Filmmaker Ken Burns and his collaborators on PBS’ upcoming “Country Music” documentary series had no inside connections to the country music community when they began work on the eight-part series more than eight years ago. And that’s a good thing, in the view of Vince Gill, the renowned singer-songwriter.
“Country Music,” a masterful chronicle of what Burns calls “a uniquely American art form,” is set to debut Sept. 15. The fact that Burns and his longtime producers Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey were not “insiders” allowed them to tell the story with a level of objectivity that made for a more powerful work, Gill said.
“It’s finally go the respect that it’s never had,” Gill said Monday night as he joined Burns, Duncan and Dunfey at New York’s 92Y for a screening of clips and Q&A about the series, moderated by music journalist Alan Light.
“The story is told in such a profound and honest way. It’s light years more compelling that it we could have told it ourselves,” Gill said. “I think we would have lied.”
Burns told the crowd that he was not a big fan of country music at the outset of the project but he came to see the story of the musical form that emerged from Appalachia and other regions as “yet another lens on the American experience.”
The series unfolds in chronological form, starting in the early 1920s with the first recordings of what was then known as “hillbilly music.” Duncan said the hardest part was deciding which artists to profile and how to capture the significance of the artists and their music in the context of the times in which they lived.
“We didn’t want it to be just a parade of celebrity names or a K-TEL commercial,” Duncan said. “The songs and stories we chose had to stand for all the songs and stories we couldn’t tell.”
Dunfey observed that “Country Music” was a challenging production in part because it required them to clear so many music rights — the series has some 584 music cues and 101 interviews across 16 hours. Music costs in past Burns’ productions have typically run about 3%-4% of the total budget; in “Country Music,” music rights accounted for about 25% of the budget, Dunfey said.
Nonetheless, country music pros were eager to work with producers to ensure that the docu-series was comprehensive. Artists and their families went out of their way to help producers find rare photos and memorabilia to help enrich the episodes.
“We felt very welcomed by the country music community,” she said.
Burns noted that his work on “Country Music” and the 2001 series “Jazz” has taught him that all forms of American music are interconnected in a fundamental way, from jazz to country to classical. He noted the phenomenon this year of the country smash “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X — a black gay rapper.
“That’s the mic drop on America right now,” Burns said. “Isn’t that wonderful?”
Gill also treated the audience to two soulful songs performed on acoustic guitar: “A World Without Haggard,” which Gill wrote after learning of the death of country legend Merle Haggard on April 6, 2016; and “A Letter to My Mama.”