Oscar winning documentary maker Ken Burns is celebrated for his chronicles on all aspects of American history, from the Civil War, to baseball to prohibition to jazz and the epic series Vietnam War. Now he shines the light on that uniquely American art form – country music.
Like the lyrics to a good country music song, Ken Burns’ critically acclaimed new documentary boasts great storytelling — filled with joy, sorrow, love and loss — in an epic chronicle of the history of the country music genre from its early days through the late ’90s.
Ken Burns explores the history of this true American art form and how it has evolved across the 20th century, from its roots in ballads, hymns and the blues, to its mainstream popularity today.
Eight years in the making, this epic series features many of country music’s biggest stars.
The series features never-before-seen footage and photographs and interviews with more than 80 country music artists, with biographies of the fascinating characters who created and shaped the genre – from the Carter family, Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills to Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Garth Brooks and more.
It also covers the times in which they lived, featuring incredible stories of the joys and hardship they went through.
A particularly engrossing aspect of the storytelling comes through interviews with more than 80 country artists. 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.
The documentary begins telling the story of country music’s earliest years up to 1933 of how so-called ‘hillbilly music’ of the American South grew in popularity, thanks to radio, and launched new careers.
The Carter Family, with their ballads and old hymns, and Jimmie Rodgers, with his combination of blues and yodeling, became its first big stars, although Rodgers’ career was cut short in 1933 when he died from tuberculosis at just 35 years old.
Nashville became the heart of the country music industry during the Great Depression and World War II as America fell in love with singing cowboys, Texas swing, created by Bob Wills, and the Grand Ole Opry's Roy Acuff.
As country music adapted to the cultural changes of post-war society, Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs transformed traditional string band music into something more syncopated – bluegrass.
Out of the bars and juke joints came a new sound – honky-tonk – with electric guitars and songs about drinking, cheating and heartbreak. Its biggest star was Hank Williams, a singer who wrote songs of surprising emotional depth, derived from his troubled and tragically short life.
These are simply the origins of country music. Ken Burns epic continues on from bluegrass and honktonk to tell the ongoing fascinating story through to the present day.
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.