920s and 30s, through the development of the polished Nashville Sound of the 1960s, up to the emergence of the roots-oriented artists of the 1980s and 90s. A monumental project that took eight years to complete, Country Music is based on 175 hours of interviews with musical legends like Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson, and Merle Haggard, among many others.
Burns is an award-winning documentarian, known for his iconic films like The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, The Roosevelts, and Vietnam. He spoke with Cole Stangler for Commonweal about Country Music, the art of storytelling, American history, and the current political moment. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Cole Stangler: Thanks so much for taking the time to do this. I just finished the documentary over the weekend.
Ken Burns: Thanks. I appreciate you watching the whole thing.
CS: Of course! I couldn’t possibly interview you without watching the whole thing.
KB: You’d be surprised by how many people say: “Oh I watched a little bit of the first episode and then skipped to the end.” And it’s like, come on.
CS: No, it’s important to watch or read things before you interview people about them. To start then, how did you come across this topic? Why country music?
KB: Well, it’s been a topic in the intellectual sense of being on a couple of my lists from the nineties and beyond. But it hadn’t really dropped down into my heart. And I had a friend in late 2010 who said, “What about country music?” And the fireworks went off. I kind of got down on my knees and proposed Country Music then. Eight and a half years later, this is what we’ve got.
I think after we make a film, we sort of backfill it with a lot of intellectual stuff. But at the end of the day, I’m a storyteller. I happen to work in American history. I’ve got a lot of interest in telling complicated and intertwined and good stories in American history, and fortunately work with really talented people, particularly Dayton Duncan, the co-producer and writer of the series, and Julie Dunfrey. So this is a labor of love. And I think it’s a hugely important story to tell.
For us, I’ve always said, since my very first film forty years ago, that I was uninterested in excavating the dry dates and facts and events of the past, as if there was some quiz awaiting you. The last time I checked, that’s called homework. There is no quiz. But I am interested in an emotional archaeology. Not interested in sentimentality or nostalgia, but interested in an emotional archaeology. And I can’t think of a film I’ve worked on that has more powerful and more universal human emotions than this project.
CS: So obviously, you mentioned your films are dealing with American history, grappling with themes that are very American. By taking on a project like this, that implies there’s something important about country music's connection to American identity or to something about the United States. What’s behind it? You’re not just telling a story about the genre of music, this is revealing something else.
KB: First, I think we have to realize that commerce and convenience categorizes almost everything to its detriment so that we end up with kind of isolated or siloed sense of something. It’s always one dimensional and kind of superficial and what our deep dive documentaries permit us to do, I hope, is liberate these topics from the tyranny of that imprisonment and to remind people of the interconnectedness of all of the subjects we’ve tackled.
In fact, one other way might be to flip it on its head and say, “I make the same film over and over again, each one asking a deceptively simple question: ‘Who are we?’” And while you never answer the question, you deepen the exploration of it. You know people are fond of saying, “History repeats itself.” It does not. We say the lovely poetic phrase: “We’re condemned to repeat what we don’t remember.” It’s lovely and I understand the impulse for it, but it’s just not true.
Ecclesiastes said: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again.” There’s nothing new under the sun. Which seems to suggest that human nature is the same. And it superimposes itself—good and bad and everything in between—on the chaos of events. So we do perceive themes and motifs and echoes. Mark Twain is supposed to have said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” And whenever we finish a project, we’re always surprised by how much it rhymes. But the emphasis is, when we finish a project. Because we’re not interested in sort of putting up neon signs that say: “Hey, isn’t this so much like today?” Whether it’s the Vietnam War or Country Music or The Roosevelts or The Civil War or anything that we’ve done. But it always is about today because perhaps Ecclesiastes is absolutely right, there’s nothing new under the sun.