Johnny Cash at his home in California in 1960.
What makes a good country song? According to legendary songwriter Harlan Howard, it’s simple: three chords and the truth. Much more than that, however, is explored in documentarian Ken Burns’ new opus, Country Music, which debuts Sept. 15 on PBS. Clocking in at 16 hours, the filmmaker’s latest work is a nuanced, in-depth look at the genre that’s come to be known as America’s music. Like in his previous landmark films The Vietnam War or Jazz, Burns does more than regurgitate the history of the music: He documents the history of the U.S. through the lens of country’s most notable figures. “Our interest is not in being an encyclopedia,” he says of the work. “It’s an attempt to tell a really complicated American story.”
Capturing the full scope of the genre and its performers was no easy feat. Burns and his team spent eight years compiling music, sourcing photographs and conducting interviews—ultimately speaking with over 100 people for the film, including legends like Merle Haggard, who passed away in 2016. “There is both the sadness of losing these connections that we’ve made with people, but also the exhilaration of being able to share their stories—even though they’re now gone—in their own words,” Burns says.
Merle Haggard signs a Martin D-28 guitar. He is among the 76 of the 101 country music artists interviewed for the series who signed two Martin D-28 guitars.
The film is not only a retrospective of the musical genre, but also documents how porous the boundary is between country and other types of music. Burns predicts its future is bright: “You’re beginning to see people who are embracing the diversity of American music and saying, ‘Call it what you want,’” he says of newer country artists, like Rhiannon Giddens, whose music blends folk, bluegrass and R&B with more traditional country veins.
Dwight Yoakam, who was among the country music artists interviewed for the documentary, also signs a Martin D-28 guitar.
Ultimately, the documentary reveals that country music is more universal than you might think. “All of us know that one and one equals two. But, all of us want one and one to equal three,” Burns says. “That’s what we want in our art, what we want in our lives, our love— whatever it might be. And country music has a song for all of that.”
Photography by: DWIGHT YOAKAM AND MERLE HAGGARD PHOTOS BY JARED AMES; KEN BURNS PHOTO BY EVAN BARLOW; JOHNNY CASH PHOTO COURTESY OF SONY MUSIC ARCHIVES