What is country music?
This is the question director Ken Burns ("The Civil War," "Jazz," "Vietnam") spent the past eight years trying to answer. The result is “Country Music,” a new eight-part, 16-hour series premiering on PBS Sept. 15 to 25 that features interviews with over 100 people, including 40 from the Country Music Hall of Fame.
To drum up awareness of the film, Burns and his longtime collaborator Dayton Duncan — who wrote and produced “Country Music” as well as the accompanying illustrated book — are taking it on the road with a bus tour to give specially tailored previews in cities across the country.
The Savannah presentation April 10 is hosted by GPB in partnership with the Savannah Music Festival at the Jepson Center for the Arts. Duncan will be joined by singer-songwriter Darrell Scott for a discussion and a preview of 45 minutes from the epic film, with a focus on some of Georgia’s great country artists.
Duncan has written and produced several of Burns’ acclaimed films, including “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” “Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery” and “The Dust Bowl.” He was a consulting producer on films such as “Baseball,” “Jazz” and “The War.”
“Most of the films I’ve written and produced for Ken are ones where the idea came from me, out of something either I was passionate about or curious about,” says Duncan. "In the case of 'Country Music,' however, the idea came from a friend of Burns."
“I’ve had an off-and-on relationship and courtship and marriage with country music over the course of my life,” explains Duncan. “I was more of a folky than a hard-core country person. I sort of drifted away for a while and then Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris and the 'Will The Circle be Unbroken' album brought me back.”
Spending eight years producing the series gave Duncan a new perspective on country music and a greater appreciation for the art form. “It’s been a labor of love..,” says Duncan. “It’s been a big part of my life and I’ve been devoted solely to it since 2012.”
One revelation Duncan admits probably shouldn’t have been a surprise to him was that to call country one style of music is false.
“If you listen to the first recording of the Carter Family, and then three days later the recordings of Jimmy Rodgers back in 1927, they don’t sound at all alike, and they’re not” says Duncan. “They’re foundational artists in country music. The Carter Family draws from the roots that include the Appalachian ballads and from old hymns... and Jimmy Rodgers draws from the blues, another taproot of country music, and throws in a yodel... He’s a rambler and a rake and he represents what we call sort of the Saturday night side of country music and the Carter Family represent the Sunday morning of it. What I came to realize is they are an essential part of country music, but they’re two sides of the same coin, and part of a duality that’s been with country music ever since.”
Over the course of 16 hours, the film looks at the diverse styles of country music, including Western swing, honky-tonk, rockabilly, and singing cowboys. Even members of the production crew began to discover music that they didn’t think they liked.
“They just keep sprouting branches of different styles that are all under this great umbrella of country music,” says Duncan. “What we found doing this film is that a lot of these preconceptions and stereotypes people might have about what country music is, whether they love it or don’t think they like it at all, is that they find that there is lots of stuff there that you’re gonna like, or you might already like it, but don’t consider it country.”
It is Duncan’s hope that viewers will come away from the film reminded of what they love about country music or with a newfound respect for this uniquely American art form.
“The great songwriter Harlan Howard called it ‘three chords and the truth’ and there is a truth to that, but at the same time there is a truth to that in terms of a sort of musical form, it is the most complex possible,” Duncan explains. “You’re talking about these basic things mixing and mingling in a complex way. You’re dealing with death, you’re dealing with birth, love, falling out of love, cheating on somebody, failing, a chance of redemption, all those things that deal with aspects of what it is to be human that everybody ends up relating to, if they pay attention to it... And it’s good music, too!”