Unforgettable Stories of Hardship and Joy

Last Updated by Dale Fisher on
Johnny Cash at his home in California, 1960.
Courtesy of Sony Music Archives

The eight-part historical documentary Country Music is an unforgettable journey across time, one song at a time.

“At the heart of every great country music song is a story,” says documentarian Ken Burns. “As the songwriter Harlan Howard said, ‘It’s three chords and the truth.’ The common experiences and human emotions speak to each of us about love and loss, about hard times and the chance of redemption. As an art form, country music is also forever revisiting its history, sharing and updating old classics and celebrating its roots, which are in many ways foundational to our country itself.”

“We discovered that country music isn’t—and never was—one type of music; it actually is many styles,” says Dayton Duncan, writer and producer. “It sprang from diverse roots, and it sprouted many branches. What unites them all is the way the music connects personal stories and elemental experiences with universal themes that every person can relate to. And as it evolved, from the bottom up, it created a special bond between the artists and fans that is unique among all other musical genres.”

Country Music digs deep to uncover the roots of the music, including ballads, minstrel music, hymns and the blues, and its early years in the 1920s when it was called “hillbilly music” and was recorded for the first time and played across the airwaves on radio stations. It explores how Hollywood movies instituted the fad of singing cowboys, like Gene Autry, and shows how the rise of juke joints after World War II changed the musical style by bringing electric and pedal steel guitars to the forefront.

The film witnesses the rise of bluegrass music with Bill Monroe and reveals how one of country music’s offspring—rockabilly—evolved into rock and roll in Memphis. The documentary focuses on the constant tug of war between the desire to make country music as mainstream as possible and the periodic reflexes to bring it back to its roots.

As Burns and Duncan weave together the musical stories, they connect the history of country music to the larger story of America, looking at how artists and songwriting reflected periods of depression, war and cultural upheaval and how radio and, later, television impacted the art form. The series also tells the story of how Nashville came to be not only the epicenter of the country music industry, but Music City USA.

The Original Carter FamilyThe Original Carter Family, from left: AP, Maybelle and Sara Carter c 1930. Courtesy of Carter Family Museum, Rita Forrester At the film’s heart are the stories of unforgettable songs and the artists who created them: their emergence from humble beginnings, their musical influences and their breakthrough moments. The film explores the extraordinary connection between country music artists and fans and notes the enduring influence of particular songs and musicians across generations. The narrative ends in the mid-1990s as a young Garth Brooks emerges from a small venue in Nashville to achieve phenomenal success, brings country music to an entirely new level of popularity, and yet shows up to sign autographs for more than 20 hours at the Country Music Association’s Fan Fair.

Collaborators Burns, Duncan, and producer Julie Dunfey spent eight years researching and producing the film, conducting interviews with more than 100 people, including 40 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame (17 of those interviewed have since passed on). Among those storytellers are historian Bill Malone and a wide range of country artists such as Marty Stuart, Rosanne Cash, Vince Gill, Reba McEntire, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, and Naomi and Wynonna Judd, as well as studio musicians, record producers and others. The film uses more than 3,200 photographs and more than two hours of archival footage, including rare and never-before-seen photos and footage of Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash and others.

WATCH ON NINE PBS

Country Music: Live at the Ryman, A Concert Celebrating the Film by Ken Burns
September 8 at 7:00 p.m.
The Sunday before the premiere of Country Music, Nine PBS will air Country Music: Live at the Ryman. The all-star celebration features performances by Vince Gill, Dierks Bentley, Rosanne Cash, Rhiannon Giddens, Kathy Mattea, Marty Stuart, Dwight Yoakam, and more. Hosted by Ken Burns, the concert touches on the many styles that have defined and propelled country music through the years, from old-time mountain melodies and bluegrass to outlaw country and the Nashville Sound.

Country Music
Sunday–Wednesday, September 15–18, 7:00 p.m. (Episodes 1–4)
Sunday–Wednesday, September 22–25, 7:00 p.m. (Episodes 5–8)
Explore the history of a uniquely American art form: country music. From its deep and tangled roots in ballads, blues and hymns performed in small settings to its worldwide popularity, learn how country music evolved over the course of the 20th century. Learn more at nineNet.org/CountryMusic.

Stream
The first four episodes will stream on nineNet.org/video and the PBS Video App, available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast, timed to the September 15 premiere, and the second four episodes timed to the broadcast of Episode 5 on September 22. Episodes will stream for a period of three weeks. Nine Passport members will be able to stream the entire series for a period of six months beginning September 15.