Ken Burns could not come to TCA to tout his new documentary for PBS, Country Music, so frequent collaborator/writer/producer Dayton Duncan stood in for him.
He described Burns’s process:
“We chase every rabbit down every rabbit hole…That’s what reporting is. I’m a reporter who now talks about stories that are 100 years old” or more, he said.
“Our process is, I write a script using interviews and then we start making a film out of it. Then the hog wrestle begins – what to keep and what to throw out. It’s always too long at beginning, deliberately.”
Then a multitude of people on Burns’ team “sit and watch it, and say ‘Okay, what do we got to do here?’ and things start falling off,” Duncan continued.
“When great stories fall off and I start to cry” that’s when Burns pats him on the back and says “That’s for the book, Dayton.”
On Country Music they made the deliberate decision to end with the 1990’s, to keep the history “at arm’s length,” Duncan described.
That necessitated making clear to some country music figures who participated in the project that “they’re just too damn young to cover their career” in the project. Nonetheless most were “gracious enough to tell us about the generation that preceded them” anyway.
Burns’s latest film will follow the evolution of country music, tracing its origins in minstrel music, ballads, hymns, and the blues, and its early years when it was called hillbilly music played across the airwaves on radio station barn dances. The docu focuses on the artists who created it, including the Carter family, Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, etc., and the times in which they lived.
And, like all Burns documentaries, TV critics have come to expect to hear Burns wax eloquent about the parallels between his history project and contemporary issues. Country Music is no exception.
Country music rose from the bottom up,” he said; it was a way for so-called hillbillies, people of “all races but more from a certain economic class” who “felt looked down upon or disregarded entirely – a way they could tell their story.” Country music, he described, is mostly “lyric and melody.”
The eight-part film, in the works for six years, is set to premiere on PBS on September 15.
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