We don’t know about you, but we are EXCITED! After several years of prep by the filmmakers – including extensive interviews, research time in archives and libraries, conversations and debates, music performances galore, long road trips and late nights, and editing and production – PBS’s Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns is finally here!
The first 2-hour episode – “The Rub (Beginnings – 1933)” – airs on PBS on Sunday, September 15 at 8pm ET, and its blurb notes: “‘Hillbilly music’ reaches new listeners through phonographs and radio, launching the careers of country music’s first big stars – the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.” For those of you who know us already, you know that the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers recorded for the very first time here in Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia at the now famous 1927 Bristol Sessions. And you know that our town celebrates this history and its impact and legacy in so many ways, including the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, and Radio Bristol. (By the way, if you didn’t know this, it’s a cool history so come visit us!)
For us, seeing this musical heritage recognized and celebrated by a filmmaker like Ken Burns is pretty amazing. The documentary features Bristol’s story and the many people who were part of that story, exploring their integral role in the development of early commercial county music. Over eight episodes and sixteen and a half hours of viewing, the film traces the path of country music – “a uniquely American art form” – from its influences and origins in ballads, blues, and sacred music through its evolution into different sounds and manifestations and then on to its global popularity today. Viewers will get the chance to see footage and photographs, and hear stories and histories, never before revealed, along with interviews with over 80 artists. This is TV worth watching.
BCM was fortunate to get to spend some time with the Country Music filmmakers and their wider team during the research process and then again in March 2019 as the Country Music kick-off road show hit the highways and byways. Back in 2014, not long after the museum opened, we shared some of our own research into the photographs and media used in the museum with Florentine Films, later giving them access to some of our collection for digital scanning and research purposes. We also had a fun day facilitating filming with a local phonograph collector, spending time with him beforehand to find the perfect machine and then getting to watch the filming in action a couple of months later!
And then, on Sunday, March 24, 2019, Burns – along with his Emmy Award-winning creative team including producers Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey – arrived in Bristol on a large tour bus to kick off the promotion for Country Music. They were also joined by Old Crow Medicine Show’s frontman Ketch Secor, whose love of the history of country music made him a frequent collaborator with the team. This event at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum was the start of their 30-city promotional road show tour. You can hear more about that event in our blog post here.
What’s great about a Ken Burns project is that not only is all of the research and in-depth stories and interviews presented via the film itself, but there will also be a host of ways to explore the subject even more deeply – from a book to the soundtrack (as a 2-disc CD and a 5-disc DC box set) to vinyl LPs to DVDs and Blu-Rays of the full show. The DVD and Blu-Ray extras include a preview program, a behind-the-scenes look at how the film was made, and material gleaned from hours of interviews. All of these items will be on sale and available at The Museum Store!
Everything to do with Country Music has been a thrill for us – from being able to help the Florentine Films team in a small way to getting to be the first leg on the promotional road show to seeing Bristol’s important musical history honored and celebrated in the resulting documentary. It has also been wonderful to see Burns talking about Bristol as a place that people should come visit as part of their pilgrimage to truly explore the history of country music – we hope to see you here soon! But most of all, we are so grateful to see the overwhelming passion, engaged interest, and profound understanding that Burns and his team have shown when they talk about country music. This is music and history that we love, and we are proud to see it represented in such a deeply respectful way.
* The first four episodes of Country Music will begin airing on Sunday, September 15 and run through Wednesday, September 18, and then episodes 5–8 will air the following week on Sunday, September 22 through Wednesday, September 25 at 8:00–10:00 p.m. ET.