KERA hosted a preview screening of the upcoming Ken Burns docuseries Country Music on Thursday at Southern Methodist University’s McFarlin Auditorium, and we had the esteemed privilege of attending and even speaking with Burns’ co-collaborators Dayton Duncan (writer and lead producer) and Julie Dunfey (co-producer.)
Between all three producers, there are over 175 hours of aggregated interview footage, and of the 101 subjects, Bill C. Malone was the only historian who was interviewed. The lion’s share of the series’ interviewees are country artists, and the eight-part, 16-hour series boasts a who’s-who of the genre’s most formidable icons: Willie Nelson, Tom T. Hall, Garth Brooks, Dwight Yoakam and Charley Pride are just a few of many, among them some interviewees such as Merle Haggard who died before the completion of the film.
“For me, a highlight of the interviews was realizing how much the artists knew about their history,” said Dunfey. “People like Rosanne Cash, Marty Stuart, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, they all knew the history, and they could tell us those kind of things in a way that made it more intimate.”
Thursday’s preview screening only captured 1/16th of the series, and the footage was specially tailored for Texas audiences, but that single hour alone revealed many underbellies of country music history that would evade even most experts. The film explored a young, broke Nelson kissing Faron Young on the lips after receiving a $14,000 royalty check for “Hello Walls.” Pride gave a firsthand account of playing a show to 13,000 people who had only heard him via radio and didn’t know he was black until he took the stage. When Country Music delved into the life of Waylon Jennings, it provided intimate accounts of his upbringing, describing how his father would use a car battery to power a household radio so they could listen to the Carter Family.
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This is all just the tip of the iceberg for a snippet that is also ... another tip of the iceberg. Every single anecdote in the preview was delivered in a colorful and engaging way, and to say this enthusiasm was shared by Duncan and Dunfey would be underselling the lively energy they brought to the affair.
That much was evident before I even met them. As their publicist walked me into the green room to conduct the interview, he warned, “Dayton likes to talk, so don’t be afraid to interrupt him.”
He wasn’t wrong. When we spoke with Duncan, his eyes lit up when we discussed Jimmie Rodgers, Loretta Lynn and Ray Charles. What was originally scheduled to be a 15-minute interview went on for almost a half-hour, and most of the conversation gravitated around country music history. The eloquence and the rhetorical prowess for which Burns and his collaborators are notorious was just as present in an off-screen and improvised setting.
“What country music does at its best is speak more to your heart than to your head,” explained Duncan. “It deals in some way with (the) universal experiences or emotions of human beings that we all share regardless of who we are and where we come from, our status, our race, our gender… That is really the heart of what makes a good country song into a song that will endure as a country song.”
The beauty behind enduring country songs is that time has almost always favored the underdogs and the boundary-testing trailblazers. When Nashville rejected them, artists such as Willie Nelson took up their craft elsewhere and achieved success even after being blackballed, and history has exonerated these performers ever since.
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This is no anomaly. Nashville’s cultural hegemony isn’t as encompassing as commonly assumed. While a country music haven worthy of reverence, this abstract entity that has symbolized the country music establishment is what Dunfey called “a flawed character” in the genre’s history. These flaws are particularly manifested in Nashville’s historic tendency to place its music into rigid, impenetrable walls and to punish any deviation from musical or social parameters.
After all, why did artists who were scorned and ostracized for rocking the boat continue to make country music even at the most turbulent moments of their careers, other than to speak the lingua franca of the downtrodden and emotionally troubled? Why does history look at Jennings and Kitty Wells with tremendous favor, other than for the fact that they brought country music into uncharted waters and broadened its horizons? More important, how has country music become ubiquitous over the past century, other than its stylistic malleability and its unrivaled ability to touch our souls?
It is more than just a genre — country music is a crucial fixture in American culture, and Country Music is a captivating reminder as to why that is.
Country Music: A Film By Ken Burns premieres Sunday, Sept. 15, at 7 p.m. You can watch all eight episodes on KERA or stream it here.