Ken Burns’ Country Music: It’s FINALLY Here! - The Birthplace of Country Music
Loading station info...

Ken Burns’ Country Music: It’s FINALLY Here!

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!)

Left: A view down Bristol's State Street. Center: Several musicians on the Ryman stage in front of a packed audience. Right: Johnny Cash sitting on a cash with several instruments around him.
PBS promotional images from Country Music. Left: Episode 1 (Downtown Bristol, c.1927. Courtesy of Bristol Historical Association ). Center: Episode 5 ( The Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, c, 1960. Courtesy of Les Leverett photograph, Grand Ole Opry Archives). Right: Episode 5 (Johnny Cash at his home in California, 1960.  Courtesy of Sony Music Archives).

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!

Left: Bob Bledsoe sitting on a couch with four members of the BCM team, each holding a wax cylinder. Several phonographs can be seen in the background. Right: A phonograph with a red morning glory horn is central in the picture with film crew around it working lights and image.
Left: Bob Bledsoe with his phonographs and the BCM team on the day we scoped out which phonograph would get to be in a Ken Burns’ documentary. Right: The film crew at work on getting the right digital footage of the phonograph. © Birthplace of Country Music

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.

Top left: Ken Burns and Ketch Secor talking into mics during the Q&A at the museum; Top right: Secor, Burns, Dayton Duncan, and Julie Dunfey pointing to the PBS logo on their road show bus; Bottom left: Burns being interviewed by media in the museum's exhibits; Bottom right: Burns in the museum's exhibits with the head curator.
During his time at the museum, Burns and his team took a private tour of the exhibits, led by Head Curator Rene Rodgers, which was followed by a reception in the museum’s Special Exhibits Gallery. Local and national journalists got the chance to speak directly with the filmmakers, who later provided a real treat for the event attendees: a short screening with a clip from the film and an in-depth Q&A session. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Earl Neikirk

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!

A shot of The Museum Store entrance with promotional displays related to Ken Burns' Country Music.
The Country Music display at The Museum Store. © Birthplace of Country Music

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.

Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan at the Bristol sign in March 2019. Courtesy of Tennessee Department of Tourist Development; photographer: Ed Rode

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *