Peter Coyote Riffs on ‘Country Music’ and How He Admires and Challenges Ken Burns

As America's house narrator, Coyote is encouraged to take a "just the facts, ma'am" tone — but in this Variety Q&A he's the farthest thing from dispassionate about music, or politics.

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Though an instantly recognizable face from films such as “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “A Walk to Remember” and “Erin Brockovich,” it is Peter Coyote’s voice — a coolly authoritative baritone with a Zen master’s holy roll — that has endeared him to documentary lovers and makers. Alrhough director-writer Alex Gibney used Coyote’s wisened narration for “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” and “The Pacific Century,” it is Ken Burns’ work where Coyote’s tones are most welcomed. In a collaboration that started with the 1992 documentary “The West,” Coyote has gone on to narrate 11 of Burns’ PBS film series, becoming almost a DeNiro to the documentarian’s Scorsese.

Being a musician and musical collector since his adolescence made Coyote an apt choice to narrate Burns’ epic new “Country Music” series. But it is the actor-writer’s activist past in the 1960s, cofounding the Diggers — the anarchist communal group that sought to enact social change through living theater — that has made him a left-leaning political foil for Burns’ perceived centrism as they’ve worked on controversial docs such as “The Vietnam War” and “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.”

It’s quite a long run you’ve had with Burns, with no sign of stopping.

He said that he’s going to keep me busy into my late 90s.

Are you narrating to the picture? How does it work with Burns?

Well, I’ll tell you, and I think is a funny story. When Ken came to me to record “The National Parks,” he came in carrying a stack of yellow legal pads, a stack of highlighters, a box of pencils, and CDs of each episode. I said, “What is that?,” upon which he answered how all this would allow me to take notes of the script and such. And I said, “No, man, I don’t do that. I do everything cold. I’ll see you in the studio.” There was a kid of a gelled pause, after which he said that would never work, that I didn’t realize how impeccable he was to, which I told him that he didn’t know how good I was. Another gelled pause. He said that he would rent a studio for a month and we would have a go at it. “No, man. This is nine hours [of film],” I told him. “We’ll do it is six days. We can do an episode and a half a day.”… On day three, he jumped out of his chair and told me that he would never use anybody else.

Each of you figured out how the other works. Sounds like fun.

It is. And I’m just reading text. The film, though basically locked… the text is edited around my performance. But we never do timings. He never tells me that I have to bring a line in at 28.9 seconds. So I know that there’s some elastic in there. Maybe he hears my voice in there as he’s editing… I don’t know. Somehow it works.

Is he ever suggesting a tone?

He might. He might just, for instance, remind me that this is a grave moment. I laugh. He has a very specific sense of music (to the narrative). My people are Jews — we’re a very minor key people. When I run a list, I will go: “There was a phone. There was a cup. There was a pad. There was a pen.’” He might not like a rising tone at the end of each line. He likes “Just the facts, ma’am.” He might say, “You went up on ‘and’ on page seven.” And I’ll say, “Open the window, and jump out of it.” And we do it again. He’s protecting the neutrality of the text. Sometimes I will ask him how he hears it, and with that, I might imitate the music that he’s hearing. And then he really likes it. Of course he does! I just imitated him. But I have no ego with that. I’m a musician. I can play the notes.

Whether it’s “Country Music” or any of Burns’ work — or the work you have done with Alex Gibney — have you come to a place where you feel narration can offer you as much as theater?

My feeling is that if I put a lot of emotion into the text, I’m displacing the space that you have in which to experience your own emotion. So I put a lot of trust into the words. Ken has great writers: Dayton Duncan, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Geoffrey C. Ward. They sweat and labor over these texts, as does Ken. I never prepare. I never rehearse. I never do anything, because my feeling is that my first impressions will be the deepest, and when I read the text, I see images in my mind. Those images generate a certain level of emotion, and my voice automatically responds to it. Allen Ginsburg said it…

“First thought. Best thought. “

Charlie Parker did not have time to think. If that music wasn’t in his body, he could not have played at that speed. Same with Clifford Brown and Dizzy Gillespie. So I trust that a lifetime of reading, writing, thinking and exploring the world is already in me, and I bring them all into the studio… Every chord, every harmony and every counterpoint that the text arouses in me is going to be somewhere within the modulations and nuances of my voice… beyond consciousness.

So, no emotion?

I’m not trying to emote at all. What I actually believe, candidly, is that my real skill is… my mother’s voice box. I can read pretty flawlessly. But I can carry the reader through complicated sentences with lots and lots of subordinate clauses without getting lost. That’s the part for which I can take credit.

As you have worked with Gibney and Burns on more than one occasion, can you say what is distinctively different about how you work with them?

Sure. See, I’m a huge fan of Alex Gibney, and did a number of things for him, but, I haven’t worked with Alex since the Enron movie because I thought he was angry with me, because I made a deal that my payment would depend on the box office scores of the movie. He wound up having to pay me a lot of money. Both men are at the top of their game, and they’re quite different. They’re both impeccable. Alex is a lot edgier than Ken is. He is out to right wrongs. I don’t think that those are Ken’s goals. He could do that as well as anyone. His daughter certainly could and did with the Central Park 5 documentary. I think Ken is a national storyteller. He is trying to find the largest common denominators that make us who we are, and contribute from every possible direction. So, if you were to imagine that he was faceting a huge gem that would represent the United States in its totality , each of the stories — Roosevelt, the Civil War, Prohibition, the Dust Bowl — every single one is a facet that makes up our national identity. Ken is a very musical guy who can direct down to the pitch of my voice. Alex doesn’t. He’s more concerned with the argument.

Are Burns’ documentaries giving you any perspective on what we may have done wrong with the past in regards to race, gender, sexuality and such?

No. I think I bring that to the documentaries.

Your history with the left is certainly different than Burns’.

Ken and I, I would describe us as very good friends. But there is no question that I exist far to the left of Ken. I remember speaking to friends who gave me trouble for doing Ken’s “Vietnam” documentary, which began with some paraphrase of the line “this war was started by good people for good intentions, and went wrong.” My friends wanted to know how I could say that, as these were fascist bastard imperialists who started this war. My response to them was that there are 10 to 12 really radical documentaries about Vietnam that are out there, and both people who saw them loved them.

Boom. That’s hilarious.

We, through Ken’s documentary, got America to sit still, and understand that five presidents lied to them, that generals lied to them, that 50,000 Americans and 3 million Asians were sacrificed because nobody could figure out how to get out of that war and save face.

That’s not hilarious.

That he was able to do that was brilliant. I have to tip my hat to that. So, we quibble sometimes in the recording studio. I may take exception to this or that. But Ken has this ability to coalesce things for the broad, vast middle of America without losing the high IQ people. That’s a gift. I hope the Democratic party pays attention to that. If you lose the broad middle simply to win the high IQ people and the urban elites, we’re going to have Donald Trump as our president.

Within this quibbling, what happens? If you say something to Burns about not feeling good about a line or offering a reasoned explanation as to why he might not be totally correct, has anything ever changed after you’d discussed the reasons why?

Yeah, actually. Yes. I would say that. I’m not exactly comfortable about giving away what it was, or intimate details of how we work together. But in the “Country Music” series, I was really happy to see that black musicians were given credit for influencing white performers. But it bothered me that there wasn’t a lot of representation of the black music that the white performers were listening to. I brought that up to Ken, and he agreed with that and made changes. It’s about not about being competitive. He surrounds himself with good people, and he’s the director, but if someone gives him a good idea — could be the janitor — he’s open to hear it.

With “Country Music,” did you have your favorite characters or musicians that really gripped you? Especially someone you had not considered before.

I grew up with the Roy Rogers and the Gene Autreys and the Tex Ritters. I had been listening to the black musicians my whole life. The biggest surprise to me was Marty Stuart, whose music I didn’t know so well…

But whose knowledge is encyclopedic.

Exactly. He’s an awesome player and he is absolutely all-knowing when it comes to the tradition of his music. And the way that he gave it… I was moved by him every time he came on screen. It was a revelation, a high seriousness. I knew mostly everybody else. Country music is something I listen to all the time, I play guitar every day to songs I hear on iTunes, playing along with the greats.

You can hear that country music is a form of expression ingrained in you, whether from a players’ instinct or a historical standpoint.

It is. There is the one thing that the documentary didn’t stress. Johnny Cash could go to Gus Cannon and pick his brain; Hank Williams could go to the black man who taught him. But as white men, they could go on and have or make careers. Black people were out there picking cotton, without the same advantages. Now, that was not the subject of Ken’s documentary. It is, though, an implicit note that didn’t get by me.

What moves you about the sounds of country? You were involved in the Greenwich Village folk and bluegrass scene around the time of Dylan’s arrival.

In a single word: authenticity. I started collecting records as a kid, buying them starting at 10 years old from the Smithsonian Institute. My family had a friend, a radio disc jockey in the 1940s, Ralph Burton, who had 10,000 78s, all cataloged. When I was 11, my parents bought me a reel-to-reel tape recorder and I would spend weekends at Ralph’s house, just recording people with strange names such as Pinetop Smith and Mississippi John Hurt. I started off with blues and field hollers, which very soon after that morphed into country. There was that authenticity to this music that you couldn’t find with the crooners on the radio of the time such as Perry Como or the Philly boys with the pompadour-ed hair. The authenticity of blues and country took me out of the suburbs and made me want to pursue music. I started playing guitar at 15; have been a fingerpicker ever since. The thing about country music — and I mean, black and white country music, not just Nashville — is it is storytelling. It is the music of the people that America’s “narrative” didn’t quite work for.

You mean its working class — the original 99 percent.

Country didn’t sing about window shopping. These were people who couldn’t afford to go to the store. I was always struck by how, in the absence of a lot of money, in the absence of access, human creativity just takes over and makes something wonderful out of it.

You have a deep history of jazz behind you as well. Your dad used to host jam sessions at your homestead in Manhattan.

My father’s best friend was a bebop bass player, Buddy Jones. He had roomed with Charlie Parker in Kansas City for three years. He introduced me to Miles Davis when I was 11; took me to Billie Holiday’s last concert at Carnegie Hall when I was 15. He was my surrogate dad, and my father and I were having a hard time at that point. Country and jazz, for me, had the same code word as to why I was attracted to it: authenticity. No posturing.

How did the Diggers, your anarchist theater group, come into play once you hit the west coast?

I was one of its founders, and we were an anarchic group of people who were at war with the culture. We fed people for free, and created some of the first free medical clinics in San Francisco. Eric Grogan and I actually spent an early summer in New York. We did Max’s Kansas City, met everyone at Andy Warhol’s place, and they were all out for themselves. All talented, that’s indisputable, but their ambition was their intention. That’s all that they were serving. On the west coast, we just thought that was too easy. If you couldn’t take care of other people, and take them with you, it was lame.

What was the end for the Diggers and that brand of protest theater?

Unpacking the phrase “protest theater,” we were not protesting at all. We were imagining a world we would like to live in, making it real by acting it out. Protest chains you to what it is you dislike. That wasn’t us. When I was 18, I was involved in a picketing at the White House. We were invited in by President Kennedy — like, the first time that ever happened. He was in a plane going to Phoenix or something, however, and we met with McGeorge Bundy, his national security director. Sitting across from this guy, I realized that we were completely naïve. We came to Washington thinking we were bringing intelligence from outlying areas about what young people were concerned about. For him, we were just a problem to be solved for his president. We were no more important to him than if we were out standing on the dock, waving goodbye to the Queen Mary. After that, I decided that I would never waste my time walking the street with a sign ever again. If I was to ever get with this guy again, I would have to come back with an army. I thought that the counterculture was that army.

It wasn’t.

To return to your question’s start: On one level, it didn’t end, meaning that my fundamental intention to be helpful, take care of people and be compassionate lead me to become a Buddhist priest, and led many of my comrades to become doctors, psychologists, nurses and environmentalists. The art portion of it — the idea of an absolutely free economy — was never a viable alternative. That was what you could call “protest art.” It did prove, though, how much was possible. We fed 600 people a day for no money… We did that to show the city of San Francisco that their claims that they couldn’t take care of all the runaways were just exposed as a fraud. We showed them an alternative.

With the closeness you feel to Burns’ documentaries, and your political leanings, was it difficult getting through “Vietnam”?

It was very difficult. When I did “The Roosevelts,” that was my parents’ generation. I have relatives who were socialists, communists, labor organizers on my mother’s side of the family. I saw family members crying in my living room during the McCarthy era. My parents were New Deal Democrats. That was familiar territory. When we got to “Vietnam,” it elicited real rage in me that I had had about that time. Remember, the Vietnamese refer to that as “the American war.” We invaded a sovereign country for something ideological. We defoliated Cambodia. We altered the gene pool with toxic chemicals, not only for the Asians, but for our own soldiers who came back and had twisted and deformed children being born as a result of that. I mean, my outrage about that was limitless, but I couldn’t put that into the text. My job was to keep control of myself, and let the images do the work.

How do you feel about all the mythology that’s coming up again about the ‘60s now, whether it’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” or the 50th anniversary Woodstock festival? Do you feel like that stuff trivializes what you experienced?

To some degree. I never wanted to be like those old communists and leftists around the dinner table that I knew growing up, fighting about Trotsky and Stalin. I had my version of the ‘60s, and we were pretty out there. We played for keeps. We went all the way. I buried 18 friends between 1965 and 1975. That, however, doesn’t make my experience any more pure or profound than a kid with a mullet working a 40-hour-a-week job who let his hair down on the weekends.