Ken Burns on ‘Country Music’ and Why Merle, Hank, Dwight, Loretta and Lil Nas X Matter

Chris Willman

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The phrase “the Ken Burns effect” is specifically the name of a function on Apple computers that makes all your static old family photos move around on screen like something out of “The Civil War.” But there’s another Ken Burns effect worth talking about as his “Country Music” comes to TV screens: the impact one of his documentary mini-series can have on an entire major musical genre. As heavily debated as the inclusions and exclusions of “Jazz” might have been in 2001, few would argue that the art form isn’t still enjoying some kind of afterglow from that massively seen series. Country isn’t nearly as in need of the same commercial boost, but it’s going to get a consciousness-raising lift anyway from Burns’ 20th-century-spanning look at the genre’s ascendance from hollers to stadiums.

The director spoke with Variety just before the Sept. 15 premiere of a project he’s been at work on for eight and a half years. The film arrives after all this time with plenty of musical adjuncts for any newbies who suddenly want a crash course in country, like Spotify’s “Ken Burns Country Music Experience” playlist (which includes dozens of key tracks plus video clips of contemporary stars discussing their vintage favorites), and two soundtracks (including a five-CD boxed set and one-disc distillation).

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Maybe its real effect, though, won’t be on catalog sales or streaming so much as on contemporary country artists who watch all these clips of Hank, Merle, Loretta, Dolly, Willie, Kris, Emmylou, Jimmie and the Carter Family and have to ask themselves what they’ve done to belong in that lineage. It could serve as a genre-wide wakeup call, or it could just sell a few extra Louvin Brothers downloads; either way, it’s a win.

With the interviews you did, was there anyone you would say was your most hard-fought get?

No. I mean, Willie’s always hard, because he’s touring all the time, and he’s not loquacious. He happened to be for us, which is a great benefit. You’ve got to do him on his bus, and it was just finding a schedule thing. [Nelson’s bus interview is one of the few that has a different visual look than the rest of the film.] The saddest one is that we were talking to George Jones’ folks, and we were zeroing in on a time and thought we’d do it on the next trip to Nashville, and he passed away. So that trip to Nashville had some great, great interviews, but they weren’t George Jones.

It’s a little spooky watching some of the interviews you did not that very long ago where people look vibrant and beautiful and alive… and they’re not anymore. To put it bluntly, there are so many dead people — recently dead people —in this film.

You see dead people? Yeah. We did 101 interviews. I don’t know how many we finally used. It’s around 80, I think — And no fault of those people that weren’t included; the film just went in a different direction, or we decided to not get into the details of that. But 20 of those 101 folks are passed, and that really, really hurts. We’ve lost in the last year Fred Foster and Hazel Smith and several other people. Cowboy Jack (Clement) is great, and so many others. It’s the bittersweet part of this. Frankly, when we start out, we work our way down the actuarial tables. You know, we just go to the oldest people first: Little Jimmy Dickens, Ralph Stanley — both gone — because we want to get them. Merle (Haggard). The bitterness is clear, and the sweetness is, we got ‘em. They’re there. And there’s a kind of amazing presence. If what Merle says in the film is true — that country music is about things we believe in but can’t see: dreams and songs and souls — there’s no question that his soul is still there.

It’d be interesting to be a fly on your editing room as you and your collaborators discuss what to cut. Because 16 and a half hours sounda like a daunting length for some people who aren’t into country music, but those who are realize it’s actually not that much time to cover the better part of 100 years. There have to be tough choices every day.

I wish you could have been a fly on the wall. It’s intense, but nobody yells. I listen very carefully. I certainly have the final word, but I don’t capriciously or arbitrarily use it, except when we sort of have to move on. There’s no ego. None with Dayton (Duncan) about the writing, knowing full well that I’m going to cut a third to a half of it before he’s done and tinker with it. And none among the folks who collect a hundred thousand images and we’re only using 3400, or collect thousand hours of footage when we can only include a few hours in the film. And this is why it takes eight and a half years. There’s not a business model for this in television; it’s only public television. Because I could end all my fundraising efforts tomorrow if I went to a premium channel or a streaming service, and they’d give me the money we need — but they wouldn’t give me eight and a half years. There’s just not a business model for that.

Were there any differences in how you were received, during production or after the fact, by the country and jazz communities? They both can be self-protective, but Nashville probably a lot less so.

Country is a lyric-driven artform, whereas jazz is primarily an instrumental art form. And so that presented a challenge for wordy and talky people like us to learn how to bite our lip and sit on our hands and let music play. The country community and the jazz community were hugely welcoming and extraordinarily helpful as we were making the film. As you already know, some of the jazzerati took pains to tell us what we left out. … I think the battles and the arguments over this philosophy and that philosophy, which may have been compelling to a handful of people, were really immaterial. The effect of that series was to quadruple the sales of jazz music. That’s not a bad thing. So any of the barbs and arrows that were sent my way only sort of bounced off the fairly thick skin we’d already developed. And in this case, the country music community has been stunned. I mean, there’s nothing more wonderful than being at a fine cut listening to executives from the CMA say, “I can’t believe I had to come to New Hampshire in February to find out more about my town, Nashville, and about the industry that I’ve spent my life in.”

And people will quibble and say, “Why didn’t you do this person, and if you did that person, why didn’t you do that song?” And these are exactly the kind of conversations you want to have. But we’re storytellers. We’re not reading the telephone book. We’re not an encyclopedia. We’re intending to say, “Let me introduce you to 150 people. You know, 50 or so are primary, and another 50 are secondary, and another 50 year are tertiary, or more bit players. But they’re all central to a complicated, almost Russian-novel-like thing that expands into many, many decades and several generations. And we’re going to start here and end here, because we’re in the history business, and we are not comfortable commenting on precisely this moment, or the near past.”

There is definitely a lot of discussion happening online about whether the end point for “Country Music” in the early ‘90s (with a slight bit of postscript) was arbitrary, and why you didn’t touch so much interesting stuff from the last 25 years.

People gave us arguments about that in “Baseball,” and gave us arguments on “Jazz,” but the simple answer to those people in jazz who are upset that we weren’t spending more time in the modern era is to say, “Well, who in the modern era is the equal of Armstrong or Ellington or Parker or Gillespie or Davis or Coltrane?” And they go, “Well, we’d have to wait 30 years to find out.” Exactly! That’s why we were stopping in the mid-‘70s for a film that’s coming out in 2001.

You’re been keeping aware of the modern scene; you just sent out a tweet lauding the Highwomen. Do you ever look at a controversy like the one over Lil Nas X and wish you could bring it up to the present to include that?

Well, to me, Lil Nas X is my mic drop moment. We spend eight episodes and 16 and a half hours talking about the fact that country music has never been one thing. At the big bang, you have the Carter family, which is Sunday morning, and you have Jimmie Rodgers, which is Saturday night, and both of them aren’t in and of themselves one thing, they’re many things. And there’s a huge African American influence, and it permeates throughout the whole story. And it’s a two-way street: There’s Ray Charles coming and saying, “Hey, I’ve got creative control of an album — I’m going to do ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western.’” The number one hit of ‘62 is “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” And here we are in a new modern age that we’re not touching, with all these classic, binary arguments about Billboard not listing [“Old Town Road”] on the country chart, and it turns out to be not just the No. 1 country hit but the No. 1 single, period, and it’s by a black gay rapper! We don’t have to do an update. It just is proving that all of those cycles that we have been reporting on across the decades — all of the tensions in country music of race, class, poverty, gender, creativity versus commerce, geography — are still going on. And that’s the ongoing drama, and that’s something for you to cover, not me.

I think the controversy over the absence of women on country music radio is a very interesting thing, given the absolute centrality of women to the story of country music, unlike anything else — particularly jazz. Jazz has been an airtight fraternity for decades and decades; you’re going to let in an Ella or a Billie every once in a while. But Mother Maybelle is the original American guitarist, right? Sarah Carter is that original folk singer. You have Rose Maddox of the Maddox Brothers and Rose, you have Kitty Wells, you have Patsy Cline. And then you get to Loretta Lynn, who’s releasing “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ With Lovin’ on Your Mind” and “The Pill” in the same year the National Organization for Women is founded, and nobody in rock or folk has taken this stuff on. And she is the beginning of yet another long line of very strong women — Dolly, it goes without saying, but also Reba and Kathy Mattea and before that Jeannie Seely and Bobbie Gentry.

At the end, the thing that most interested us was the act of songwriting — the merger of melody and words, the three chords and the truth, and what goes into that mysterious act. In the opening, Merle says country music is “about things that you believe in and can’t see, like dreams and songs and souls.” I mean, good grief. I think we spend the next 16-plus hours trying to show what Merle meant.

Going into this, you weren’t necessarily an aficionado…

No.

Your writer-producer partner, Dayton Duncan, was a fan growing up and maybe had a head start on you.

Yeah, a little bit. And Julie (Dunfey, another producer) had even less than me. I’m a child of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, and I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, worked in a record store, knew all this stuff, sold all those country records… I enjoyed Johnny Cash as he crossed over into our community in the late ‘60s and the early ‘70s. But no, it wasn’t my music. As hippies, we loved “Okie from Muskogee.” The great joy of this series, among many, was discovering Merle Haggard for who he really is — the poet of the common man, with “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” and “Mama Tried” and “Holding Things Together” and “The Bottle Let Me Down.” Emmylou says it best: “You want to know about country music? Get a Merle Haggard record. It doesn’t matter which one.” So to lift the novelty and political manipulation of “Okie from Muskogee” — when it was very clear that everybody in Merle Haggard’s band, including Merle Haggard, smoked marijuana — was just a just a joy. I’m so happy we got him before he passed away. He feels like Zeus to me.

We interviewed Haggard, too, like everybody, trying to get a definitive answer on what was really intended with “Okie from Muskogee.”

Was he hemming and hawing? We tried (to exegete it) and I finally said, “You know, who the f— cares?” At first, it’s a joke, right? And then it gets appropriated by the counter-counterculture, and it crosses over and it’s hugely popular. So then he gets roped into a few more kind of things that country music is still susceptible to. these kind of political statements. And then I think he goes, “Wait a second, this isn’t me,” and he begins to reinterpret the original impulse to being, as he says in our film, “about being proud of where you’re from.” And that may just be a little temporizing to cover up what’s a potentially embarrassing or, at least for him, a not too happy period. But that’s why I was going, okay, we can twist ourselves in knots trying to decode this, or we can just go, here’s the song. We’ve already established his bona fides in history. He’s already established his own supreme knowledge, because he’s in episode 1 loving Jimmie Rodgers and singing the opening of “Mule Skinner Blues.” … The whole “gotcha” thing to me is so boring. And as a filmmaker, I was finally saying, ‘Who the f— cares [about Haggard’s politics]?’ Come on, let’s move on.

Speaking of Haggard, one of the oddly most effective moments in the film, at least for some of us…

Yep, yep, everybody. Everybody!

…is when Dwight Yoakam tears up as he’s reciting the lyrics to Haggard’s “Holding Things Together.” I already know those lyrics, so it’s not like they’re coming as a surprise, but I was tearing up with him.

I did the interview, and I didn’t know those lyrics, and tears were running down my cheek. I didn’t know what to expect from Dwight. He came in, and a lot of him is attitude and protective mask — you know, the jeans, the boots, the hat down over the eye level — and he just opened up. I love him. I mean, I consider him a friend now. And that moment just stopped me dead. We filmed him in Studio A of Capitol Records in Hollywood, so this was a location with some ghosts of Buck and Merle already in the room. He didn’t that he was going to break down. I knew exactly what you were talking about, because it’s the one that gets me every single time — along with about 10 other moments.

After having spent so many years on this, with so many other projects in the pipeline, you’ve probably moved on and are not in a country music mindset right now…

Well, I am because I’ve been on the road for months promoting it, and so I’m totally country, although I take little vacations to go edit “Ernest Hemingway” or to shoot “Muhammad Ali” or to raise money for “The American Revolution” or shoot an interview for that or “Benjamin Franklin.” I’ve got seven new things going. But the biggest thing I’ve got going is “Country.”

If you were going to put something on for pleasure now, what would it be?

You know what, I‘d put our soundtrack on, because it’s so good, and it’s got everybody. It’s got Jimmie and it’s got the Carter family and it’s got Garth. I think Merle and Hank and Dolly and Loretta and Johnny are the ones that I return to more and more. But all of a sudden you get these little kicks and you’ll go, “Well, let’s just do a day of Louvin Brothers.” You know what I mean? And you spend a lot of time with those exquisite brother harmonies that anticipate the Everly Brothers, that anticipate Simon and Garfunkel in the folk rock scene, but also what Emmylou is gonna do with Gram Parsons. I love taking those little musical journeys.

But I also listen to jazz, still. I didn’t walk away from that and go, “Okay, did jazz.” And I love the way that they (country and jazz) are so interconnected. There’s Louis Armstrong singing ”Blue Yodel Number Nine” standing on the corner with Jimmie Rodgers in the ‘20s, and there he is doing the same thing with Johnny Cash in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. And Charlie Parker plugging the nickels in the jukebox between sets on 52nd Street in the late ‘40s as he’s perfecting this new sound that he created, bebop, much like Bill Monroe created bluegrass, and he’s playing Hank Williams. The cats are going, ”Bird. What the hell are you doing with that stuff?” And he says “Listen to the stories.”

You have a Spotify playlist initiative. Spotify was not a thing when “Jazz” was going on.

No. We did a little bit with the “Vietnam” film two years ago. But this is a really big connection with them, and they’ve been so terrific to work with. We’ve also got an app called Unum, after E Pluribus Unum, which is curating recurring themes in the films — it might be war, race, hard times, leadership or innovation — and sort of riffing on them across several films and in the present. There’s a huge intersection between “Country Music,” Spotify, the soundtrack that we have, and what we’re doing with Unum.

When it comes to rights issues, it’s hard to believe you license everything you license.

We cut our teeth in “Jazz,” which was to bring (different labels and music groups) together, and say, “Look, you take foreign… You take domestic…” So if we’ve got a best-of, it really is a best-of, not just the best of when so-and-so was on Decca, say, from 1941 to ‘46. And everybody got into that, and the five-CD set went platinum. Then we got better on it on World War II, our film called “The War,” in 2007. I think “Vietnam” was where we really learned to perfect those relationships, so that we could go to the Beatles first off and to Bob Dylan and say “Look, we need 120 tape cuts, and we need some Beatle cuts, but we can’t afford it. But if you help us out and give us a most favored nation…” It’s still expensive; it’s still a huge explosion of our budget. But the “Vietnam” soundtrack has 120 needle drops, in addition to the (original) Trent Reznor and Yo-Yo Ma stuff. These are people who want to help, and obviously they want to make money, but they obviously know that they’re going to sell a lot of that back catalog when this comes out. It’s something you spend years on… The Nashville folks were incredibly helpful and everybody bent over backwards to make sure we had not just the pictures or the archives, but the ability to clear all the various stuff. It’s super-complicated when you’ve got a TV show and you’re clearing publishing and clearing performance and clearing TV rights as well.

Do you ever still run into obstacles? What you have is staggering, but some people look at what’s missing — like how there is no Glen Campbell on the soundtrack and just a brief bit in the film — and wonder if it was a rights thing.

Nope, nope, not at all. If we had done more on Glen Campbell, there would be more on Glen Campbell. It’s just where it comes in the arc of the thing. I think we did good justice to him. He’s sort of helping us lead into “Hee-Haw” (with the mention of his network program), and it means that you can’t attenuate that. It’s toward the end of an episode, so the laws of storytelling suggest you’re not gonna sample “Gentle on My Mind” as well as “Wichita Lineman” as well as whatever else from Glen you wanted to do. But it was nothing about him, nor certainly about rights issues.

If someone is interested in “The Civil War,” they’re either all-in or all-out. But this covers such a vast time period and vast collection of stars and styles. A lot of country music fans may not think they want to hear about Uncle Dave Macon in the ‘20s and would like to jump right to Garth and the artists they know and love. Do you worry some people may be like: “Can I watch episodes 5 and 6 first, then go backward?” There could be a tendency to sort of read the last chapter first.

You can do that. It’s a free country. But it’s not going to help you get the story. You know what it is? Are you willing to submit to narrative? We live in a time of eroded attention spans, and we also live in a narcissistic era where people thumb the index for themselves, so I imagine there’ll be a few folks who will be rushing to the last episode to see if they’re included or their favorite person is included. But that’s okay. Each episode is its own standalone thing as well as part of a larger continuum of the whole eight. But you know, we’re storytellers. To me, it’s fascinating stuff. Just the one fact alone in episode 1 of the banjo coming from Africa should be enough to rivet people into this thing. And once you get the Bristol sessions, it’s hard to turn away from the drama and melodrama of the Carter family and the genius of Jimmie Rodgers, and by the time of his death at the last moment of episode 1, I feel like the hook might be in.

Where it ends, which is pretty much in the early ‘90s, is fascinating for a number of reasons. You leave it on a commercial peak, with Garth exploding, which is kind of the inverse of jazz fading out at the end of that film. But there is a little bit of possible doom laden in with the triumph, too, with the discussion of radio consolidation in the ‘90s and corporations wanting bigger results in both record sales and radio ratings. Kathy Mattea is saying there was a golden era for artists like her in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and they thought it would last forever.

And then the door shut. Yeah, I think it’s perfect (to end there). It’s much easier than where to start. You have the height of Garth’s popularity, Bill Monroe dies, and then you follow Johnny Cash for the next seven years until his death, struggling to come back… And speaking of Lil Nas X, you have a hip-hop and rap producer, Rick Rubin, who helps Johnny Cash have his last flourish. That to me says it all. You couldn’t make that up.

A lot of viewers will come into this knowing nothing. But then you also have to keep the attention of people who do know a great deal about country music and have heard some of these stories.

You have to do those stories that some people know, but if we do it right, we have the ability to make it new for you. Like Dolly’s parting with Porter (Wagoner, the spark of inspiration for “I Will Always Love You”) — most insiders know that, but I think the way we did it is very emotional.

But there are other little things that come up that most of the cognoscenti won’t know. I’ve exhaustively researched the history of country music and politics going back to the ‘20s, but I never knew Earl Scruggs participated in a counterculture march on Washington to end the Vietnam war.

Yeah, along with Charlie Daniels! I think Charlie Daniels would like to forget that he’s there. But he’s there — you can see him.

Do you stay conscious of balancing things out for the viewers who know a lot and those who come in cold?

No. All I care about is a good story. People always say, “Who did you make it for?” And I say, “Everybody,” and they look at me like I’m crazy. I made it for the people who love country music and know a lot about it. I made it for the people who aren’t sure about it. And I made it for the people who don’t like it. Because if you tell a good story, you might change somebody’s mind. I had a friend that came up to me just before a screening and said, “Man, I’ve loved everything you’ve done, Ken. but country music, I don’t know…” And he shook his head as if I’d stepped in a cow patty, and it was a big, huge career mistake. And four days later, after showing two episodes a day and talking and whatever, he was just in tears sobbing. And he’s apologized for the last year and a half. I said, “You don’t need to apologize! I get it.” He calls me up and tells me he’s downloaded the Louvin Brothers or Jimmie Rogers, or says, “Boy, Emmylou is fabulous. Where do you place it?” I make these for that person who thinks they’re not supposed to be interested in baseball or battles of the Civil War or Prohibition or whatever it might be. If you tell a good story, everybody should be leaning in.

In some of the interviews you’ve done for “Country Music,” there is a slight condescension. They won’t outrightly say it, but they’re asking, “Do you think you learned anything in the course of making it that should make us feel better about these hayseeds in the middle of the country?”

Well, yeah. Because the presumption is that whoever is “them” is less of a human being than you are, and that is a priori false. We spend our lives doing distinction: I’m rich, you’re poor. I’m gay, you’re straight. You’re male, I’m female. You’re black, I’m white. And country music addresses the fact that we’re all in the same boat and dealing with the fundamental crisis of the human project, which is none of us get out of here alive. And if you’ve got Hank Williams there to help you through that — if you’ve got him singing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” or if you’ve got Johnny Cash singing “I Still Miss Someone” — you know, that’s a big help. And I don’t really care if you’re a redneck.

In the interest of full disclosure, we should note that in the first episode of “Country Music,” you quote Variety as speaking of country music fans as “illiterate and ignorant, with the intelligence of morons.” You even put up a graphic of the Variety text about “the nasal-twanging vocalizing” of singers who “can neither read nor write English.” This was the 1920s, when it was still known as hillbilly music. But still, maybe a mea culpa is in order.

It is ironic, but not too surprising given the routine prejudices and nauseating epithets even the most erudite and respected publications spewed all the time in earlier eras. Nothing breeds or earns respectability, though, like financial (and sometimes artistic) success. Plus, we all try to outgrow the myopic perspectives of the past. I think that’s called progress, of sorts.

On a non-“Country Music” note: When we go into our Apple computers to set up a photo montage for people to see, “Ken Burns” is one of the modes you can toggle to, which is kind of hilarious. Was that any kind of ultimate marker for you, that you have a style distinctive enough to serve as shorthand for a computer function?

Well, “the Ken Burns effect” has a funny providence. I got a call from Steve Jobs in 2002 and went out and met with him. We became friends and were friends until the end. He led me into this room and he had these two engineers who had been perfecting this thing that permitted people to pan and zoom through their photos. And I’m a bit of a Luddite, or certainly was a real Luddite back then. He said, “We perfected it. Every Mac starting January 1, 2003, will have this thing. And we want to use the working title.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “the Ken Burns effect.” I said, “I don’t do commercial endorsements.” And he said, “What?” The engineers looked a little bit anxious; maybe they had seen him yell or something. But he said, “Come back to my office.” So we talked and basically I said, “Look, if you give me a lot of hardware and software, I’ll turn around and give it to nonprofits.” I mean, a couple of computers in the beginning stuck with us because we were desperate for that sort of stuff in our PBS productions, but 95% went to colleges and nonprofits, and we just gave out several hundred thousand dollars (of equipment), and Apple kept renewing that.

It’s funny, because my kids use it all the time. And I know I’ve saved lots of bar mitzvahs and memorial services and parties and vacations. For me, it is the technological tail wagging the dog. What I try to do has many different structural, kinesthetic and aural dimensions to it. I’ve spent my entire professional life trying to figure out how to wake up an old photo — what the composition is, and how you zoom and the rate of that zoom, and how you treat it like a feature filmmaker would: a master shot with a long, a medium, a close, a tilt, a pan, a reveal, meaning you zoom out, or inserts of details of it. It’s a superficial variation of that, and I don’t begrudge it. It’s just one of those phenomena where it’s a chuckle.

But I’ll tell you, if I’d said, “Okay, well, I want one-tenth of a cent every time it’s used,” I think he’d have said, “Never mind. We’ll call it the pan and zoom effect.” But the fact that I didn’t want to do it on principle got him interested, and it started a really interesting friendship. I miss him a lot, too. He was a really very special person. And I never saw him yell.

 

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