Ken Burns’ ‘Country Music’ Takes On The History Of An American Art Form

“At its best, country music reduces things down to very elemental, universal truths.”

By Rhonda Fanning & Kristen CabreraSeptember 13, 2019 12:47 pm

The American South has long been the backdrop for stories about country music. But a new series by a team led by veteran documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns, reexamines many old narratives about the roots and role of country music in American culture. The series, “Country Music,” spans 16 hours and eight episodes, and debuts Sunday night on public television.

Julie Dunfey is the producer, and Dayton Duncan is a producer and writer for the series. Duncan says it puts great emphasis on Texans and artists with Texas roots, including Bob Wills, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Johnny Rodriguez and Flaco Jiménez. 

“We tell the story of Jeannie C. Riley’s big hit, ‘Harper Valley P.T.A.,’ and we connect it to the way that she was born in a small town in Texas – a highly religious family,” Duncan says. “And at the time that she sang about the hypocrisy, in that song, she’d been groped by radio DJs and propositioned by producers.”

Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash plays a prominent role in the series, too, talking about the Carter and Cash families. Cash is the daughter of musician Johnny Cash, whose wife, June Carter Cash, was a member of the famous Carter dynasty. 

“Part of the narrative starts in the 1920s with the Carter family,” Dunfey says. “The film actually ends with Johnny’s death. And so you actually have this throughline of Carters and Cashes through eight episodes.”

Despite the number of well-known Carter men in country music, Duncan points out that two-thirds of the Carter Family band were women, and that the “the Carter scratch” – a style of guitar playing created by Maybelle Carter – has influenced many performers.

Duncan says understanding Johnny Cash, too, is necessary in order to understand the role of country music in American culture.

“Johnny Cash, to me, is the avatar of country music and America in the last half of the 20th century,” Duncan says. “He went through everything that the country went through.”

Beyond the Carters’ and Cashes’ musical legacies, Dunfey and Duncan say country music is about family.

“Country music reduces things down to very elemental, universal truths, which is why it also appeals to people – at its best – to all races and genders and backgrounds,” Duncan says.


Written by Shelly Brisbin.