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The Journal Gazette

  • PBS Ken Burns speaks during Country Music: Live at the Ryman on March 27 in Nashville, Tenn.

Saturday, September 14, 2019 1:00 am

Burns' latest effort dives into country music

George Dickie | Zap2it

No matter how you feel about country music, one needn't be a fan to appreciate “Country Music.”

Indeed, Ken Burns' latest epic, premiering Sunday on PBS, is an eight-part, 16-hour documentary that explores the history of the genre, from its roots in Appalachia in the 1920s and '30s through its evolution in the South, Southwest and Midwest in the mid- and late-20th century to its decidedly more rock-and-roll-like sound of today.

Along the way, the documentary tells the stories of the pioneers who helped shape the music.

“It's three chords and the truth,” says Burns, quoting legendary songwriter Harlan Howard. “It does not have the sophistication of classical or some forms of jazz but it has the truth. You can hear the lyrics and they're describing universal human things and we disguise it. We love to pretend that country music is about pick-up trucks and hound dogs and six-packs of beer and good ole' boys. ... No, that's a subgenre. What country music talks about are two four-letter words that most of us get uncomfortable talking about, and that's love and loss.”

The film does a good job of explaining the structure of country, with jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis pointing out that country has its roots in blues, folk and jazz.

It also offers up a treasure trove of interviews.

Burns, who grew up working in a record store in his native Ann Arbor, Michigan, knew about country but was not a fan. That changed after years of work on this project, which he called “daily humiliations of what I didn't know.”

As to what surprised him most, he says, “Everything.”

“The racial component,” he says, “the extent to which the pantheon of the early days of country music is filled with African-American influence, that the banjo is from Africa.

“That your strong women from the very beginning and well before anybody in rock and folk is picking up women's issues, they may not call themselves feminists or talk about women's liberation,” he added.

“Loretta Lynn is singing, 'Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' With Lovin' on Your Mind' or 'The Pill,' ” he continues. “And I wonder what black eye (the Jefferson Airplane's) Grace Slick would have gotten if she had been talking about that in her circle. ...”

“And (Lynn) says, 'If you're talking about your life and you're telling the truth, it's going to be country.' ”