A Film by Ken Burns

Cover story by Jody Shiroma, PBS Hawaiʻi

COVER STORY: Country Music, a Film by Ken Burns


It’s not just pickup trucks, hound dogs and six packs of beer


The joy of birth. The sadness of death. The pain of loneliness. These are all things that country music speaks about. Yet according to award-winning documentarian Ken Burns, many people still think country music is only about pickup trucks, tractors, hound dogs and six packs of beer.


“At the heart of every great country music song is a story,” says Burns. Stories about hardships and joys shared by everyday people, about common experiences and human emotions that speak to each of us about love and loss, about hard times and the chance of redemption. Country music fan or not, these are all things to which people can relate, things that pertain to their lives.


Country music artists, left to right: The Original Carter Family L-R AP, Maybelle and Sara Carter, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn


These stories and more will be at the heart of COUNTRY MUSIC, an eight-part film directed and produced by Burns, written and produced by Dayton Duncan and produced by Julie Dunfey. These Emmy award-winning professionals are the creators of some of the most-acclaimed and most-watched PBS documentaries, including The Civil War and The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.


The film premieres Sunday, September 15 through Wednesday, September 18, and Sunday, September 22 through Wednesday, September 25 at 8:00 pm each evening. Eight years in the making, it includes interviews with more than 100 people, including 40 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Seventeen of those interviewed have since passed on. The film uses more than 3,200 photographs, as well as rare and never-before-seen archival footage of Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash and others.


The documentary explores the evolution of country music over the course of the 20th century by chronicling the highs and lows of the music. From the early days of southern Appalachia’s songs of struggle, heartbreak and faith, to the rowdy Western swing of Texas, to the emergence of California’s honky-tonks, to the rise of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, country music became “America’s music.”


“As with so many of their films, Ken and Dayton guide us on a journey through history that educates and entertains, providing an intimate look into the creative lives of those women and men who came together to develop an authentic American art form,” says Perry Simon, PBS chief programming executive.


Country music artists, left to right: Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Charley Pride and Merle Haggard


Much like the music itself, the film tells the unforgettable stories of the fascinating trailblazers who created and shaped country music – from the Carter Family and Bob Wills to Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Garth Brooks and many more – and the times in which they lived. The artists share stories of their humble beginnings, their musical influences and their breakthrough moments. They also tell of the extraordinary connection between country music artists and fans, which has spanned generations.


“We discovered that country music isn’t – and never was – one type of music; it actually is many styles,” said Duncan, longtime collaborator of Burns. “It sprang from diverse roots, and it sprouted many branches. What unites them all is the way the music connects personal stories and elemental experiences with universal themes that every person can relate to. And as it evolved, from the bottom up, it created a special bond between the artists and fans that is unique among all other musical genres.”




COVER STORY: Country Music, a Film by Ken Burns


Sunday, Sept. 15

The Rub (Beginnings – 1933)
Learn how so-called “hillbilly music” reaches new listeners and launches its first stars’ careers.


Monday, Sept. 16

Hard Times (1933 – 1945)
Watch Nashville transform into Music City as America falls for singing cowboys and Texas Swing.


Tuesday, Sept. 17

The Hillbilly Shakespeare (1945 – 1953)
Meet the country stars of post-war America, including the “Hillbilly Shakespeare,” Hank Williams.


Wednesday, Sept. 18

I Can’t Stop Loving You (1953 – 1963)
Visit Memphis during the era of rockabilly, and see how Patsy Cline rises to stardom in Nashville.


Sunday, Sept. 22

The Sons and Daughters of America (1964 – 1968)
See how new country artists like Loretta Lynn and Charley Pride reflect a changing America.


Monday, Sept. 23

Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (1968 – 1972)
Learn what draws artists like Bob Dylan to Nashville as the Vietnam War rages.


Tuesday, Sept. 24

Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? (1973 – 1983)
Witness a vibrant era in country music, thanks to mainstream crossovers and a new “outlaw” sound.


Wednesday, Sept. 25

Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’ (1984 – 1996)
Learn how country music works to stay true to its roots as the genre skyrockets to new heights.