Ken Burns’ ‘Country Music’ documentary relies heavily on the stories from Mississippi’s deep music history

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Sherry Lucas

Crowds pack the Ellis Theater in Philadelphia for a screening of excerpts from “Country Music.”

PHILADELPHIA, Miss. — When Marty Stuart heard a documentary on country music was in the works by Ken Burns and crew, “I felt like … the cavalry was coming over the hill.”

It was welcome news for the country star, multi-instrumentalist and Mississippi native who has been part of a big chunk of country music history, and built a huge collection of its memorabilia and artifacts. “They bring a dignity and they bring an integrity and a cache that I don’t think the story of country music has ever known, especially in the 21st century.”

Courtesy of Evan Barlow

“Country Music” is directed by Ken Burns and produced by Burns and his long-time collaborators (from left) Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey.

“Country Music,” a film by Ken Burns, explores its history and meaning in eight episodes this fall on PBS, and streaming on the PBS video app, starting Sept. 15. Directed by Burns, it’s produced by Burns and long-time collaborators Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey, and written by Duncan (also author of the illustrated companion book, due in September).

Country music fits right in line with topics they like to explore, Duncan says — bringing the story of something uniquely American, to the American people. “We’re storytellers. What we do in the course of 16½ hours is what you do in the space of three minutes,” he says to Stuart on the Ellis Theater stage. “You’re telling a story. Because that’s how people remember things.”

Philadelphia and Meridian were early stops on a kickoff roadshow of screenings and
discussions that started in Nashville and will travel to more than 30 markets across the country, leading up to the film’s premiere. Duncan and Stuart led a rollicking evening at the Ellis Theater in March, screening excerpts on Jimmie Rodgers, “The Father of Country Music,” and on Stuart, who’s been a performer in country music and its root genres since his teens.

A packed house raved over the highlights, including a mini concert by Marty Stuart and  The Fabulous Superlatives and an appearance by country star (and Stuart’s wife) Connie Smith. The program also served as the first flagship event for Marty Stuart’s Congress of Country Music, a country music museum and performing arts center in the works for his hometown Philadelphia.

Sherry Lucas

Colorful boots once worn by country music artists are in the Marty Stuart Center and Congress of Country Music Hall Warehouse in Philadelphia.

The downtown site is just a couple of blocks from Stuart’s Warehouse, where stars’ sparkly suits and colorful boots, storied guitars and vintage memorabilia await the spotlight again.

Mississippi’s roots and role in country music history contribute important stories for the
documentary’s scope, from its first superstar Jimmie Rodgers from Meridian, to Charley Pride from Sledge and other key figures. “Many people think rock ‘n’ roll grew out of blues meets gospel. It’s blues and gospel meet hillbilly music,” says Duncan, “and that was from a young man from Tupelo, Mississippi … Elvis Presley.”

Stuart is a key presence in “Country Music.” When he first got wind of the project, he told
filmmakers, “Come see me. This is for real. I’m the deep end of the pool. My phone book is vast. Whatever you need.” When Duncan arrived at his offices about seven years ago, they became family in about 30 seconds, he says. “You talk about a well-oiled machine — when that crew hits a subject, man, it is like watching a SWAT team go after something.”

Courtesy of Les Leverett Collection

Bill Monroe on the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville, c.1958. Credit: Les Leverett Collection

“Marty’s in our film more than any other person,” says Duncan — as a guide to Jimmie Rodgers and his music, to Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe, to Johnny Cash. In the early 1970s they catch up to Stuart’s own story, as a performer at a time when genres reached in different directions, collided and mixed.

“It’s an art form. We are very serious about that,” Duncan says. “What can looking at it and getting to understand it tell us about who we are as Americans? One of the first things you find out is that it’s not just one music.

“It’s not one now, and it never was just one style of music. It’s always been this complicated mix of different parts of the American experience and American music, and it’s created by great artists. And, artists never want to do the same thing over and over and over again. They’re always pushing boundaries” — listening, interpreting, trying new things. Filmmakers’ 101 interviews were mostly with country artists and a few writers and historians, but also with musicians offering an interesting perspective, such as Jack White, Elvis Costello, Paul Simon and Wynton Marsalis.

Love, betrayal, death, hard times, faith — country music at its best deals with basic human issues, delivered in heart-penetrating music and poetry. “Those things are universal, and they know no genre,” Duncan says. “We don’t belabor the point. But, we keep reminding you that this music doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it can never be constrained into one tight definition.”

A Mississippi Public Broadcasting-produced companion piece — a “Grassroots” TV special with host Bill Ellison — will accompany the documentary this fall. “Bill has a huge following with the ‘Grassroots’ radio show, so when we thought about a country music TV special, who better to host it?” says John Gibson, director of television at MPB. It will feature interviews with Stuart and Duncan, and also preview an original MPB documentary about Carl Jackson — Louisville, Mississippi, native and legendary Nashville songwriter and musician — coming next winter.

“Country Music” starts its storytelling in 1923 in Atlanta with country music’s birth as a market, and explores its roots in Scots-Irish ballads, hymns, the banjo from Africa, blues, minstrel shows and more. The film continues through the 20th century to about 1996, with Garth Brooks elevating country music to stratospheric heights, the death of Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash’s final recordings.

“They’re introducing the subject of country music as a culture to people who probably never regarded country music as much before. But, when you put it alongside of what they have already done — Ken and Dayton — it’s staggering,” Stuart says of their previous work on “The National Parks,” The Civil War,” “Jazz” and more. “It becomes a curriculum, immediately. They know how to entertain and educate at the same time.

“And, for the old-timers who love traditional country music and thought they’d never hear it or see it again, it offers a letter from home.

“It covers all the bases.”