I have been singing the praises of Ken Burns at least since 1990 and the arrival of his documentary, “The Civil War.” After almost three decades, I should probably be at least a little less dazzled by his films.
But after seeing his eight-part, 16-hour “Country Music” documentary series that premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on PBS, I am anything but. No one in non-fiction filmmaking combines visuals, music and scripted and spoken words the way Burns does in his films, But in his documentaries about music, like his 2001 production “Jazz” and now “Country Music,” the mix is even more potent, poetic and precise.
“We have our music while we begin editing,” Burns said about the musical process for all his films in an interview with The Sun this week. “Most people add music afterwards at the end. But we think it’s an essential thing. So, for us, instead of icing, it’s the fudge. It’s baked in. And all of the language of the editing room is musical: ‘Hold that another beat.’ ... My brother, in Telluride, said the other day, ‘When film dies and goes to heaven, it’s music.’”
But in the end with Burns, everything, even the music, serves history. His genius, rivaling that of any filmmaker in any genre, is to tell us something about ourselves and our collective past that is at once familiar and profound.
In 2019, a frighteningly ahistorical period in our national life, Burns, the populist historian, matters more than ever. With the Trump White House waging nothing less than a cultural war on truth, what a pleasure it is to sit down in front of the screen and put yourself in the hands of a storyteller who crafts his narratives of our national past out of verified facts and language as precise as a poet’s.
Being the OCD historian that he is, Burns begins his history of country music with a history of the fiddle and banjo, the two instruments most fundamental to the sprawling genre. The first documented fiddle contest in the U.S comes in 1736, 40 years before the Declaration of Independence, viewers are told. The banjo arrived even earlier, brought to America by slaves from Africa. If you don’t want to go deep, don’t go with Burns.
The first episode is titled “The Rub," and the banjo and fiddle are emblematic of the way the cultures of disparate groups rubbed up against each other on the shores of the New World and produced something uniquely American: E pluribus unum ― out the many, one ― a guiding Burns concept.
In this case, it’s European and African culture and instrumentation laying down the roots of country music. That’s another nice thing to be reminded of at time of virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions pouring forth from the White House on what seems like an hourly basis.
The film brilliantly tracks the rise of country music as mass entertainment with the introduction of radio in the 1920s. No documentary filmmaker delivers as much sociology with his or her history as Burns ― nor does anyone else do so in such eloquent language.
“Country music rose from the bottom up, from the songs Americans sang to themselves in farm fields and railroad yards to ease them through their labors ― and songs they sang to each other on porches and in the parlors of their homes when the day’s work was done.,” the actor Peter Coyote says in opening narration written by longtime Burns collaborator Dayton Duncan.
“It came from the fiddle tunes they danced to on Saturday nights to let off steam and from the hymns they chanted in church on Sunday morning,” he continues. “It filtered out of secluded hollers deep in the mountains and from smoky saloons on the edge of town. From the barrios along the Southern border and the wide open spaces of the western range. Most of all, it sprang from the needs of Americans, especially those who felt left out and looked down upon, to tell their stories. ... Country music, the songwriter Harlan Howard said, is three chords and the truth."
Those words are sounded over a visual backdrop of astonishingly evocative archival black and white photographs and a soundtrack of the seminal, melancholy-sweet, Carter Family song, "I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes.'
And then come the talking heads. The term itself has taken on a kind of snarky edge in our superficial, straining-to-be-ironic-and-derisive language of media criticism these days. But Burns and his team interview, edit and distill until it almost seems as if every word uttered by these talking heads across 16 hours mattered.
Burns uses musicians rather than academics or critics to talk about country music, and it’s a great choice. Some of the keenest and most engaging analysis comes from musicians Marty Stuart, Merle Haggard and Rosanne Cash who appear throughout.
Stuart is to “Country Music" what Wynton Marsalis was to “Jazz.” And, by the way, Marsalis is in “Country Music,” too, offering more of his profound understanding of what music ― all kinds of music ― means to the human condition.
“Everybody has an ethnic heritage of some sort,” Marsalis says in the film. “But we also have human heritage that is much more fundamentally ingrained. The things that are part of the human landscape of life that we all deal with: the joy of birth, the sorrow of death, a broken heart, jealousy, greed, envy, anger. All of these things, music — because it is the art of the invisible — it gets inside of all that. And it does not get inside any less for you than it does for me.”
At the end of the opening block of narration quoted above, a series of artists appear to offer their sense of what country music means.
“It’s about those things we believe in but we can’t see, like dreams and songs and souls,” Haggard says in facial close-up that shows all his years and then some. “They’re hanging around here. Different songwriters reach up and get 'em.”
Burns said that when he first saw Haggard in raw footage talking to the camera, he rejoiced, saying, “'It’s Zeus! He’s Zeus,' meaning lightning bolts are flowing down with all the love and gentleness, lightning bolts of truth."
It seems as if everybody young and old who is anybody in country music is talking or singing one-on-one to the camera in this film. The best moments come with musicians reciting and often marveling at the lyrics of other songwriters and singers, like the words written and sung by Hank Williams in “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” or Kris Kristofferson in “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
Burns drives his multi-part documentaries with biography, and the richly detailed biographies of Williams and Kristofferson are among the best.
Episode 3, titled “The Hillbilly Shakespeare," will make you believe the comparison of Williams to the bard is totally righteous. It will also leave you feeling the existential ache of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” in your soul.
Episode 6 ― “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”― is just about the most perfectly crafted two hours of non-fiction filmmaking that I can remember seeing. It includes biographies of Kristofferson and Johnny Cash as it explores the political and cultural upheaval of 1968 and ’69 against a backdrop of the Vietnam War, assassinations and riots. It further explores the idea of disparate cultures again rubbing up against each other ― often in a Nashville recording studio ― to create something that speaks profoundly to the American moment.
No biography is more essential and more lyrically told than that of Johnny Cash. Burns’ storytelling, hugely enriched by Rosanne Cash’s insights and recollections of her father, made me admire and care about Cash in ways I never would have thought possible.
Near the end of Episode 8, viewers are shown film of Rosanne Cash singing “I Still Miss Someone" at a memorial concert for her father at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. If your eyes are dry at the end of the song, you need to see a doctor, because there is definitely something wrong with your heart.
Burns hopes in these highly polarized times that some viewers won’t let stereotypical thinking keep them from opening themselves to the deeper truths and humanity of the music explored in his film.
“The whole essence of country music is the distillation of melody into the simplest, most effective vehicle combined with the distillation of language, which is called poetry. And it just goes right to your heart," Burns said.
“But we are protective beings, and we don’t like to deal with stuff,” he continued. “So, we make fun of country music, you know: ‘It’s just a redneck, southern, rural thing,' which is, of course, preposterous. It’s always been many things.”
At its core, Burns said, “Country music is dealing with two four-letter words that most of us avoid a direct examination of in our own selves and the lives of those closest to us: love and loss. As Wynton [Marsalis] says in the film, ‘the joy of birth, the sorrow of death, a broken heart, jealousy, greed, envy, anger.’ Country music gets inside all of that ― and all of us if we let it.”