Premieres: Sept. 15
Airs: Sunday-Wednesday at 8pm ET/PT (check local listings), through Sept. 25
What’s It All About? Like the lyrics to a good country music song, Ken Burns’ thoroughly engrossing new documentary boasts great storytelling — filled with joy, sorrow, love and loss — as the eight-part, 16-hour film chronicles the history of that musical genre from its early days through the late ’90s in what we found to be one of the director’s most consistently compelling films since 2007’s The War.
That storytelling is partly achieved through Burns’ seemingly effortless direction and command of the subject, and his now-famous use of often little-seen photos and footage, along with Dayton Duncan’s crisp, fun and illuminating writing (in a script narrated once again by longtime Burns collaborator Peter Coyote). The images and narration not only foreshadow the arrival of genre giants like the Carter Family, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, but also interweave their names and legacies throughout ensuing episodes, reflecting their continuing massive influences. This interweaving also helps symbolize a point the film, and many interviewed for it, try to make: that the genre people had a hard time defining for a long time (it was originally simply known as “hillbilly music”), like America itself, is a combination of many different types of people and styles.
The other major and effective part of Country Music’s storytelling comes through interviews with more than 80 country artists. It’s quite enjoyable to see the likes of Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Charley Pride, Dwight Yoakam and others reflect, candidly and sometimes emotionally, on their lives and careers, as well as on the history of their industry as a whole.
As has also happened on previous Burns films, given that it usually takes him years to put them together, Country Music adds to its time-capsule quality by including important thoughts from people we lost prior to the film’s debut. Notable in this respect are the invaluable insights from “Poet of the Common Man” Merle Haggard presented in the film through interviews conducted before his passing in 2016.
Of course, you can’t have a film about music without the music itself, and Country Music is almost constantly filled with tunes. Lengthy snippets — if not the entirety — of the influential biggies that country fans probably know are all here: Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Lefty Frizzell’s “The Long Black Veil,” the Carter Family’s “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” and its various ensuing incarnations, Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man,” Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and several of Johnny Cash’s famous songs, among many others.
But even dedicated country fans may discover new tunes discussed here, or at least find the stories behind songs they know new and informative — histories that truly serve to enhance the songs’ emotional and entertainment value. This will be a rare time when you may very well find yourself tapping your feet throughout a 16-hour documentary.
“It’s really colorful in here,” musician Marty Stuart says in the film at one point about the wide variety of personalities and styles in country music. The same could be said of Burns’ entertaining and educational film.