Despite his more than 30 years of telling stories of war and other equally heavy subjects, Ken Burns was not prepared for the level of emotion he would experience while creating his latest documentary: “Country Music.”
“We tend to make fun of country music because it deals with two four-letter words that none of us are really comfortable discussing: love and loss,” Burns said in an interview from his home in Walpole, New Hampshire on Thursday during a break from an editing session. “And so, it’s much easier to mask that with, you know, pickup trucks and good ol’ boys and hound dogs and six-packs of beer, when that is a very tiny, small subgenre of what country music is about, which [are] universal human emotions that everyone has felt.”
The Emmy Award-winning, Academy-nominated filmmaker will show a special preview of “Country Music” at the Aspen Music Festival and School on Tuesday. Burns will also speak on a panel alongside AMFS President and CEO Alan Fletcher and bassist and composer Edgar Meyer.
“Country Music” explores the history, impact and evolution of what Burns considers a uniquely American art form. The eight-part series, which features unseen footage, photographs and interviews with more than 80 country music artists, will premiere nationally on PBS on Sept. 15.
“People ask me who I made the film ‘Country Music’ for,” Burns said, “and I say, ‘I made it for people who love country music, I made it for people who don’t know anything about it, and I made it for people who don’t like country music.’”
In other words, Burns said, he created “Country Music” for everyone.
Country music grew “out of places in the American South, always, with complicated roots,” Burns said. “It’s a working class music; it’s like folk music — it comes from the bottom up, and it’s from people who feel like their stories aren’t being told.”
This is how Peter Coyote’s warm, familiar voice opens the entire 16-hour series: “Country music rose from the bottom up,” Coyote narrates, “from the songs Americans sang to themselves in farm fields and railroad yards to ease them through their labors.”
For the longest period of time, country music was synonymous with “hillbilly music,” Burns said.
He added: “That, in and of itself, was a pejorative super-imposition; that somehow these people — with their twang and their rough dress and their lack of sophistication — couldn’t possibly create something as elegant as popular music or as jazz.”
All told, from initial research to production, Burns spent eight-and-a-half years working on “Country Music.” By comparison, his 10-part, 18-hour documentary on the Vietnam War was a 10-and-a-half-year process.
The documentarian works on several projects at a time and is currently chipping away at seven films.
“We have to do deep dives,” he said, in order to “fully flesh out” the complete picture.
With more than 30 films under his belt, Burns has directed and produced some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries of our time.
Asked to what extent the availability or accessibility of visual elements impacts which subjects he chooses to explore, Burns responded: “None. Zero. Zip.”
“It doesn’t really matter,” he said. “Sometimes the subjects have an abundance of archives, and you use them; sometimes they don’t, and you figure out new ways [to tell the story]. I’ve never been scared off by either too much or too little of a particular archival research.”
While Burns’ subjects appear diverse on a surface level — from baseball and jazz to the Civil War and national parks — they are all deeply ingrained in American history.
“I think we’re always looking for subjects that tell us about who we are. And that ‘us’ is both ‘us’ in the lowercase, two-letter, personal pronoun ‘us,’ but also in the larger U.S.,” Burns said. “The story of country music is just a spectacular one, surprising to us in so many ways, particularly with regard to the role of women, but also with race, [and] just the sheer emotion of this music.”
If you go…
What: “Country Music: An Evening with Ken Burns”
When: Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.
Where: Harris Concert Hall
Cost: $200 per ticket, with net proceeds benefiting the Aspen Music Festival and School and The Better Angels Society. Tickets to the event were still available as of the Aspen Daily News’ press time. More information at aspenmusicfestival.com.