For country music fans, there has been a long, almost constant argument about exactly where the genre should draw its boundaries (see the purists take on Lil Nas X and “Old Town Road” as a current example).
And yet, the history of the genre shows that country music has never been one thing. In its earliest form, it was the folk string music of the Carter Family and the Southern blues influence heard in Jimmie Rodgers. It was the banjo, an African instrument and the European fiddle.
Later, it was everything from Western swing and honky-tonk to the Grand Ole Opry and the country pop of Garth Brooks.
“For convenience and commerce, we put the borders on it,” says filmmaker Ken Burns, who chronicles the history of the genre in “Country Music,” a new and expansive 16-hour documentary for PBS.
Burns spent eight years with longtime collaborators Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey, researching the film and conducting interviews with more than 100 people, including country luminaries Marty Stuart, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, the Judds — Naomi and Wynonna — Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Greensboro native Rhiannon Giddens is also included in the documentary.
There are more than 3,200 photographs (some never seen before) and more than two hours of archival footage in the film.
“I’m only interested in stories about the United States that are firing on all cylinders,” Burns says.
In that way, “Country Music” fits perfectly with the subject of his other films, he says, whether that’s the Vietnam War, jazz or Lewis and Clark.
We tend to denigrate country music, Burns says, instead of celebrating its depth — and “Country Music” plays against the genre’s own stereotypes, in many ways, he says. African Americans were central to the music, for example. All the early pioneers were influenced or taught by African Americans, he says. DeFord Bailey was the first African American to perform at the Grand Ole Opry and was one of the most famous artists of its early days.
“This is a story of very strong women,” Burns says. Whether that’s Maybelle and Sara Carter and Rose Maddox, who settled in the Central Valley and could be the first rock ’n’ roll band depending on who you ask.
It’s also the story of geography and a sense of place. “Country Music” is Nashville, Tenn., certainly, Burns says. That’s where Bob Dylan went to reinvent himself, after all.
But it’s also Appalachia and Texas and Bakersfield. And Atlanta, which was the home of Fiddlin’ John Carson, the guy most people say released the first country record.
“In the end, it’s the story about words and music,” Burns says.
That ol’ “three chords and the truth,” to quote songwriter Harlan Howard.
“In country music,” Burns says, “it comes together in this elemental form.”