By Kathryn O'Shea-Evans
September 11, 2019
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Ken Burns wasn’t always a country music fan. You might be surprised, given he spent eight years immersed in it for his latest documentary, “Country Music,” which premieres Sept. 15 on PBS. But Burns delights in exploring subjects that really aren’t his thing.

“I don't like to make films about stuff I know about, and then tell people what they should know. The last time I checked, that’s homework,” he said. Instead, he selects “subjects that tell us [Americans] a lot about who we are.”

Burns, who was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1953, has been making documentary films for more than four decades, covering everything from boxing champ Jack Johnson to architect Frank Lloyd Wright in addition to his more blockbuster offerings. “Country Music” traces the art form’s history from Bristol, Tennessee to California’s Central Valley. Boldfaced interviews in the 16-hour documentary include Roseanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson, plus 17 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame who have since died.

Country is “about people who feel their stories aren’t told,” Burns said. “Particularly today, that’s a super, super important thing to realize as we spend a lot of time in the superficial reality of our media culture or computer culture of yes and no, right and wrong, red state and blue state, of making everybody else wrong. And the stories are just good. That's all I do for a living — try to tell a good story.”

Below are excerpts from a conversation with Burns.

Travel + Leisure: Why country?

Ken Burns: "It's the dominant music form in the United States today, and it didn't get there because it's bad. It’s not sophisticated the way jazz is; the songwriter Harlan Howard said it was three chords and the truth. But what that very simple three chords permitted is for the language to be about essential human things. We always make fun of it and talk about dogs and six packs and stuff like that, but it is about birth and death, and love and loss, and loneliness. These are huge, big themes that whether you've got a PhD or you haven't graduated from high school, matter."

Tell me some history I might not know.

"We sort of think country must be this lily-white phenomenon, when in fact, the banjo is an African instrument brought by slaves, right? So right then and there, you understand it's a little bit more complicated than people would maybe want to think. And our first episode is called 'The Rub,' which is the friction and spark of energy between black and white in the American South.

This is also, besides the film I made on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the most feminist film ever. I mean, women are right there at the top at the beginning, singing tough stuff well — like when Loretta Lynn is saying, ‘Don't come home a drinkin’ with lovin’ on your mind.’ When Dolly Parton appeared on the Porter Wagoner Show in the ‘60s, many people thought she was just another pretty girl. And so they would introduce her, ‘just put your hands together for this pretty little girl,’ you know? Well she turns out to be one of the most talented songwriters, along with the most extraordinary voice, along with one of the shrewdest and most intelligent minds who has come out of absolute dirt poor poverty. I mean, her parents paid the doctor who delivered her with a sack of cornmeal."

Amazing. What sites should people interested in country music visit?

"You're going to go to mecca [the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville]. It accidentally became the place where country music was happening, which was originally to the horror of the Nashville elite, because they were the Athens of the Midwest. They didn’t have any intention of welcoming hillbillies.

If you’re a student of the music, you'd also want to visit Bristol — where down the center line of Main Street, one side is in Tennessee, the other is in Virginia. It was there [in 1927] that record producer Ralph Peer recorded the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers over a couple of days, the most important thing for Hill Country music. They represent a tension that runs to not just American music, but American life and politics and culture, which is the tension between Saturday night and Sunday morning. The Carters represent the virtues of family and mother and home and the church, and Jimmie Rodgers represents the saloon and messing up. But you can't really have Saturday night without a Sunday morning. And vice-versa."

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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