Fitz Interviews Ken Burns About Country Music

Fitz: Pleasure to be in front of you and to be able to talk to your mind, talk to you, talk of the man behind so many documentaries that I have watched. I feel like sir, that I have learned more from you about our country and about our history more than any college professor I’ve ever had.

Ken Burns: Thank you. That’s a really high compliment.

Fitz: So for that I thank you. I’ve also always considered myself to be a student of country music. And by watching just the beginning of your documentary, I was blown away and we’ll get to that in just a moment. I was blown away by things that I learned that I had no idea about.

First of all, you’ve done so many documentaries on the civil war and baseball, the Vietnam War, and it seems like to me you’re really trying to get to the core of what makes America tick. Why are we ticking a certain way? So what was it about country music that interested you to tell the story about the history of country music?

Ken Burns: Well I think the key is the word story. And we’ve always been interested in telling good stories, that’s the essence of filmmaking. And we happen to work at American history and there are a lot of great stories there and we do tend to suspect that we’re making the same film over and over again. Sort of asking a question about who we are and what makes us unique or the same. And there are recurring themes that take place in our stories that we touch and country music is, in some ways I can’t imagine why it took us so long to get to it, and in a way it was the perfect time to do it. We have an underwriter for many, many years. The Bank of America has been very, very generous to us and they have a tagline for this film, which is nothing connects to the country like country.

And I think that that’s it. We live in a world that’s now fractured by millions of internet sites and hundreds and hundreds of channels and very little common space where we’re able to get together. And music remains one of those big sort of Pan American-

Fitz: Unifiers.

Ken Burns: At times unifiers and I think the elemental simplicity of country music permits it to deal with themes that we often ignore or find uncomfortable to talk about. Particularly the two four letter words, love and loss. And I think for Dayton Duncan, a writer, producer, Julianne Dunphy, producer and me, we felt that we had “Cut a tiger by the tail,” to quote a great Buck Owens tune and that this was going to be a way to understand yet again a complicated last 100 years of American life. To see it from a different perspective and to essentially animate those emotions about love and loss.

I mean we make fun of country music often. We sort of put it in a back 40 of musical stuff. It’s the same as jazz. It’s the same as country. It’s the same as pop. It’s the same as R&B and folk and yet it’s doing something at this elemental level that’s able to deal with it. And we make fun of it. We say good old boys and pickup trucks and six packs of beer and this sort of thing, when in fact it’s able so plaintively and so directly to deal with great joy and great hardship and it’s just been an amazing ride for us of trying to contain that story.

Fitz: Do you feel the country music, it’s able to through it’s music and it’s genre, particularly country, tell a story of authenticity more than you can maybe get from a Top 40 song, right?

Ken Burns: Well most definitely more than you can get from a Top 40 song that has that kind of manufactured, over washed, scrubbed feel. There’s something pretty raw about it. The songwriter Harlan Howard described country music as three chords and the truth. And I think that too often we sort of acknowledge the simplicity of it, but forget the truth part of it. And there’s nothing more elemental. The kind of main lining, universal human emotions, whatever they might be, then in country music and authenticity, the word you used is the key to it. In rock it’s sometimes hard to hear the truth and in country it’s not. It comes through and it speaks really loud and clear. And I think for those of us who worked on it, many of us unfamiliar as we are with almost all the topics that we undertake, we’re not there to tell you what we know and therefore what you should know.

Ken Burns: But we’d rather share with you a process of discovery. It was a revelation every day and a joyous one and a heartbreaking one all at the same time.

Fitz: Speaking of revelation, I told you that I felt that I was a student of the format and you mentioned truth, then you mentioned love and you mentioned loss, but I was shocked to find out that even lust pops up, right?

Ken Burns: Yeah.

Fitz: A lot of cheating and a lot of drinking. I was blown away at the story of Loretta Lynn. I knew Loretta Lynn was huge and was integral in the beginning of country music and its popularity as far as how she transcended other formats.

Ken Burns: She was in our fifth of eight episodes, so she’s not so early on, but she’s a hugely important part of a film that will surprise people … It is … So it is filled with the stories of strong women from the beginning with Sarah Carter and Maybelle Carter, all the way through to the present moment. And that’s surprising about it because we presume that the essential Conservatism of country music as it presents would suggest that it wasn’t that, but it’s been … there’s been a very powerful matriarch or matriarchy running through all of country man, and Loretta is the best, well before anyone in rock and roll or folk or anything is dealing with themes about don’t come home and drink and with loving on your mind or the pill or you’re not woman enough to take my man. She’s dealing with these fundamental, elemental negotiations between men and women with an honesty that I can’t imagine Grace Slick doing in the mid sixties.

Fitz: Would you say she was one of the first to talk about the real things happening inside of a home?

Ken Burns: Well, this is what country music has always done, and I think that we’ve permitted it to sort of go past us. Many of us, a lot of people know exactly what it’s about and they hear their lives and their experiences reflected in the lives and experiences of the songs that these people, our characters have.

Credit: Ken Burns/PBS/Youtube

Fitz: Loretta Lynn on line four, Loretta on line four, yeah. Regarding Loretta. I felt that in a way she was the Miranda Lambert of the 1960s in the way that she told the truth. She talked about her man. She talked about the wrong things her man was doing. She talked about sitting at home with with six kids and like you mentioned the pill. Not to give too much away, but there were actually people who wanted to stop her airplay.

Ken Burns: Yeah. Which of course, when you ban in Boston a book, then it sells more copies of the book. So the boycott had the exact, that wrong effect. It helped the pill cross over into pop and mainstream charts and you call attention to something by saying how bad and risque it is. People will start to seek it out in a way that they might not have done if you just let it alone. But yeah, no, I wouldn’t compare her to anyone. She’s incomparable in talent and honesty and whatever. But she represents and finds herself, at least in our narrative, sort of smack dab in the middle of an amazing arc of amazingly strong women speaking directly to things well before any other genre of music that I know, including the fraternity of jazz, which barely lets Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald sneak in. It’s doing … Women have an amazing …

Fitz: Amazing stories to tell, obviously.

Ken Burns: Exactly what I was going to say, that they have amazing stories to tell and they tell it from a perspective of more than one half of the population of our country. And that’s a worthy perspective.

Fitz: Since we’re on the discussion of females and airplay, the first thing I was going to mention, back then while Loretta was trying to get her music out about the drama going on inside of the home. They didn’t have the ability for anything to go viral. How did the message spread during that time in country music about this female on the radio, Loretta Lynn and what she was singing about her husband and the things going on at the home. Was it simply radio airplay? Was it newspaper? How did the word get out?

Ken Burns: It’s a variety of things. In the beginning, well before Loretta, there’s radio that’s bringing you a barn dance from Chicago or Charlotte or Dallas or Shreveport or Nashville, a barn dance that turns into what’s called the Grand Ole Opry, the longest running radio program in American broadcasting. They’re selling some records. They’re touring all the time and that’s the way it is. But to promote a record as Loretta did in the late fifties was to travel around to radio stations with your husband and your demo and go in and jump out of your jeans and put on your black dress and you go into the radio station and say, “Would you play this?” And maybe bat your eyelashes, I don’t know, and get it played and then move on.

And in fact, her first hit and what brought her eventually to Nashville was that kind of retail use of shoe leather way of doing it. But the main way is over the radio waves with established programs or disc jockeys playing the latest country releases and then people vote for it with their pocketbooks.

Credit: Ken Burns/PBS/Youtube

Fitz: Funny story. My mother was trying to be a country music artist. She had a single on the radio. She, during the big TV show days of Dallas, she wrote a song called “Who shot J.R.?” Drove to Nashville, went into the Larry Gatlin Agency, signed with Larry Gatlin for a single to do the radio promotional tour, radio station to radio station. And you’re right. It’s absolutely a very, very hard life, especially how they had to do it then. As you looked so much into the history of country music, what are you feeling about the future of country music and what some from the past are saying about the future of country music?

Ken Burns: Well, our film essentially ends in ’96 and then considers the last years of Johnny Cash’s remarkable life. So that takes you up to 2002 and as historians, we’re loathed to sort of be able to feel comfortable commenting on the present dynamic because the present dynamic hasn’t settled out. But I can say that there’s a wonderful tension that runs throughout country music all the time. And it’s many, many tensions that help create the art, the friction that creates the art that takes place. One of them is this tendency to try something new and this tendency almost simultaneously to want to go back to your roots. So the arc of our series through the eight episodes is often this music that begins that people think is all one thing, and it’s not because the Big Bang takes place in 1927 when the Carter family and Jimmy Rogers are recorded.

If you listen to Jimmy Rogers and the Carter family, they sound nothing alike. He’s Saturday night, the rogue, the scam, the barrooms, they’re Sunday morning, mother, church, home, all of that sort of stuff. And what you see is that’s a wonderful tension in almost all of American music, but no more so than in country. And then it goes out looking for other forms to appropriate or to amalgamate with and it’ll try something that is hoping for some pop success. And then there’ll be a group of people saying, “Wait, wait, wait, we need to bring back this, the old traditions.”

And so there’s a kind of respiration in the arc of country music, the history of country music in which you’re sort of breathing in and breathing out and trying something new. And then also returning to more traditional forms is something that’s going on now. I imagine it’ll continue to go on and that’s the way something grows is just through that kind of exploration and at the same time having to come back home and touch base.

Fitz: The only permanent thing is change, right?

Ken Burns: Exactly.

Credit: Ken Burns/PBS/Youtube

Fitz: It’s constant evolvement. Since we’re talking about the definition of a country song, there’s so many artists in the documentary. I mean, Charlie Pride, is in it. Garth, you have Merle, Rosanne Cash is in it, Loretta is in it. They all have their own definitions of what they think a country song is. So what is your definition as you have heard everyone tell you what they feel a country song is? Have you summed up your own definition of a country song?

Ken Burns: It would be terrible to sum it up, but I would say that all the people you mentioned and many, many more, we did 101 interviews and most of them are in the final film and talking about exactly that question, and you hear words repeated across generations. Sincerity, authenticity. Loretta says, “If you’re singing about yourself and you’re singing about the truth, it’s going to be a country song.”

You have this sense that stripped down and elemental truths. Wynton Marsalis, the jazz composer said to us in the country music film that it’s about the joy of birth and the sadness at death and love and jealousy and greed and seeking redemption. All of these things are common themes that every human being on the planet will recognize. And that’s why there is a kind of elemental nature to it. It’s not simple because if you take the lyrics of Hank Williams or the Hillbilly Shakespeare, he was called, or Johnny Cash, he’s got a a very powerful tune that plays a huge role in our film.

He’s fooling around with it in episode four with Bob Dylan and it’s at the very end of our film called, “I Still Miss Someone.” The second verse is so stripped down and spare. It’s like a Hank Williams tune too. “I go out to a party to have a little fun but I find a darkened corner, ’cause I still miss someone.” I mean there is nothing fancy or ornamented about that. And yet there’s nobody within the sound of my voice, or more importantly, the sound of Johnny Cash’s voice, and all the other people who’ve covered it, who don’t know exactly, exactly what he’s talking about.

Fitz: Which leads me to this, throughout this research, what is your favorite lyric?

Ken Burns: I don’t know if I could could do that.

Fitz: Do you have a favorite song that you’ve grown to love in country music?

Ken Burns: Well, many. That’s what I’m saying. I don’t … I think, and it’s sort of unfortunate, I think that there’s never been a song more perfect than “I’m So lonesome I Could Cry,” by Hank Williams, but then it’s a very sad song and it speaks to a loneliness that all of us experience at some point, and he also has a film called “Hey Good Looking,” which is about as joyful and is wonderful. “I got a hot rodder Ford and a $2 bill and I know a place right over the hill,” and I remember Paul Simon talking to me on camera about, nobody wrote that spare and that direct and with that economy, and yet with just the complete … Have occasion have given you three elemental lines of a song that’s just so joyous and wonderful and coming out of the mouth of the same person who dies at 29 after leaving a legacy of hundreds of songs.

It’s just…that’s to me in some ways the heart of country music. So I guess if I had to do it, I’d settle in with that. But I haven’t brought up Kris Kristofferson or Dolly Parton or I have spoken about Johnny Cash and many, many other people who have contributed to this. Jimmy Rogers being the really first person who added this American thing about the blues, which suffuses country and as well as jazz and it’s own form, the blues and obviously rhythm and blues and soul music. So it’s this American sense of struggle and at the same time and the sadness that comes from that, but also a kind of determination to perhaps be better. That’s the element of who we are.

Credit: Ken Burns/PBS/Youtube

Fitz: There’s a Kenny Chesney lyric, one of them is, and it’s always stuck with me. Maybe it’s, “I’ve always been a dude in line, surrounded by temptation, and everywhere you go in this entertainment business,” and the lyric is “It’s your favorite sin, that’ll do you in.” How powerful is that? As we, I’m sure you’ve had a lot of talk about what is the greatest country song. You mentioned some. If you have a chance, I don’t know if you’ve ever had the chance to listen to Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me,” in my opinion, it is one of the greatest country songs of all time because it hits on all cylinders, right? And another top favorite of mine would be Garth Brooks, “The Dance.” I just wanted to share those with you.

Ken Burns: They’re both great and we’ll offer 70 or 80 others in full and complete competition with those two in our film and Garth is of course, the sort of the real last chapter of our film.

Fitz: Right. I was so impressed with the way you kick off the documentary because, and not to give too much away, but it begins with this painting. Tell me kind of the story about this painting and what it represents as far as all of the different layers and sort of origins of how country music really came to pass in this country.

Ken Burns: It’s one of those accidental fortuitous things that always happens in our documentary filmmaking. Julie Dunphy and I made a film in the 1980s on the life of the painter, Thomas Hart Benton, the last big commission of his life was to paint a painting called the Origins of Country Music, which sits in the hall of fame, a very bright, vibrant thing that shows all of the different elements that go into it.

And we interviewed Kathy Mattea, one of the great singers in all the history of country music, and an extraordinary human being. And she describes arriving in Nashville too young to wait on tables, but able to be a tour guide at the hall of fame and having to help people understand the roots of country music by this painting, which shows the old string bands and the banjo coming from Africa and cowboy songs and slavery and railroads and steam boats and guitars and everything is in it and it’s a very, as she says, “Colorful thing,” and it kind of invites you in to the story that we’re about to tell. So it very fortuitously helped us be the kind of horderve that says, “Have a taste of this. It isn’t one thing. It’s lots of things,” and it’s pretty joyful and pretty complicated and very interesting.

Fitz: Interesting you say that it’s not one thing, it’s lots of things because I feel like in 2019 what we hear about this country base, what they say, “Well this is country and it should be this one thing,” but our history tells us you’re right, it is lots of things.

Ken Burns: Well, I think what we do is we live in an age with so much information that it’s sort of necessary for us to create pigeonholes and categories and stick labels and put some kind of music in silos. But what that does is it doesn’t acknowledge how porous the borders are and how much jazz people are listening to country, and country are listening to jazz and all the other forms. And that particularly with country music, which is easy to say and all, and commerce is the main reason why we impose these arbitrary borders.

We want to have a country list, but you’re looking for crossover success, meaning it’s going to go across several different genres if it’s really good and the really good ones always do and become enduring and transcend that. But our point would be that it’s not just one thing. It’s many, many different things. And that’s an important, just like rock and roll is not one thing, it’s many things. Folk music, jazz, you have all of this stuff and we’re just saying, let’s not just pigeonhole so arbitrarily and superficially some conventional wisdom about country. But let it sort of breathe and be itself and see the way in which it’s got a foot in here that it’s one of the parents of rock and roll. I mean the blue … if you had rhythm and blues and country music, you get rock and roll.

And that’s what happened. I mean, you just have to go to Memphis in our fourth episode in 1954 to watch this dark eyed Troubadour from Dyess, Arkansas named Johnny Cash and this sideburned guy from Tupelo, Mississippi named Elvis Presley come and take R&B stuff and country stuff, the stuff they’ve grown up listening to and add a little bit of gospel and all of a sudden you’ve got this thing that is changing, about to change the world musically.

Credit: Ken Burns/PBS/Youtube

Fitz: Were the Hank Williams seniors during that time with Elvis and Johnny Cash, were they saying “This is, you know, this is not music, this music should not be heard,” especially those, Johnny Cash I heard, is it true that he was even told “What you’re doing Johnny Cash is not country.” When Garth hit, there were rumors in the industry that Wayland, let’s say about Garth. Garth Brooks is not country music. Did any of that jump out? Did you feel this competitiveness between the decades?

Ken Burns: No. No. The artists themselves. I mean, Hank had died before what had happened, tragically died before what had happened. But I think the country artists don’t think of things as a label. Brenda Lee is a wonderful thing. She sings a song and somebody says, “You’re rockabilly. No, you’re folk. No, you’re rock. No you’re country. No you’re this,” and she’s going, “It’s just a song I like,” and that’s the most important thing.

Louis Armstrong, arguably the most important musician of the 20th century said “There ain’t but two kinds of music, good music and bad music and good music, you tap your foot too, and we can liberate ourselves by dropping the labels.” Are there times when people in country music, one group feels like this has gotten too pop? Yes. Is there a time when the pop aspect of it thinks that these people are hopelessly nasal and twangy and scratchy violins, scratchy fiddles instead of sweet violins? Of course, but it’s the artists understand that you have to go seeking your muse and so it’s very interesting within the dynamic of country music in which the traditionalist often poo poo the Nashville sound or it’s even more syrupy and kind of pop confection like countrypolitan sound. Still nevertheless, think George Jones’s, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” is the greatest country song.

Fitz: Wow.

Ken Burns: So there you go.

Fitz: Throughout this process, who did you really find that you established a really cool bond with? Just a really cool connection. When you were chatting with who, you said yourself, “This dude is a cool dude and I’m definitely going to call this individual again.”

Ken Burns: I’m not sure we have time to go through all the people who did. Each project that we do, and this one no less than any others, introduces us to some amazing human beings. Rosanne Cash, Loretta, Reba McEntire, Kathy Mattea, a lot of extraordinary people. Kris Kristofferson, Marty Stewart who has spent his entire life, being the Zelig of the story of country music. He’s worked for two other groups besides being off on his own now. He worked for Earl Scruggs and a little bit of Bill Monroe and then Johnny Cash, saw it all, arrived in Nashville as a 12 or 13 year old, a prodigy on the mandolin and walked on the next day to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry and then watched it all but has felt even as own music has changed and progressed and evolved and he’s had to shed stuff along the way. He’s also been mindful of sort of loving all the parts of country music and trying to save and preserve it.

And so he represents, as many people do in our film, we didn’t have to go … We have one historian in it, in a film that we thought, “Oh, it will just be filled with people who’d spent their life studying it,” because the musicians themselves, it might be Willie Nelson or the late Merle Haggard, help us understand Jimmy Rogers in our first episode or Ernest Tubb in our second episode or this person before we get around to their story and then you understand how they fit into a continuum. An ever changing continuum about country music, but they’re all cool.

Credit: Ken Burns/PBS/Youtube

Fitz: Did you get to smoke with Willie?

Ken Burns: Well I think it would be fair to say that the interview that his people were confident would be very short and turned out to be very long meant that those of us in the small bus had definitely had a contact high from what had been going on.

Fitz: Legit. I already respected you very much but much more respect.

Ken Burns: Oh this stuff has been going on in my life since before you were born. So I don’t know.

Fitz: Not that you talk about Nashville and I always felt was the true epicenter of country music as far as spiritually was the Grand Ole Opry.

Ken Burns: Yeah.

Fitz: And I can just recall standing in there and just feeling the ghosts. Did you have that same experience when you’re there?

Ken Burns: Absolutely. Dayton and I had the opportunity very early on in this project to go and tell folks about it at a concert at the Ryman. And it was like, “Wow,” I thought it took a lot of practice to get here and we’re ignorant and we’re just at the beginning of the process and then we had a chance to sort of square the circle in March when we had a big concert with 26 of our artists from Marty Stewart to Rosanne Cash to Dierks Bentley to Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs and Larry Gatlin and all sorts of folks with a concert that PBS filmed that’ll be on a week before our series airs. So the series starts on Sunday, the 15th of September, but the 8th of September they’ll do this Ryman concert and we’ve got eight episodes. So it runs the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th. Then takes a couple of days off, and on the 22nd, 23rd, 24th, and 25th, the remaining four episodes go.

But they’ll be available for streaming and DVDs are out. There’s a fantastic music package and an amazing companion book that permits Dayton,, our writer to get in all the stories that the rest of us cut out of the film.

Fitz: And I can also tell you about the buzz inside of the country music community.

Ken Burns: It’s big.

Fitz: Sir, we are so excited.

Ken Burns: Yeah, I can’t wait for you to see the whole thing. I know you’ve seen it, a couple of hours.

Fitz: I got to see the first part, and I was blown away at what I had already found out. What’s something that blew you away? Maybe about one of the artists?

Ken Burns: Every single day. I mean you watched a compilation of two hours, that isn’t the first part. It’s just two hours. So that’s why you’re mistakenly thinking that Loretta’s at the beginning of our film. That was just, we were just sampling from different episodes and there’s titles in between that suggests that, but from the front of the beginnings to the last moment of the film, it was a revelation every single time and that’s what it should be. It should be not for us some sort of rote exposition, but a kind of process of discovery.

Credit: Ken Burns/PBS/Youtube

Fitz: And I want to get this right again, it’s going to be streaming on a station branded PBS platforms including pbs.org and PBS apps, premiers Sunday, September 15th, you said right?

Ken Burns: Yeah.

Fitz: Through Wednesday, September 18th.

Ken Burns: And then picks up again on the 22nd for the remaining four through the 25th and then they’ll all be available for streaming for a few weeks and the Ryman concert a week before on the eighth, Sunday the eighth.

Fitz: What do you think that, with all the research that you’ve done on so many subjects about our nation, what do you think that your relatives someday in the future will want to know about? Out of everything you’ve done, what questions are they going to ask you? Maybe you’ve got some of these questions already.

Ken Burns: I’m a grandpa, so I have. The historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., late historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., said that, “We suffer today from too much pluribus and not enough unum.” The Latin motto of the United States is “E pluribus unum.” It means out of many one and sometimes the many drowns out the sense of us cohering. And we feel that today as we retreat to kind of tribal postures, it’s really good to have a music that reminds us that all of us share this common heritage of love and loss.

Ken Burns: And so I think in all of the films we’ve done, regardless of the subject or in the music, we did a big thing on jazz. The wars that we’ve covered. At the end of the day, it’s all about love and loss and these are cohesive emotions and that becomes the message that for however divided that we might become at times, we have these institutions, we have this music, these anthems, these songs that permit us to figure out mechanisms to reconnect. And that’s the only thing that you want to do. Too much I, not enough us. And that could be the lowercase us or the upper case, the U.S., that’s where we operate.

Fitz: Ken Burns, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your time. Country music. We cannot wait for this. We cannot wait for this. Everybody’s talking about it. Thank you so much for your time, my friend.

Ken Burns: Thank you.

About Cliff Johnson

Cliff is the digital guy at Country 98.9, keeping the website and online streams up and running. He's an avid gamer, loves soccer and hanging out with his wife and son. He also is one-third of gaming podcast Byte Me Podcast.