Visual Arts — September 3, 2019 16:56 — 0 Comments

Chronicles of Country Music

Below is a story that appeared in Alaska Beyond magazine in September 2019

Ken Burns remembers sitting in a tiny editing room, sobbing, as he put together his latest documentary, Country Music. In fact, the acclaimed filmmaker says, there are often a half-dozen boxes of tissues in the office for him and his staff to use as they pore through old photographs and emotional testimonials, content they choose from to tell intimate stories about impactful time periods, iconic structures and significant cultural movements in American history.

Burns, whose first documentary, Brooklyn Bridge (1981), earned him an Oscar nomination, has a long list of acclaimed titles on his resume, including The Statue of Liberty (1985; also Oscar-nominated), Jazz (2001) and The National Parks (2009). His most recent creation, Country Music, is an eight-part, 16-and-a-half-hour tour de force that details the lineages, mythologies and diverse songwriting styles of the genre’s legends, including Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, Charley Pride, Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash. It features the depth of research and storytelling techniques that have become Burns’ signature style.

“In my career,” says Burns, “I’ve really made the same film over and over again, and each one asks a deceptively simple question: Who are we? Who are these strange and complicated people who like to call themselves Americans? And what does an investigation of the past tell us about not only where we’ve been but also where we are and, most important, where we may be going.”

To assemble Country Music, which premieres on September 15 on PBS networks and on PBS streaming services, Burns says he and his staff combed through 1,000 hours of footage, more than 100,000 photographs, hundreds of songs and 175 hours of interviews they had conducted with 101 subjects. The gravelly voiced Merle Haggard, a central figure in the film and in the history of country music, was one of those subjects.

“We were fortunate enough to interview Merle Haggard before he passed away,” Burns says. “He has a remarkable story: He escaped juvenile detention centers numerous times and ended up in San Quentin State Prison, forgoing another escape attempt [this one failed and lethal], because [another inmate] told him, ‘Donâ’t go. You can sing, write songs and play guitar. You can be somebody.'”

Through Country Music, viewers will also learn the story behind Parton’s famous ballad “I Will Always Love You,” which was written in 1973 for her collaborator and professional partner, who was at the time resisting Parton’s efforts to pursue a more lucrative solo career. Parton explains that she went home, wrote the song, and then played it for him, and he acquiesced to her wishes on the spot.

“Dolly Parton is one of the great forces of nature in the world,” Burns says, praising the iconic singer/songwriter, and indicating that this is what music audiences are truly looking for from artists and their music.

The film often deals with themes of love and loss, which Burns notes are two central components of country music songs, and there is also a great deal in Country Music that heartens and inspires. For Burns and his longtime filmmaking team at Florentine Films, maintaining a sense of “emotional archaeology” is central to the creative mission.

“We’re interested in sharing a process of discovery,” Burns says. “You may be a big country music fan; you may know a little bit; or you may not know anything. But you’re going to be saying, ‘Wow, I had no idea!’ all throughout this film. That’s what we were after for ourselves, too.”

For additional information and to stream the new film after its premiere, visit and


Jake Uitti is a founding editor of The Monarch Review.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney