Johnny Cash at his home in California, 1960. Credit: Sony Music Archives

Television

Ken Burns and Co. Dive Into Country Music, from Texas to Tennessee

We chat with the writer and producers of Country Music ahead of its premiere on Sunday.

This weekend brings the premiere of Country Music, an eight-night, 16-hour docuseries from Ken Burns tracing the history of the beloved, wholly American art form. The film required years of research and hundreds of interviews to paint a thorough picture; still, it just scratches the surface of a deceivingly complex and wide-ranging subject. 

“Too many people have a very precise notion of what country music is, and what we learned is that country music is not one style of music, it came from and is a mixture of many roots and styles and then it sprouted many branches which are their own,” says Dayton Duncan, writer and lead producer of Country Music and longtime collaborator with Burns. The filmmakers were in Dallas recently for a discussion hosted at SMU.

“Usually, what unites them is that notion that it’s seldom melodically complex. Harlan Howard, the great songwriter once said, ‘It’s three chords and the truth.’ When you first hear that, people will chuckle, but when you think about it, three chords–it’s not real complicated–and the truth. And that’s where the complications are.” 

The filmmakers kept returning to a difficult question throughout the process: What qualifies as country music? As they dove deeper into the genre’s history, the lines only blurred. 

“We tried not to draw perimeters. I think the whole point is, as we discovered the stories going along, one of the points we tried to make, over and over, a lot of these barriers, these boundaries, these perimeters, are artificial,” says the film’s co-producer Julie Dunfey. 

It’s a question that’s caused heated arguments amongst musical purists for decades. Duncan thinks those people are missing the point. 

“When you really get down to it, the music and the musicians were aiming for something else. They were aiming for an art that brings us together, because they understand that the music and its mixture brought all of this together. A heartbreak song is not meant only for a black person or a white person, or a rich person or a poor person, or a woman or a man, regardless of the pronouns they might put in there,” he says. 

The series begins in the 1920s and moves chronologically through the evolution of country music and its offshoots up through the 1990s, ending with the rise of Garth Brooks. Rather than relying on historians or scholars to tell the story, the film includes interviews from 101 subjects, mostly iconic musicians. Twenty of those subjects have since passed away. And 175 hours of unused interview footage from the project is being given to the Country Music Hall of Fame. 

Yet, despite the series’ breadth, there’s only so much culture you can distill from a century to eight two-hour episodes. You might not come out a boot-scootin’ expert, but you’ll get a solid primer on the genre. Country Music premieres on PBS on Sunday, September 15. 

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