Amid a packed crowd of enthusiastic Oregon Public Broadcasting supporters at Revolution Hall in late July, the nation's undisputed documentarian laureate teased his newest project, Country Music, with a hosted screening of selected segments. Because Ken Burns' distinct filmmaking style lends itself to easy parody—slow pan across still images, interview snippets that linger a beat too long, immersion in aspects of Americana that are ordinarily taken for granted (jazz, baseball, the Civil War)—it's easy to forget just how masterful his programs can be. The filmmaker has earned such rarefied trust among the public he's all but guaranteed access to living legends as well as otherwise unavailable material heretofore unseen (Country Music includes home movie footage of Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley "just goofing around in a hotel room").
However, that often-satirized Burnsian technique genuinely does provide fresh perspective on even the most familiar faces. In the eight-part, 16-hour series, which debuts Sept. 15 on OPB, Dolly Parton becomes an inspirational, young Reese Witherspoon-like heroine; Willie Nelson's cultivated stage persona fades to reveal the callow song peddler of his past; and a seemingly frail Loretta Lynn pulsates here with intellect and ambition. Though he's already working on future documentaries, Burns sat down with WW to talk about his nearly decadelong journey through undiscovered country.
WW: Did you include any musicians from our region?
Ken Burns: I'd say Loretta Lynn was the most important artist coming out of the Northwest. She moved out here following a Kentucky childhood and sang songs for her kids. There's a guy around here who said she had the prettiest voice he'd ever heard and paid for the demo that became her first hit record, which permitted her to go to Nashville.
What time period do you open with?
We start in 1923, when [talent scout and record producer] Ralph Peer records Fiddlin' John Carson in Atlanta, but we're basically racing to the big bang of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carters. Jimmie Rodgers' death ends Episode 1.
What year does the series wrap up?
Our film ends in the mid-'90s with Garth Brooks and the death of Bill Monroe, and then the coda takes us to the death of Johnny Cash in 2003. Our outro shows some contemporary stuff, but the present and recent past should be the province of journalists and critics. We're historians and we cannot make the firm judgments needed without the triangulation and perspective that comes from the passage of time.
In terms of the critical perspective, though, Garth Brooks…I mean, I know he served as kind of a watershed for what country became.
That was a huge, seismic moment. People had crossed over before, but not with such phenomenal success—the dimensions, the number of records sold—which is why we chose to end our narrative there, 20 years out from the present.
Brooks seems so far removed from the pantheon of old country music artists. Around Portland, people tend to sneer at him. Do you imagine he'll gain credibility as time goes on?
Oh, of course. All of those hipsters still sing "Friends in Low Places" in the shower. They just don't tell anyone.
Have you always liked country music?
I love it. I can't say always. My father and grandfather sang me a variety of stuff. In the '60s, I worked in an Ann Arbor, Mich., record store and was very happy reorganizing the Merle Haggard section. I knew the music, but it wasn't my music. I'm a child of R&B and rock 'n' roll. But after [the 2001 series] Jazz, I knew the best topic for a deep dive would be country.
Spending eight years in the deep end of the pool has not disappointed me in any way, shape or form about the efficacy of this as a great project. We don't ever make films about things we know. We make films about things we wish to know about, and we don't tell people what they should know but share with them our process of discovery. From the very beginning, country music has always been lots of different things. Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family do not sound at all alike. It's a musical form that has no boundaries.
There have to be some, though? You worked at a record store. Things get shelved in one category or another.
Well, why? Commerce and convenience. As information grows, segregating things may be helpful for our own sensibilities on a very superficial level, but at the end of the day, the records we buy in the R&B bin and the country bin and the classical bin might rearrange our molecules, like all good art should do.
SEE IT: Country Music begins airing at 8 pm Sunday, Sept. 15, on OPB.