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Ken Burns' Latest Take on American History Is 'Country Music'

Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and more big names are part of his historical series

spinner image Promo poster for Ken Burns' Country Music

Ken Burns is back with another deep dive into a slice of American cultural history. This time it's Country Music; his eight-part, 16-hour film premieres on PBS on Sunday, Sept. 15. It's a rollicking homage to the music's ever-evolving incarnations and outsized personalities — from Bill Monroe, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers to Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard, including interviews with nearly every living legend in the business.

For decades Burns, 66, has tackled issues he considers central to the American identity, including baseball, the Vietnam War, the Roosevelts and national parks. He says he chose to focus on country music for the same reason he once documented jazz: “It's a wonderful way to understand our complicated 20th century.”

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And the more he learned, he adds, the more he fell in love with the music that songwriter Harlan Howard described as “three chords and the truth.”

We talked to him more about his latest favorite subject.

What do you love about country music?

It doesn't have the elegance and sophistication of say classical music or some forms of jazz, but, as Harlan Howard said, what it does have is the truth: really elemental, basic human experiences that everybody, including the classical music connoisseur and snob, also experiences, and that's the joy of birth, the sadness of death, falling in love, trying to stay in love, missing someone, feeling lonely, seeking redemption. When you get to know Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, you begin to see this huge legacy of just unbelievably powerful human stories.

I would hold up the simplest of lyrics — “I'm so Lonesome I Could Cry,” by Hank Williams. I mean, that says it. And by singing it or hearing it you feel just a little bit better. You know you're not alone.

You've said a lot of people who say they don't like country music might misunderstand it. What do you mean?

It isn't the kind of narrow one thing that so many people think it is. It's really quite a dynamic, an ever-changing musical form that borrows from the blues, that helped to create rock, that borrows from jazz. It developed a Western cowboy sound and then a Western swing, mimicking the swing era of the 1920s and ‘30s, then went to honky-tonk and rockabilly, which was the early precursor to rock and roll. It's always intertwining black and white, the sacred and profane, it's an amazing amalgam, with all sorts of porous borders. I think it's commerce that puts up borders.

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What do you want viewers to take away from this film?

Burns, Briefly

spinner image Ken Burns at screening of Country Music
Timothy Norris/Getty Images

Age: 66

Hometown: Walpole, N.H.

First Film: Brooklyn Bridge (1981)

Hobby: collecting antique quilts

Family: father to four; married since 2003 to second wife Julie Deborah Brown

Upcoming: films on, among other subjects, Muhammad Ali, Ben Franklin, Ernest Hemingway and the American Revolution

I just want them to enjoy a good story. I'm sure it will be contentious for what's not in there – and for our decision, as we always do, to stop 20 or 25 years out [before the present day]. We ended essentially in 1996 at the height of Garth Brooks’ popularity and Bill Monroe's death. But near history is the province of journalism. And we can't be an encyclopedia.

How much did you know about country music before working on this project?

I'm a child of R&B and rock and roll but my granddaddy sang me country songs, folk mountain stuff … I worked in a record store in the ‘70s in Ann Arbor [Michigan], so I knew Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard. But what's wonderful is that, at my age now, I have all these wonderful new friends — new songs that all have meaning for me now I know the stories behind them.

I have to tell you: After watching the series, I now have ‘Jolene’ [by Dolly Parton] really stuck in my head.

You could do no better than to have “Jolene” stuck in your head. I believe that there is in that one woman more talent per molecule than any other person on the planet. She has the most amazing voice, first of all, and then she's this great singer-songwriter and a great businessman, and she's fabulous; I love Dolly. She's fantastic. She's the bee's knees. And “Jolene” — “I will always love you, I will always love you, I will always love you.” That's the chorus. And it's her greatest song. I actually think in terms of art, there's nothing better than “Jolene.” It goes up there with Hank Williams’ “I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry” and Johnny Cash's “I Still Miss Someone.”

It goes with Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mule Skinner Blues.” It goes with “Wildwood Flower” from the Carter family, it goes with “Crazy,” that Willie Nelson wrote and Patsy Cline immortalized, the number-one jukebox hit of all time.

This is great stuff. And “Jolene"? it's like a grand-slam home run.

To watch: The first of eight two-hour episodes airs Sunday, Sept. 15, at 8 p.m. ET on PBS (or stream online). Episodes 2-4 air Monday, Sept. 16, through Wednesday, Sept. 18, and episodes 5-8 air Sunday, Sept. 22, through Wednesday, Sept. 25, all at 8 p.m. ET. Each episode is available for online streaming for about three weeks after its air date.

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