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Ken Burns on his country music love story


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Judy Woodruff: The latest documentary on PBS from Ken Burns starts this Sunday, and will likely get your foot tapping.

"Country Music" is an eight-part series, featuring never-before-seen footage and photos.

Amna Nawaz sat down with Burns, who has now had more than 30 films on PBS telling the stories of America.

The conversation is part of our ongoing series on arts and culture, Canvas.

Amna Nawaz: Songwriter Harlan Howard famously called country music three chords and the truth. Merle Haggard said it wasn't fiddle, banjo, melody or lyrics, but a feeling.

In a new 16-and-a-half-hour documentary, Ken Burns and writer Dayton Duncan trace the roots of a uniquely American music that has defied definition.

Narrator: 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 the porches and in the parlors of their homes.

Amna Nawaz: Over eight years and more than 100 interviews, Burns and Duncan chronicle nearly a century of country music, all the way back to its Big Bang moment Bristol, Tennessee.

There, in 1927, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers first sang into rudimentary recording equipment. It was the opening shot of what would become a multibillion-dollar industry, including everything, from so-called hillbilly music, to bluegrass, honky-tonk songs, outlaw jams, and the neotraditional, hard-rocking, and pop country sounds of today.

It's the music that changed with the nation, caught in a constant tug of war between tradition and progress. This latest work by Burns comes after deep dives into topics like the Civil War, the Vietnam War, prohibition, and baseball.

And Ken Burns joins me here now.

Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

Ken Burns: Thank you for having me.

Amna Nawaz: So, you have described yourself as a child of rock and roll and R&B. What led you to dig into country music this way?

Ken Burns: Good stories. Good stories.

I mean, that's what we're looking for. And I don't necessarily want to delve into stuff I think I know about, like R&B and rock 'n' roll. I want to delve into stuff I don't know about.

But I knew in my gut this -- eight-and-a-half years ago that this was going to be filled with unbelievable stories. I just wasn't prepared for how unbelievable those stories were going to be and how revealing they were of us, meaning both the U.S., the upper case, and us the lower case, the kind of sense of who we are together.

Amna Nawaz: You have said that one of your goals in telling these stories was to get beyond the cliches.

What are some of those cliches you were looking to...

Ken Burns: Well, I think the sort of idea that country music is just one thing. It's always been many things.

Even at its very beginning, the Big Bang, there's the Carter Family, and Jimmie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers is the Saturday night. The Carter Family is the Sunday morning. But even each of them are many different elements, just like the United States, that go up to make them. They're all alloys of African-American influences, as well as gospel and all sorts of things. So that was a big surprise.

We also tend to say, oh, you know, it's about good old boys and pickup trucks and six-packs of beer and hound dogs. There's nothing wrong with that. And that is a legitimate part of country music.

But it's mostly about two four-letter words that most of us would rather not talk about, love and loss.

Amna Nawaz: We have all know, I think, that obviously the roots of a lot of American music, the uniquely American music, are as wide as the country itself.

Did it surprise you the degree to how wide they are when it comes just to country?

Ken Burns: Exactly.

And it abuts jazz. It abuts blues and rhythm and blues. In fact, with rhythm and blues, it's the parent of rock 'n' roll. African-American artists are listening to country, as we know. And country people are listening to rhythm and blues.

And so you have this sense of mixture where commerce and convenience might categorize it into its own separate narrow bandwidth, imprisoning it. And it's actually not true. And people in country know it's not true. And the artists outside of country know it's not true.

Bob Dylan went to Nashville. The Rolling Stones, the Beatles played country songs. They were singular -- that music was singular influences on all of those people.

And yet somehow we want to segregate it and make it a Southern, white, rural, conservative force. And it may have those elements in it, but what matters is, it is popular from Maine to San Diego and from Alaska to Miami.

And there's no explaining that with cliches.

Amna Nawaz: And that popularity you track so beautifully over a century of music, it's now a multibillion-dollar industry. It's given us some of the biggest pop stars too of our American history.

One of those is Patsy Cline. One of those songs that everyone knows is "Crazy." There is this one moment in the series in which Trisha Yearwood is unpacking the power of that one song.

Here's a clip from that series now.

Trisha Yearwood: When you hear her saying, it sounds to me like she's in the room right here. And you feel the emotion in every -- every lyric.

If you can find that perfect song, and then you marry it with that -- with the voice it's supposed to go with, it's timeless.

Amna Nawaz: This is one of those ideas you come back to again and again. The simplicity of country music is its power.

Ken Burns: That's exactly right.

If you are distilling these universal human experiences, as Wynton Marsalis, the jazz great, says in this film on country music, the joy of birth and the sadness of death, a broken heart, anger, jealousy, rage, getting right with God, seeking redemption, all of the stuff that everybody within the sound of my voice has experienced at one point or another in their lives, then you have got a powerful force.

Now, that song, that perfect song, was written by Willie Nelson. And it's married with this voice that's entirely different from Willie Nelson. And what comes together is a kind of atomic explosion. That is the number one jukebox tune of all time.

More nickels were put into a jukebox to listen to "Crazy" at lunch counters and in honky-tonks and bars and saloons across the country and the world than any other song.

Amna Nawaz: And it's just magic when she sings it.

I do want to ask you about this, though, because despite the roots of the music, as you mentioned, coming from a lot of black music tradition and gospel songs, the songs of enslaved people singing as they worked, black musicians aren't always included in the success of country music's story, until Charley Pride, really, whose story you also tell in this series.

I just want to play a quick clip of a story he tells in the series...

Ken Burns: Yes.

Amna Nawaz: ... about one of the first shows in which he walks out on stage before an all-white audience, and they don't know that they're about to see a black country music singer.

Here's how he tells that story.

Charley Pride: You could drop a pin.

I said: "Ladies and gentlemen, I realize it's kind of unique me coming out here on a country music show wearing this permanent tan."


Charley Pride: The minute I said that, a big applause.

So I guess they said, well, now sit back, see what he's got to offer.

Amna Nawaz: How does a man like Charley Pride make it in country music?

Ken Burns: Because he's so good. His talent is so good.

And at the end of the day, that's what people hear. It's what Dr. King said. You finally -- at the end of the day, when he opened his mouth there in Detroit and started to sing, it was the content of his character, the quality of his art, and not the color of his skin.

And he goes on to have 29 number one country hits. He's the first artist of any color to be the CMA artist of the year two years in a row. It's an amazing story.

And when you realize it's us, then there's no them. And I think that's the message of country music. I think it's the message of R&B, of jazz, of rock, of pop, of all these things, of art itself. Art tells the tale of us coming together.

Amna Nawaz: There's also the challenge you document in here that women often faced in the industry. It was largely seen as a boys clubs.

Some might argue it is arguably still today...

Ken Burns: Still today, yes.

Amna Nawaz: ... much of a boys club. But there are these incredible artists who come from this industry, a Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline, as we mentioned.

Loretta Lynn tells this great story about how she was understanding that women, a growing part of the audience, were receiving her music at the time.

I just want to take a quick listen to how she describes what women were doing.

Loretta Lynn: They just knew that I was going to the same thing too. They just bought the record and see their husband coming later on and turned it up.


Loretta Lynn: They would what they did.

Amna Nawaz: Loretta Lynn was singing about some pretty radical stuff for her time.

Ken Burns: So, here's the deal.

One of the surprising things about this series is, women are central to this story in a way they aren't in jazz or other forms, which are fraternities. And country music is not immune to the indignities that women have to suffer everywhere.

But what's so interesting is, the original instrumentalist, the original guitar player is Mother Maybelle Carter. She's singing with Sara Carter. And you have got a whole line of women.

When you get through Patsy to Loretta, we're in the mid-'60s. Nobody in rock 'n' roll is singing, "Don't come home a drinking with loving on your mind."

Think about what we're talking about, spousal abuse, spousal rape, a woman's right to her own body, even in marriage, women's rights in general.

Now, this is the same year that the National Organization for Women is founded, the same year that women's liberation enters the lexicon.

Loretta is not copping to a philosophy, but she's speaking to women everywhere, who know exactly what she's talking about.

For me, all of these things, race or creativity or commerce or women, are all trumped by how powerful this music is. I did not expect to be so moved. As someone who felt I was in love with other kinds of music, I have fallen in love with this music. It has moved me to my core.

I mean, when Hank Williams says, "I'm so lonesome, I could cry," there's nobody that doesn't know what he's talking about. "The silence of a falling star lights up a purple sky, and as I wonder where you are, I'm so lonesome, I could cry."

Amna Nawaz: The words and the songs and the stories of country music will stay with all of us.

Ken Burns, thank you so much for being here today.

Ken Burns: Oh, thank you.

Judy Woodruff: And the documentary series starts on PBS on Sunday night.

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