Songs of our country: ‘Country Music’ documentary explores genre’s history and its most important figures

Ken Burns’ sprawling new “Country Music” documentary digs into the origins of the genre and how “hillbilly music” changed with the times.

If you are concerned that country music isn’t what it used to be, be aware that folks have been lodging that complaint for decades.

Near the end of the documentary, Oklahoma music artist Vince Gill says this about country music: “It has been a million different things in a million different ways, and that’s the way it should be. … I don’t think I would enjoy country music if it stayed the same. It’s not supposed to.”

Burns, an accomplished filmmaker who explored baseball, the Dust Bowl and the Vietnam War in past documentaries, relied on Oklahomans like Gill to help tell country music’s epic story. The 16-hour documentary will air in eight, two-hour episodes on PBS. The launch episode will premiere at 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 15, on KOED channel 11.

What is country music? Where did it come from?

The documentary provides answers to those questions while getting its heartbeat from mini-biographies of artists who created and shaped the genre. It’s a who’s who of country music that will take you back to whatever era of the genre is your most beloved. Among featured artists: the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Charley Pride, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris.

You won’t be disappointed if you tune it to see artists with Oklahoma connections. That club includes Bob Wills, Gene Autry, Roger Miller, Jean Shepard, Garth Brooks, Hank Thompson, Gill (his career got better after a sour experience opening for KISS), Reba McEntire, Wanda Jackson, Roy Clark, Trisha Yearwood and Woody Guthrie (Marty Stuart said country music made a big mistake by not claiming the folk artist as one of its own).

Merle Haggard wasn’t born or raised in Oklahoma, but the “Okie from Muskogee” artist is an Oklahoman by extension because his parents were “Okies” who migrated to California. The “Country Music” filmmakers interviewed Haggard prior to his death in 2016.

Dayton Duncan, a writer and producer on the project, took part in a phone interview with the Tulsa World in advance of the debut. Duncan, Burns and producer Julie Dunfey spent eight years researching and producing the film, conducting interviews with more than 100 people (including 40 in the Country Music Hall of Fame).

Duncan said he visited Tulsa when conducting early research and was shown around town and taken to Cain’s Ballroom by Jim Halsey, whose Tulsa-based company was once the world’s largest country music agency. Halsey, during a recent Rotary Club of Tulsa speaking engagement, said this about the documentary: “It’s a story about America, even moreso than country music.”

Filmmakers were overwhelmed by the willingness and eagerness of people associated with country music to help tell the story, according to Duncan. He said the filmmakers did not begin the process with a predetermined notion of what that story was. Instead, they wanted to learn everything they could and let the story emerge.

“Vince Gill sat down … over a dinner and just sort of allowed me to walk him through a very rough schematic notion of here is what I think the first episode would include and here are some of the major characters and some of the minor characters and some of the themes that we ought to be exploring,” Duncan said.

“And then he would tell me what he thought. ‘Well, I think that’s good but don’t forget this. Or if you are thinking about that song, you might think about this song.’ And that was just a great help to us as we were first starting out. There were five or six others who did that as well.”

Following are subjects covered with Duncan during the phone interview:

People-driven story

Even if country music is not your preferred genre, odds are you will be hooked by the documentary because of its “people” stories. In telling the story of country music, did the filmmakers aim to tell it through people?

“It’s a documentary about an art form, which is music, so my intention as the writer and sort of organizer of it was to concentrate as much as possible on the music — the songs — and to get across what a wide breadth of styles country music actually is,” Duncan said.

“It’s not just one narrow type of music. It’s got a wide-armed embrace, and I wanted to make sure we got that across. That’s the story we’re telling. But at the same time, as old-fashioned narrative storytellers, which is what we are, we also believe that biography is an important way to tell history, and fortunately for me as a writer, the individuals whose stories we tell to tell the story of the music are incredibly fascinating characters with their own remarkable life stories. The stories that we tell of the people are done in service to the larger story of the music.”

Some of the people stories are heartbreaking. Williams, Rodgers and Cline died in the prime of their lives. Shepard lost her husband, Hawkshaw Hawkins, in the plane crash that took the lives of Cline and Cowboy Copas.

Country music’s roots and branches

Duncan said he would not have pretended to be an expert on country music prior to working on the documentary. He was at least aware there were many different styles. But styles varied even among the genre’s early stars. Duncan said he listened to hours of material from Rodgers and the Carter Family during a long car ride.

Duncan said Rodgers was the Saturday night side of country music personified. The Carter Family was Sunday morning.

“Jimmie Rodgers, if you listen to that, you recognize the blues with his own distinctive yodel, which came from an alpine touring group setting up a yodeling craze back in the 1840s that had been ricocheted and spread throughout the United States and was reinterpreted by minstrel singers and African-American singers. He picked it up and made it popular versus (the songs) the Carter Family (was doing). … You can hear the old ballads and hear the old hymns in their songs.”

Diversity within Oklahoma’s country music

Duncan, continuing on the subject of country music’s many styles, said that’s reflected among Oklahoma artists. Wanda Jackson was present for the dawn of rockabilly. Bob Wills made Cain’s Ballroom the Carnegie Hall of Western swing.

“Bob Wills helped create a form of what we call country music, but its relationship to the big band sound is direct,” Duncan said. “You get Hank Thompson and honky-tonk. I don’t know how you want to classify Jean Shepard, but she was old-fashioned at a time when people were trying to smooth things out. That was not what Jean Shepard was interested in. She says in our film, ‘No steel guitar, it ain’t country music.’ It’s that simple. And Roy Clark, he spans lots of things.”

Tulsa’s Leon Russell, performing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?,” was included in the introductory moments of the sixth episode. The goal was to show how country music is open to all sorts of interpretations.

“Gene Autry is an example of that,” Duncan said. “He starts off wanting to slavishly imitate Jimmie Rodgers. But as an artist, artists don’t just want to be the pale imitation of some other artist, if they are a true artist. They want to establish themselves in their own style, and Autry certainly did that.”

Sixteen hours?

The documentary spans 16 hours — and it still can’t possibly cover everything and everyone. It could have been 100 hours?

Duncan said when material for the project would hit the editing room floor, he would get a pat on the back from Burns, who said, “Don’t cry so hard. You can use that in the book.”

Duncan is writing a companion book, “Country Music: An Illustrated History.” The 464-page book includes more than 400 images, including many that were not among the 3,200 photos used in the film.

Preserving voices

Twenty of the people interviewed for the documentary have passed away. Among those lost are Haggard, Little Jimmy Dickens and Clark.

“We mourn their passing, but we really feel like they live on in the film,” Duncan said.

He said tapes and transcripts from 175 hours worth of interviews are being donated to the Country Music Hall of Fame so future historians and students of country music can benefit.

Instead of talking about himself, Haggard was more interested in talking about the history of country music (“people like Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, who he adored”) and songwriting, according to Duncan.

“When we did our roughly two-hour interview with him, we started with those things,” he said. “By the time we got to him talking about his own life and his own career, we had a good relationship and I think the whole interview benefited from that. His story isn’t in every episode, but he makes appearances in every episode with something to say. When Merle has got something to say, I learned you want to pay attention.”

Said Haggard about Bob Wills: “If somebody doesn’t like Wills, he’s immediately under suspicion with me.”

Expected reception?

There’s enough pre-release buzz about the documentary that it seems destined for a nationwide group hug.

“We appreciate the audiences that our films typically attract, but we don’t make it with some sort of goal of how many people are going to watch it,” Duncan said, adding that the film is being shown on public television and therefore is not a captive of ratings and audience size.

But Duncan said he hopes viewers will be drawn in and will perhaps urge friends to tune in, too.

“It’s outside of my purview and my pay grade to say that this one will draw a bigger audience,” he said. “I will say this. We have been out promoting the film now for almost six months at different places, and the response that we have seen and the response from people watching it has been overwhelming.”

The cut-off point

The final episode features a stampede of Oklahoma artists from the “modern” era. The documentary ends in the 1990s, so don’t expect to see Oklahoma artists who rose to prominence in this millennium.

“We chose deliberately to end our storytelling in the mid-1990s,” Duncan said. “When somebody makes one 20 years from now, they will have the historical perspective that would be necessary to make the decisions on who were the artists and what were the songs that were important in the evolution of this art form versus just being immensely popular. Sometimes those are the same thing and sometimes they are not. That’s why we needed to end with a generation’s arm’s length to it to deal with it as history versus contemporary journalism.”

‘Country Music:’ Episode-by-episode breakdown


Air date: 7 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 15.

Years covered: 1933 and before.

After centuries of percolating in the American South, what was first called “hillbilly” music begins reaching more people through the new technologies of phonographs and radio. The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers become the genre’s first big stars. Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel says there would be no Bob Wills or Hank Williams without Rodgers. The gospel song “I’ll Fly Away,” written by Oklahoman Albert E. Brumley, is mentioned in the episode.

What you’ll see/hear: Country music was born from melting pot influences and the Grand Ole Opry was born out of a desire to sell insurance.

EPISODE TWO: “Hard Times”

Air date: 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 16.

Years covered: 1933-1945.

During the Great Depression and World War II, country music thrives and reaches bigger audiences. Gene Autry sets off a craze for singing cowboys. Bob Wills adapts jazz’s big band sound to create Western swing and Grand Ole Opry singer Roy Acuff becomes a national star.

What you’ll see/hear: A 15-minute segment is devoted to Wills, so of course there’s an acknowledgement of Cain’s Ballroom. Willie Nelson, a show promoter as a teen, talks about hiring Wills. “I got up to sing with Bob Wills,” he said. “It was as good as it gets.”

EPISODE THREE: “The Hillbilly Shakespeare”

Air date: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 17.

Years covered: 1945-1953.

Country music adapts to the cultural changes of post-war society. Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs transform traditional string band music into bluegrass. Out of the bars and juke joints comes a new sound with electric guitars and songs about drinking, cheating and heartbreak: honky tonk. It’s biggest star is Hank Williams, a troubled and gifted singer and songwriter.

What you’ll see/hear: Vince Gill said you can’t say it more plainly than Williams did in the song “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

EPISODE 4: “I Can’t Stop Loving You”

Air date: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 18

Years covered: 1953-1963.

In Memphis, the confluence of blues and hillbilly music at Sun Studios gives birth to rockabilly, the precursor of rock and roll. Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash are at the forefront. Meanwhile, Patsy Cline dies in a plane accident, R&B star Ray Charles surprises the music industry by recording an album of country songs and Music City replaces twang with the “Nashville sound.”

What you’ll see/hear: Wanda Jackson, in an interview recorded in Tulsa, said this about the era: “You couldn’t find a country song. The general sense in the country music community about rock and roll is maybe it will go away. If we just hang in there long enough, it will go away.”

EPISODE 5: “The Sons and Daughters of America”

Air date: 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 22.

Years covered: 1964-1968.

During a time of cultural upheaval, country music reflects the profound changes in American society. Loretta Lynn writes and performs songs that speak to women everywhere. Charley Pride rises to stardom when people respond to his voice instead of his skin color. After getting out of prison, Haggard becomes the poet of the common man. And Cash, after succumbing to addiction, finds salvation through June Carter and a landmark prison album.

What you’ll see/hear: Bakersfield (Did you know Buck Owens was born not far from the Oklahoma border?) becomes a country music mecca and Oklahoma’s Roger Miller, on the verge of giving up his music career for acting, finds success with the song “Dang Me.”

EPISODE 6: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”

Air date: 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 23.

Years covered: 1968-72.

With the Vietnam War intensifying, America is divided. Country music is not immune to the divisions. Former Rhodes Scholar and Army captain Kris Kristofferson is considered an embarrassment to his family when he heads to Nashville to become a game-changing songwriter. Bob Dylan, the Byrds and other non-country artists find Nashville a creative place to record. And a hippie band from California (the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) comes to town to record a landmark album that bridges the gap between generations.

What you’ll see/hear: “Hee Haw,” co-hosted by Tulsa’s Roy Clark, is mentioned. Said Kathy Mattea: “Hee Haw was a ritual at our house. That was what you did on a Saturday.” George Jones and Tammy Wynette emerge to become the king and queen of country music. Brenda Lee on Jones: “George doesn’t sing country songs. He was a country song.” Lee on Wynette: “That teardrop in her voice said it all.”

EPISODE 7: “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”

Air date: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 24

Years covered: 1973-1983.

Country music enters a vibrant era of new voices and attitudes. Dolly Parton crosses over to mainstream success and becomes the most famous woman in country music. Jones and Wynette seem to live out their songs’ tragic lyrics. Hank Williams, Jr. and Roseanne Cash emerge from their fathers’ shadows. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings launch the outlaw country movement. Emmylou Harris bridges folk and rock with country music in a way that influences a new generation of artists.

What you’ll see/hear: How much can country music change and stay the same? Olivia Newton John and John Denver were among artists who helped test the limits.

EPISODE 8: “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’”

Air date: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 25.

Years covered: 1984-1996.

As country music sales double and double again, the genre questions whether it can stay true to its roots. The success of “new traditionalists” like Reba McEntire, George Strait and the Judds suggests it can. Garth Brooks overcomes rejections and becomes a superstar. And, after being left behind by his longtime label, Cash returns to the studio to earn respect all over again.

What you’ll see/hear: Brooks tells a story about hearing a Strait song on the radio and immediately deciding “that’s what I want to be.”