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Guide to KEN BURNS' COUNTRY MUSIC on PBS: Overview, Episodes, Photos

Maj Canton - September 13, 2019




On Sunday, September 15, 2019 at 8pm, PBS premieres the epic documentary series COUNTRY MUSIC. Directed by Ken Burns and written by Dayton Duncan, this eight-part, 16-hour film chronicles the highs and lows of country music's early days -- from southern Appalachia's songs of struggle, heartbreak and faith to the rollicking Western swing of Texas, California's honky-tonks and Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. The film follows the evolution of country music over the course of the 20th century as it eventually emerges to become "America's music." The series explores crucial questions -- "What is country music?" and "Where did it come from?" -- while focusing on the biographies of the fascinating trailblazers who created and shaped it -- from the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe 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 many more -- as well as the times in which they lived. Much like the music itself, the film tells unforgettable stories of hardships and joys shared by everyday people. COUNTRY MUSIC digs deep to uncover the roots of the music, including ballads, minstrel music, hymns and the blues, and its early years in the 1920s, when it was called "hillbilly music," and was recorded for the first time and played across the airwaves on radio station barn dances. It explores how Hollywood B movies instituted the fad of singing cowboys like Gene Autry and shows how the rise of juke joints after World War II changed the musical style by bringing electric and pedal steel guitars to the forefront. The film witnesses the rise of bluegrass music with Bill Monroe and reveals how one of country music's offspring -- rockabilly -- evolved into rock and roll in Memphis. Throughout, the documentary focuses on the constant tug of war between the desire to make country music as mainstream as possible and the periodic reflexes to bring it back to its roots.


"At the heart of every great country music song is a story," said Burns. "As the songwriter Harlan Howard said, 'It's three chords and the truth.' The common experiences and human emotions speak to each of us about love and loss, about hard times and the chance of redemption. As an art form, country music is also forever revisiting its history, sharing and updating old classics and celebrating its roots, which are, in many ways, foundational to our country itself."


Johnny Cash



Tammy Wynette & George Jones


"We discovered that country music isn't -- and never was -- one type of music; it actually is many styles," said Duncan. "It sprang from diverse roots, and it sprouted many branches. What unites them all is the way the music connects personal stories and elemental experiences with universal themes that every person can relate to. And as it evolved, from the bottom up, it created a special bond between the artists and fans that is unique among all other musical genres."




Duncan, Burns and Julie Dunfey spent eight years researching and producing the film, conducting interviews with more than 100 people, including 40 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame (17 of those interviewed have since passed on). Among those storytellers are historian Bill Malone and a wide range of country artists such as Marty Stuart, Rosanne Cash, Vince Gill, Reba McEntire, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, and Naomi and Wynonna Judd, as well as studio musicians, record producers and others. The film uses more than 3,200 photographs and over two hours of archival footage, including rare and never-before-seen photos and footage of Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash and others.


Dolly Parton



Patsy Cline


Having grown up in a large northern metropolitan city all I listened to were Rock& Roll Motown and Disco-- all I knew about country music was that the women stood by their men and the men loved their trucks. Hillbillies, cowboy hats and big hair were not for me. So it was with reluctance that sat down to screen all eight parts of the series. I was soon captivated because it wasn’t just about the music it is the story of America and I found it fascinating. You will too. Go Country!




If you want to know nothing about the episodes at all, skip this section. Provided by PBS, this episode guide includes general episode descriptions and specific plot details.

"The Rub (Beginnings - 1933)" (Sunday, September 15, 2019 from 8-10pm): See how what was first called "hillbilly music" reaches new audiences through phonographs and radio, and launches the careers of country music's first big stars, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.

"Hard Times (1933 - 1945)" (Monday, September 16, 2019 from 8-10pm): Watch as Nashville becomes the heart of the country music industry. The genre grows in popularity during the Great Depression and World War II as America falls in love with singing cowboys, Texas Swing and the Grand Ole Opry's Roy Acuff.

"The Hillbilly Shakespeare (1945 - 1953)" (Tuesday, September 17, 2019 from 8-10pm): See how the bluegrass sound spreads in post-war America, and meet honky-tonk star Hank Williams, whose songs of surprising emotional depth are derived from his troubled and tragically short life.

"I Can't Stop Loving You (1953 - 1963)" (Wednesday, September 18, 2019 from 8-10pm): Travel to Memphis, where Sun Studios artists Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley usher in the era of rockabilly. Ray Charles crosses America's racial divide by recording a country album. Patsy Cline shows off Music City's smooth new Nashville Sound.

"The Sons and Daughters of America (1964 - 1968)" (Sunday, September 22, 2019 from 8-10pm): See how country music reflects a changing America, with Loretta Lynn speaking to women everywhere, Merle Haggard becoming "The Poet of the Common Man" and audiences looking beyond race to embrace Charley Pride.

"Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (1968 - 1972)" (Monday, September 23, 2019 from 8-10pm): Learn how country music responds to a nation divided by the Vietnam War, as Army captain turned songwriter Kris Kristofferson sets a new lyrical standard, and artists like Bob Dylan and the Byrds find a recording home in Nashville.

"Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? (1973 - 1983)" (Tuesday, September 24, 2019 from 8-10pm): Witness a vibrant era in country music, with Dolly Parton finding mainstream success; Hank Williams, Jr. and Rosanne Cash emerging from their famous fathers' shadows; and Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings launching the "Outlaw" movement.

"Don't Get Above Your Raisin' (1984 - 1996)" (Wednesday, September 25, 2019 from 8-10pm): Learn how "New Traditionalists" like George Strait, Randy Travis and the Judds help country music stay true to its roots. Witness both the rise of superstar Garth Brooks and the return of an aging Johnny Cash to the industry he helped create.