16 Hours of Ken Burns’ Country Music on PBS

“Oh, the storm and its fury broke today, crushing hopes that we cherish so dear. Clouds and storms will in time pass away. The sun again will shine bright and clear.”–from the Carter Family’s signature song, “Keep on the Sunny Side.”

If, like me, you’ve always thought you were definitely not a “country music,” fan, think again.  You may find, after watching Ken Burns’ new 16-hour documentary opus, Country Music, that you’re hooked and that, just maybe, you’ve been a fan all along.  The series’ pitch line–“The Story of America, One Song at a Time”–may hold the key to your change of heart.

The genre’s complex provenance is rooted deep within the fabric of America… its history and the heritage of its colonizers.  As a result, the evolution of country music, aka “America’s music,” has taken many twists and turns along the way. It has crossed racial, ethnic and socio-economic divides along America’s regional highways and byways, and managed to grow and thrive despite taking some offbeat detours.

The COUNTRY MUSIC creative team (from left): screenwriter Dayton Duncan, producer Julie Dunfey, and producer/director Ken Burns. Photo: Evan Barlow.

As Ken Burns and his longtime screenwriter, Dayton Duncan, document vividly in the eight, two-hour films that comprise the Country Music series, it’s clear that the genre grew from an amalgam of oral histories, homespun instruments and performance traditions originally transported to our shores in the DNA, memory banks and satchels of our earliest settlers.

After immigrants (whether they be early colonists, explorers, servants or slaves) landed on our shores from Africa, Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany, France or Spain, they turned for comfort and community to the music and instruments prevalent in their homelands and cultures. They in turn passed those traditions on to their descendants who then adapted and shared them with subsequent generations.  With Country Music, Burns and Duncan couldn’t have put forward a more cogent and timely case for the role that immigrants play as cultural definers of American identity.

“As an art form, country music is forever revisiting its history,” said Ken Burns, “sharing and updating old classics and celebrating its roots, which are, in many ways, foundational to our country itself.”

Jimmie Rodgers, Kerrville, Texas, circa 1930. Photo courtesy Jimmie Rodgers Properties I.L.P.

Jimmie Rodgers, Kerrville, Texas, circa 1930. Photo courtesy
Jimmie Rodgers Properties I.L.P.

Country Music: The Rub (Beginnings-1933), Episode 1 of the eight-part, 16-hour series, premieres tonight, Sunday, September 15, 2019, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET, on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS App. Subsequent episodes debut during the next two weeks.  (See below for a complete list of PBS broadcast premiere air dates, DVD  and streaming info for the eight-episode series.)

In The Rub (Beginnings-1933), roots legend Ralph Stanley and fellow artists Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Kathy Mattea and Rhiannon Giddens, among others, recall (sometimes with a lyric or two!) country music’s humble origins and seminal performers.  And, as is the custom in all of Ken Burns’ films, on-camera commentary is enhanced by a breathtaking array of solidly researched vintage photos, rare film footage and period ephemera, including letters and newspaper clippings.

Glorious photos and never-before-seen film footage flesh out the personal backstories and eclectic talents of pivotal musicians who laid the groundwork for the industry going forward:  Stephen Foster, Fiddling John Carson, Pop Stoneman, Uncle Dave Macon, DeFord Bailey, the Carter family and the yodeling phenomenon, Jimmie Rodgers.

A key player in the lives and careers of many of country music’s legendary stars during this period was Ralph Peer (1892-1960).  His visionary role as talent scout, mentor, recording engineer, record producer and music publisher drove the spread of regional talent and music into the national mainstream market.

The original Carter Family, circa 1930. From left: A.P. Carter, Maybelle and Sara Carter. Photo courtesy Carter Family Museum, Rita Forrester.

The original Carter Family, circa 1930. From left: A.P. Carter, Maybelle and Sara Carter. Photo courtesy Carter Family Museum, Rita Forrester.

While The Rub focuses on a period of Americana that I particularly enjoy, I encourage you to give upcoming episodes of Country Music a look and listen, as they broadcast and stream.  You may be surprised and delighted to find that your beloved musicians fit comfortably in the “country music” mix as well.

Full disclosure from someone who never considered herself even “a little bit country”:  One of my all-time favorite singer/songwriters is Willie Nelson. And, yes, I’ve even attended his concerts.

And I’ve been a fan of roots music ever since I saw the Coen Brothers’ film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000).  I was fortunate to attend the now legendary “O Brother…” concert at Carnegie Hall, featuring live performances by the film’s performers, including the late great Ralph Stanley.  I also enjoyed Stanley and his family in-concert at NYC’s Town Hall.  I guess “a little bit country” goes a long, long way after all!–Judith Trojan

How and when to view the Country Music series

The first four episodes of the eight-part series will air nightly at 8:00 – 10:00 p.m.ET on PBS stations nationwide beginning tonight, Sunday, September 15, through Wednesday, September 18, 2019.  The final four episodes will air nightly from Sunday, September 22, through Wednesday, September 25, 2019. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.)

DeFord Bailey, harmonica virtuoso and one of the original headliners of the Grand Ole Opry. Photo courtesy Les Leverett Collection, Grand Ole Opry Archives.

DeFord Bailey, harmonica virtuoso and one of the original headliners of the Grand Ole Opry. Photo courtesy Les Leverett Collection, Grand Ole Opry Archives.

Streaming App and Opps

On September 15, 2019, timed to the series broadcast premiere, you will be able to stream the first four episodes of Country Music for free on all station-branded PBS platforms, including http://PBS.org and the PBS Video App available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast. The final four episodes will be ready for streaming, timed to their broadcasts, beginning Sunday, September 22, 2019.  Each episode will stream for a period of three weeks.

Supplemental Materials

If you find yourself yearning for soundtrack music recordings from the series (there are “nearly 600 music cues” throughout Country Music’s 16 hours), you’re in luck!  A “comprehensive suite” of soundtrack music products will be available from Legacy Recordings, a division of Sony Music Entertainment.  For soundtrack, DVD and Blu-ray availability with extras, visit http://shopPBS.org

Also, be sure to check out the film series’ companion book, Country Music: An Illustrated History (Alfred A. Knopf, 464 pp., 2019) by Dayton Duncan, with an introduction by Ken Burns. Judith Trojan

About Judith Trojan

Judith Trojan is an Award-winning journalist who has written and edited more than 1,000 film and TV reviews and celebrity profiles.
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1 Response to 16 Hours of Ken Burns’ Country Music on PBS

  1. Donna Bordo says:

    Judy your review of Ken Burn’s new documentary on Country Music encompasses
    all aspects of Ken Burns and the roots and progression of country music. Thanks so much for
    your thoughtful and concise review.

    Liked by 1 person

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