The documentaries that Ken Burns makes for PBS are so copious that just the trailer for his new “Country Music,” which premieres Sunday evening, is almost 30 minutes long. And here’s the catch: It’s spellbinding if you know you like country music, and it might be even if you thought you did not. Burns does that.
The entire program will run on eight consecutive evenings on PBS in two-hour chunks. It’s the latest undertaking from the documentarian who rose to fame with “The Civil War,” originally on PBS in 1990, a 10-hour production shown on five consecutive nights that became the most watched program ever to air on the public network.
That was when we saw the first flowering of Burns’s signature techniques, such as moving the camera over still photos to tell a story, the exquisite attention to sound (it was said sound recordists walked the battlefields just to get the aural ambiance), and the interspersed, charismatic historians.
A good friend of ours was a correspondent reporting from Nicaragua and its waning civil war when “The Civil War” came out. He received it on VHS tapes and settled down to watch with friends in his Managua home, telling them, “This was our civil war.” It was engrossing, he said, but the sound was so delicate and there was so much noise outside from boys shooting AK-47s into the sky that he finally had to go out and ask the boys to stop – because, he explained, he and his friends were watching a very important program about a different civil war now.
Since then, Burns has produced epic documentaries about jazz, World War II, the national parks, prohibition, and the Roosevelts. We know film connoisseurs who suspect Burns is a Philistine. He is so plodding and didactic, they say. There may be some truth to that. At times he can proceed as solemnly and at much greater length than some church services. If he stumbles across irony, he unrolls it at his leisure, like a rug merchant, examines it and debunks it; or lets a guest intone it and leaves it hanging in the air like a Zen koan, unanswerable.
Two years ago, his “Vietnam War” came out, a decade’s worth of work spread across 18 hours; and it was only somewhere in the sixth or seventh that we were finally overcome, reduced to hard-swallowing tears at the waste and the folly. Too long? The things we like, the things that move us, we wish would never end.
There is an abundance of delightful sounds and unexpected history to explore within country music, from The Carter Family to Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Dwight Yoakam. We are confident Burns will get to most if not all of it in the coming week.
Some people say country was America’s only original, pure music, Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel observes in the trailer for “Country Music.”
“Well, no,” Benson contends. ‘it’s blues, it’s jazz, it’s hillbilly; it’s everything about the immigrant experience brought to America and Americanized.”
That may be the key to what Burns is up to this time: An inclusive story that is as much about America as just one strand of its music.
Burns always wants to tell a complex story about who we are and where we are from. This time, there will be fiddles and steel guitar and, we suspect, a timely reminder that in many – in grief and memory, barren hillsides and barn dance jubilation – we become one.