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October 04, 2019

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

The newest Ken Burns opus, Country Music, explores the duality of a very American genre — from the rockin’ sounds of the roadhouse to the righteous tones of church and home.

Will Friedwald
  • Bristol, Tennessee, circa 1927

    Courtesy of Bristol Historical Association
  • The original Carter Family, circa 1930: A.P., Sara and Maybelle (with guitar)

    Courtesy of Carter Family Museum
  • Bill Monroe (center) performs at the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville, circa 1958.

    Courtesy of Les Leverett Collection
  • Johnny Cash at home in California, 1960

    Courtesy of Sony Music Archives

In the summer of 1927, in a warehouse in rural Bristol, Tennessee, Ralph Peer — a talent scout and producer for the Victor Talking Machine company — recorded performances by 19 musical acts.

Two went on to be superstars — Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. Together, these acts embodied the essential dichotomy of country music, an art form explored by no less than documentarian Ken Burns in a new limited series aired on PBS starting September 15.

In the first of eight episodes, Burns focused on the groundbreaking recordings, known as the Bristol Sessions, that Peer oversaw in the town now considered the birthplace of country music.

"Jimmie Rodgers represented the rambling side of country music, the desire to hit the road, leave responsibilities behind, go out and experience the world," country music historian Bill C. Malone observes in the series. "The Carter Family, on the other hand, embodied the sanctity of the home and of the family — particularly 'Mother' [Maybelle Carter], who kept the home together.

"And those have been two important impulses in country music ever since — they're sort of reverse sides of the same coin," Malone says. "They're from two different polarities, and yet this is 'the Big Bang of country music.'" This duality — and others — have recurred time and again in country music's nearly hundred-year history.

Ray Benson, leader of the contemporary western swing band Asleep at the Wheel, draws a similar comparison between two of country's main artists of the 1930s. In the series, he recounts that Roy Acuff once told him, "'The difference between me and Bob Wills was that I played schoolhouses, churches, camp meetings — and Bob played dances.' It was a cultural difference."

The two poles are as basic as sin and salvation, God and the devil, and, as the filmmakers say, "Saturday night and Sunday morning."

Burns, the director and a producer of the series, says that a friend in Dallas, bearing the cowboyesque name of Cappy Mcgarr, gave him the idea. "Country music is a quintessentially American topic, and that's all that we do. We pick stories about American history. Actually, as I got into this, I was surprised that I didn't do it earlier."

Dayton Duncan, who wrote the series and also produced with Burns and Julie Dunfey, recalls, "Cappy asked Ken, 'Have you ever thought about doing a series on country music?' And Ken said, 'Well, I did one on jazz.' Cappy said, 'I know you did one on jazz. That's why I'm asking. How about country music, too?'

"Ken called me up and said, 'What do you think about this suggestion?' I said, 'It's a great suggestion, as long as I'm the one that gets to write and coproduce it.' So that started us down that road about 10 years ago."

Duncan, who had written The West (1996) and The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009) for Burns, was a natural choice.

"My relationship with country music would make a good country song," he says. "I grew up in a little town in Iowa. The first time I ever performed musically in public, I was eight years old, singing a Marty Robbins song. That was in 1957. I was a little bit more of a folky, I suppose, when I was in high school and college. But I listened to country music."

Having made 31 projects for PBS, Burns has been nominated for 15 Emmys and won five.

"We work on 10-year plans," he explains, "and that means we vaguely describe that we will be delivering a lot of different ideas and a lot of different films. We propose several films and other films to be named later. When we decided a few years into this 10-year plan that we wanted to do Country Music, we wrote a treatment and submitted it to PBS's chief programming executive, who was Beth Hoppe at the time."

The network, he says, was enthusiastic: "There were no concerns whatsoever. We always do projects about American history, and their response was terrific."

External events affected the timing, however. "Originally we envisioned the film would be broadcast in 2018, but because of the expansion of the Vietnam series to 10 episodes, it delayed the release," Burns recalls. "We decided that we didn't want to release The Vietnam War in 2016 during an election year, so we released it in 2017, which meant just moving things along between the two big projects."

Big, indeed. And though not inherently political, Country Music is, in its own way, controversial, as Burns explains: "One of the reasons we're so excited about [the series] is that people have some pretty superficial conventional wisdom about country music. The series just explodes [these notions], and you quickly see how many different types of music are in country music.

"It is impossible to define it as just one thing — it crosses the borders and intersects with all other music forms, including jazz, R&B, the blues, folk, rock — so there's this classically American melting pot that takes place as you watch the series."

In the case of Brenda Lee, who had 47 U.S. chart hits in the 1960s, the breadth of the genre is seen in a single career. "They categorized me as a rockabilly," she says, "then all of a sudden I was rock, then I was pop, then all of a sudden I became country. When a singer is absolutely passionate about what she does, I don't think you should pigeonhole it. Because if you ask us, it's music. That's all it is."

For his part, Willie Nelson declares: "It's music, you know. You can't say it's this, that or the other — it's not a Democrat or a Republican."

Burns adds, "What you find in art — and in this case, in music — is that our strength is in our diversity, and not in going to our tribal positions. The only thing that comes out of tribal thinking is disagreement and division." The series makes clear that, as diverse as country music is, all of it — from Gene Autry to Billy Ray Cyrus — "can exist under the umbrella of country music," as Marty Stuart says.

But that breadth and history contributed to "a significantly huge licensing rights problem," relates Burns, who with Duncan and Dunfey spent eight years researching and producing the series. "We looked at over 100,000 images, we did 101 interviews — more than 175 hours of interviews — and almost 1,000 hours of extraordinary footage and 564 music cues. That is a lot of work, but it is what we do.

"The much more important thing is how to tell the story — how to interweave dozens and dozens of threads together into a very complex story spanning a century of American life. This, of course, involves the writing and the editing, bringing them all together in the edit room, which is where these films are made."

Of the 101 talking heads in Country Music, Bill C. Malone is the only fulltime historian, Dunfey says; his formidable 1968 book Country Music USA remains the definitive history of the art form. The other 100 interviewees are stars, past and present, including 40 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame — 20 of whom are no longer with us.

Particularly insightful quotes come from Stuart and Lee, as well as Dwight Yoakam, Kathy Mattea, Vince Gill and Rosanne Cash, who describes Sara Carter's singing as "like wailing at the grave… it just sort of pierces you, so plain-spoken and so without any kind of embellishment, just telling the truth, one note at a time."

The episodes covering the 1970s and '80s focus on those headliners who eschewed the "commercial" Nashville sound in favor of a more authentic, rootsy approach. There's Emmylou Harris, who recorded whole albums of classic country songs, and Reba McEntire, who insisted on the spare sound of a whining guitar and solo fiddle instead of a pop-style string section.

According to Ketch Secor, front man and cofounder of the contemporary roots band Old Crow Medicine Show, "In all things country music, we see a response: how far are they going to take country music? Well, it'll come back around again. It's always reminding itself who it is, and the old ghosts are always rising up and refusing to be cast aside."

Country Music focuses on the socially progressive as well as the musically authentic. Challenging the stereotype that country is the exclusive province of white men in cowboy boots, Burns and his crew illuminate the essential role African Americans have played in this art form.

"As you're passing through the film, you can begin to count," Burns says. "A. P. Carter of the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash, just to name five great founders. You might put them on an early Mount Rushmore of country music, right? Well, all of them had an African-American tutor who helped to make them worthy of that Mount Rushmore.

"So what you begin to see is that our own narrow categorizing is just that: narrow and arbitrary categorizing. And what we have to do is see country music as part of a continuum of American music that is completely related to jazz, to R&B and to the blues, and it is one of the parents of rock and roll."

(To that end, trumpeter and bandleader Wynton Marsalis, one of the principal voices in Burns's 2001 series, Jazz, also appears in Country Music.)

The series features touching and convincing portrayals of DeFord Bailey, the first black star of the Grand Ole Opry, and of Charley Pride, still country music's only African-American superstar. It also focuses on Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn, who sang about women's concerns well before the term feminism was in common use.

The eight episodes cover roughly eight decades, from the 1920s to the '90s. Each era has its great men and women who take center stage. For example, the account of Merle Haggard watching Johnny Cash's famous 1959 concert at San Quentin — from the audience, as a prisoner — is especially moving.

So is the tale of Dolly Parton writing "I Will Always Love You" in 1974 as a way of telling Porter Wagoner, her mentor and employer (on TV's syndicated The Porter Wagoner Show), that she was ready to move on.

While making the series, Burns says, "We did regular progress reports, and we would always invite PBS to significant screenings of rough cuts and fine cuts. We consider it all one piece, so we don't work on one episode, finish it and go to the next.

"We treat it as one big film, so we would have marathons — several-day screenings in New Hampshire [where his production company, Florentine Films, is based] — and PBS would come and look at it, along with consultants, historians and advisors.

"When the last episodes were going online, we had a screening in Manhattan, and PBS was there. They already knew it was going to be a good series and had confidence that we would do the postproduction work the way we always have."

Like a mighty river, a topic this broad sometimes overflows its banks or, in this case, programming slots. "When PBS first saw it, they were more interested in having standard time slots for broadcast —a full hour, 90-minute or two-hour time slot," Burns recalls. "The seventh episode was well over two hours. If I remember correctly, a PBS programming executive said, 'I think you are going to have to cut it.'

"I said, 'I tried really hard and I got everything down to time, but this episode is so great that I think it needs this amount of time.' She goes, 'I don't think so, but let me watch it,' and as soon as she did, she said, 'Of course, you can have the non-standard time,' providing again one of the myriad of reasons why we work with PBS: they were willing to yield to the art — and not to the broadcast schedule."

Burns says he and PBS are always aligned on the ultimate goal: "We are trying to engage people in the complexities of their own history. We are trying to tell an inclusive story that doesn't exclude anybody but instead, makes everybody feel like they are a part of the story themselves."

PBS programming chief Perry Simon adds, "As with so many of their films, Ken and Dayton guide us on a journey through history that educates and entertains, providing an intimate look into the creative lives of those women and men who came together to develop an authentic American art form."

Not surprisingly, Burns reports that he is busy on many new fronts: working on biographies of Ernest Hemingway, Muhammad Ali and Benjamin Franklin, as well as a "biography of an animal, the buffalo," and histories of the United States and the Holocaust, the American Revolution and more.

Meanwhile, back at the honky-tonk, it's no surprise that Johnny Cash receives the most attention, appearing in five of the eight episodes.

Country Music profiles his every major move, from the early days as a Sun Records rockabilly maverick to his status as the grand old man of country when he died in 2003. As record producer Tony Brown says, "Johnny Cash was more than an artist — he was a way of life for America."

Cash embodies everything that Burns, Duncan and Dunfey find appealing about country music: not only was he constantly creative and consistently faithful to his musical ideas, but he served as the greater conscience of the music. He championed the underdog and the downtrodden, always fighting for social justice.

In fact, the Cash story provides a compelling template for country greatness: his rise from sharecropping in Arkansas to the top of the Billboard charts, his subsequent fall into despair and drug abuse, and his eventual redemption and resurrection as country's uncrowned king. Then, after 30 years at Columbia Records, he was ignominiously dropped from the label, which inspired a wave of mourning across the country world.

Yet he came back to make a series of well-received albums with influential rap and rock producer Rick Rubin, which helped end his career on a high note. Cash's triumphs and tribulations are lovingly detailed in the last episode of Country Music.

For all that, he may have reached his most transcendent moment in 1968. That's when Cash, a spiritual heir to such ramblers as Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, formed a personal and musical union with June Carter of the Carter Family — thus merging Saturday night and Sunday morning… for a while.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2019

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