Ken Burns Explains How He Kept ‘Country Music’ Documentary Evergreen
Ken Burns' Country Music, the 16-plus-hour documentary that will air on PBS in September, is a massive undertaking that intertwines well-known and untold stories from nearly a century of the genre's history. The filmmaker and his team had their work cut out for them when it came time to edit: They had nearly 50 hours of usable footage they had to select from once the preliminary work was done.
"The cutting room floor, on the last couple years of editing, was filled only with good stuff. You’re never taking out bad stuff. You’re taking out good stuff that just doesn’t fit. It may just be that the narrative is going somewhere else," Burns told The Boot in an interview in May. "Imagine, if we were making an encyclopedia or a telephone book, everybody would be included, but no one would read it. If you make a story, then, inevitably, storytelling is in and of itself editing."
The key to making progress on the massive endeavor was clear, however: Define the narrative arc and focus on content that supported the story, not what Burns and his team thought should be included. In the end, they came out with a concise thread of stories that's intriguing enough to keep people watching. "A lot of it is the material itself speaking to us," Burns explains, "not just us imposing on material."
This plan meant some tough choices for the production team, however. Limitations had to be placed on the amount of time covered in order to do the best storytelling. The film examines the country music genre from 1923 through 1996, years that featured important events and cultural moments that defined a specific frame for the information included.
"We make a decision at the beginning, struggling where to begin. In this case, we begin in 1923 in Atlanta, when a guy named Ralph Peer records Fiddlin’ John Carson," Burns says. "Then we go back a couple centuries to pick up the instruments and pick up the ethnic groups and pick up the various songs and things that evolve into country music, and then proceed with our narrative."
Burns also had the challenge of making the story evergreen, as the film itself is an educational tool, with lesson plans and other materials available to students and teachers.
"But, equally important to where you begin is where you end, and we made a decision early on that we were gonna end with the height of Garth Brooks’ popularity in . It’s also the year that Bill Monroe died, who’s been with us since the second episode. Then, also, [we] follow with a coda at the end: the career of Johnny Cash to his death in 2002, because he marries into the Carter family, which, they’re at the very beginning," Burns adds. "So that’s the kind of arc."
Country Music ends in the 20th century for good reason: Burns says there is a discomfort that arises closer to the present. "We’re in the history business, which means that, as we come up to the present, we get increasingly uncomfortable," he explains.
"History is about the perspective that the passage of time permits you to have," Burns notes. "As you get close to the present, you suddenly realize you’re kind of on thin ice about making decisions."
And while Burns says that there could be an additional installment to the series in 20-30 years, the more recent history of the genre cannot yet be fully understand. There hasn't been enough time to analyze the events of the past two decades and know who will be considered the voices of a generation, or which events had the largest effect.
"There’s some people that were huge, huge successes that barely make a blip in the historical record. There are people who came along, did something, but never quite caught on, but they’re seminal to where the music went," Burns says. "Only the passage of time can give us the ability to make that kind of judgment. Journalism and near history are more responsible for trying to sort out what’s going on."
Choosing who to include (and who not to include) in the Country Music narrative was critical. The Louvin Brothers are a perfect example of the logic behind the decisions of Burns and his team: They're essential to the beginning of country music but largely inspired more folk and rock artists in later years, and have often been left out of larger conversations about the genre. Burns chose to include them because their influence comes full circle for artists toward the end of the time period covered, with Emmylou Harris adapting their style and messages to create what was the beginning of Americana music.
Country Music's first episode will premiere on Sept. 15 at 8PM ET. The second, third and fourth episodes will air at the same time on Sept. 16, 17 and 18, respectively, while the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth episodes will air at the same time on Sept. 22-25.
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