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Ken Burns Returns With 'Country Music'

Portrait: Ken Burns
Courtesy of Justin Altman
Documentarian Ken Burns. 'Country Music' debuts Sunday on WKAR-TV

Legendary documentary filmmaker Ken Burns is back with another PBS series. Country Music debuts Sunday night on WKAR-TV.

The statistics for the new Ken Burns film are staggering. This eight year project has produced sixteen hours of television, culled from hundreds of hours of interviews with more than 100 people. Burns explains that Country Music begins in the early 1920s, "when an entrepreneur named Ralph Peer, who had been recording what was called race records, meaning blues, meaning Bessie Smith and others, and ethnic records like Romanian and French and Japanese and Chinese records for consumption in American audiences, wondered if there might be a market for what was called then ‘old time hill country’ music, what would later be called hillbilly music, and later country and western, and of course, just country. Our eighth episode ends in the mid ‘90s, really, with the height of Garth Brooks success and the death of Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music.”

Along the way, Burns says Michigan will get some attention in Country Music, including a Charley Pride concert in the Detroit area Burns describes as "18,000 people, all white, who are stunned when he walks out. Their applause turns to murmuring silence. Then, he starts singing, and it doesn’t really matter what color skin he has.”

The film includes Detroit City by Bobby Bare. It's the story of a young man who moved to Detroit for work but longs to return to his home in the south.

Country Music also explores the many people influenced by country music, including the Beatles and their love for artists like Hank Williams, Marty Robbins and Gene Autry.

Ray Charles famously turned to country music the first time he had creative control over an album. The result: Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music, and the #1 hit of the summer of 1962 was his I Can’t Stop Loving You.

Musical influences can, of course, go in any direction. Again, Ken Burns, whose prior exploration of music was his 2001 film Jazz, says “Chet Atkins’ style is more influenced by Django Reinhardt than it is by country guitar players. Willie Nelson’s phrasing is like nobody else in country music, it’s more of a jazz phrasing. So what we have is a music which commerce and convenience has categorized into one thing. It’s always been a ‘many’ thing and is interconnected with every other form of American music: the blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, pop, folk, rock…and even classical music.”

People who don’t typically like country music sometimes begrudgingly say they admire some of the stars. Johnny Cash’s name comes up a lot, and he’s prominent in this film. Ken Burns says those are the kinds of people he had in mind when making this documentary. He concludes that "those people who say ‘well, I don’t really know country music’ have watched it…we brought into the editing room and later have screened it for…and they go ‘I didn’t realize how much I already knew’. And those folks who said ‘oh, I don’t like country music’ were a puddle of tears at the end, and have spent the last couple of years apologizing to me, and I’ve said ‘no apology, I’m that way too’. It took me entirely by surprise.”

The new Ken Burns film Country Music debuts Sunday, September 15th at 8 p.m. on WKAR-TV.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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