SouthCoast Today: Of Ken Burns, Flannery O’Connor and life in these complicated times

Columns share an author’s personal perspective and are often based on facts in the newspaper’s reporting.

Welcome, BookLovers, to Part Two of my interview with 16-time Emmy winning filmmaker Ken Burns.

Last week, we talked about the first-ever Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, which aims to help up-and-coming filmmakers with a $200,000 finishing grant to help with the final production.

“Flannery,” a documentary about the late great American writer Flannery O’Connor — directed by Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco — just won the inaugural award. The award is made possible by the generosity of Boston philanthropists Jeannie and Jonathan Lavine.

The film explores the life and writings of the Southern writer, “whose provocative, award-winning fiction … and an assemblage of unique and often fantastic characters has inspired artists, musicians and writers around the world,” according to the release.

I’m over the moon about this news.

Because a good film or show — whether it’s fictional like “Game of Thrones” or a Ken Burns’ documentary on country music — tends to pull people toward the source material.

And Flannery deserves some limelight.

Especially in this divisive time in our country.

Burns told me highest praise you can give a documentary is to say it makes you want to read the source material.

And after he watched “Flannery,” “I went out and got all the books of (O’Connor’s) I didn’t already have. It made me want to reread O’Connor,” the New Hampshire resident said.

This award recognizes filmmakers “whose documentary uses original research and compelling narrative to tell stories that touch on some aspect of American history.”

Burns told me they wanted the award to deal with American history, “in a fashion that was non-partisan. We weren’t interesting in underwriting screeds of either polarity.”

As Burns said: “I make films about the U.S., capital U, capital S, and I make films about us, lowercase.”

From “The Civil War” to “Baseball,” that’s dead on.

“Particularly now, when we seemed to have lost our way, and forgot the common story we do share, (films are) a tiny little way we can re-remind of us of why we Americans agree to cohere,” Burns told me. “And I think it’s because we’ve got a complicated and messy and wonderful and inspiring history.”

Nobody embodied that messy history like Flannery O’Connor.

The late great Southern writer’s bread and butter were stories that explore and expose the dark side of humanity, the complicated South in particular.

Read her short stories “Good Country People” and “Revelation” for classic examples.

Burns called the film “wonderful.”

“It’s about a woman who writes books and poems, a woman from the South who was afflicted with lupus, and was severely disabled by this crippling disease, who dealt very candidly and progressively about issues of race in the South,” Burns, 66, told me.

“The film has got really interesting touches. There’s archival material, there’s first-person voices reading Flannery’s voice, but there’s also animation and a kind of wonderful playfulness and inventiveness about the life of this extraordinary person,” he said.

O’Connor’s story is brought to life with Mary Steenburgen’s voice — love her— through the eyes of Alice Walker, Tommy Lee Jones, Mary Karr, Tobias Wolff, Alice McDermott, Conan O’Brien, Mary Gordon and many more. Musicians Lucinda Williams and Bruce Springsteen (be still my heart!) share their Flannery-inspired music.


Mary Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1925. She died just 39 years later of lupus.

In her short life, she produced two brilliant novels— “Wise Blood” (1952) and “The Violent Bear It Away” (1960) — along with staggeringly good short stories.

If you’ve never read her, or haven’t since high school, start with her most anthologized short story: “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Mindblower.

The two stories I mentioned above, “Good Country People” and “Revelation” contain lines that are punches to the gut. O’Connor poked her finger in the wound that was racism and race relations, class lines, in the South, especially in the ’50s and ’60s.

Three key collections: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories” (1955); the posthumous “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (1965) and the 1972 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction winner, “The Complete Stories.”

One of my favorite O’Connor moments comes from “Good Country People.”

There’s Hulga, a woman with a wooden leg and a chip on her shoulder; she has multiple college degrees in Philosophy, and thinks herself smarter than religious folks because she’s an atheist. A country boy Bible salesman tells her:

“You ain’t so smart, I been believing in nothing ever since I was born.”


“Flannery” is “a super thoughtful film,” Burns told me. “I love how certain the narrative was, how much it was willing to tolerate contradictions, but at the same time have a confidence in its storytelling, and be willing to try these other things like animation to help fill in the gaps imaginatively.”

Coffman was at home when the Library of Congress called.

“I thought that there was something wrong with our copyright application,” she told me.

Then Burns called her.

Bosco, one of the filmmakers and a Jesuit priest, told me this week that winning the prize was “surreal.

“When Elizabeth called me to tell me she just got off the phone with Ken Burns, I was at first shocked — how did this happen? And then I thought —good for us but even more so: good for Flannery!”

I asked how the film got started.

“I have been obsessed with Flannery O’Connor for a long time,” said Bosco. “In 2007, I was given some important archival interviews of people close to Flannery O’Connor… by my friend, film producer Christopher O’Hare. He gave them to me to see if I would ever want to do a film on O’Connor using these interviews. So in 2011, I asked my friend and colleague Elizabeth to help me.”

Both filmmakers said O’Connor’s works are timely:

“White privilege and the racism that erupts from people who are both economically and perhaps educationally ‘challenged’ is an ongoing American story,” Coffman said.

Bosco added that O’Connor’s “stories are like modernist parables, filled with grotesque characters who are often oblivious to their own failings.

Beautifully said.

“Flannery really observes and hears the South — its accents and its manners,” he said. “She has this amazing ability to bring to life the banter of her Southern characters at a time in the 1950s and 60s when much of Southern banter was filled with racism. The way that Flannery is coming to terms with the growing civil rights movement in her stories — and in her personal life — is very much a reminder to us in our present time.”

So who was Flannery O’Connor?

“O’Connor was a precocious, hilarious, only child who was a creative writer from age five onwards,” Coffman says. “But O’Connor’s early experiences with mortality and with lupus — her father died from lupus when she was 15; she was diagnosed at 25— are an equally important part of her creative story. The third ‘leg’ of O’Connor’s story is her religious devotion and commitment to Catholicism. So death, humor and religion, set in the south — that southern “gothic” cocktail.”

As for her favorite O’Connor works?

“I just reread ‘The Violent Bear It Away’ recently, which, like ‘Wise Blood,’ knocks me out for a while,” she said. “I love ‘The Habit of Being’ and lots of O’Connor stories depending on my mood — ‘Good Country People,’ ‘The Displaced Person,’ ‘A Late Encounter with the Enemy’ are all favorites right now. ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ is simply part of my Southern heritage and in a category all its own.”

Learn more about the film here:, and about Better Angels here: and Burns here:


Lauren Daley is a freelance writer and book columnist. Contact her at She tweets @laurendaley1. Read more at

Associated Press: Ken Burns is behind new grant for film on Flannery O’Connor

NEW YORK (AP) — Ken Burns is inaugurating an annual prize for makers of historical films with a $200,000 grant to the people behind an upcoming movie about the late Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor.

The movie “Flannery” shows the influence behind the novelist and short story writer’s work, as she lived in a rural Southern town and struggled with lupus. The author of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” died in 1964 at age 39.

Burns, the noted documentarian, said he knows from experience the expense involved in getting projects like these done.

The film by Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco “made me go out and buy her books,” he said.

Burns’ nonprofit Better Angels Society is collaborating with philanthropists Jeannie and Jonathan Lavine and the Library of Congress in funding the award. Judges sifted through some 80 entrants, he said.

“We were stunned not only by the volume of submissions but by the quality of them,” he said.

A $50,000 grant is being given to the makers of “Mae West: Dirty Blonde,” the awards’ runner-up, with four $25,000 grants given to other finalists.

The annual prize will recognize a documentary maker who uses original research and a compelling narrative to tell stories that touch on some aspect of American history.

New York Times: Flannery O’Connor Documentary Wins New Award From Library of Congress

The filmmakers Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco will be awarded the first Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, which comes with a $200,000 finishing grant.

Flannery O’Connor sitting on the steps of her home in Milledgeville, Ga. in 1959.

Flannery O’Connor sitting on the steps of her home in Milledgeville, Ga. in 1959.CreditCreditFloyd Jillson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, via Associated Press, courtesy of the filmmakers.

By Lauren Messman
Oct. 16, 2019, 10:00 a.m. ET

A new film about the life and writings of Flannery O’Connor will receive the first Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film. The award was announced on Wednesday by the Better Angels Society, the Library of Congress and the Crimson Lion/Lavine Family Foundation.

The new prize, made possible by the nonprofit Better Angels Society and the Boston-based philanthropists Jonathan and Jeannie Lavine, was created to recognize documentarians who focus on some aspect of American history. The prize includes a $200,000 grant for costs associated with postproduction, outreach and marketing, as well as a consultation with Ken Burns and his production company, Florentine Films.

“I remember for me way back with my first film, that last money was the hardest to come in and such a relief” when it did, Mr. Burns said in a phone interview. He added the money could go toward “the final prints, the final corrections, the final edits, to pay the rights to the footage or the photographs or whatever it might be.”

Before selecting a winning film with the Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, six films were pared down from a total of 80 submissions and reviewed by a jury of academics and filmmakers. It was from those finalists that Mr. Burns and Dr. Hayden chose “Flannery,” a biographical documentary about the Southern Gothic writer directed by Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco.

Dr. Bosco, a Jesuit priest and professor at Georgetown University who’s written about Ms. O’Connor (she died in 1964), said that he was initially interested in the writer’s Catholic faith, but was also struck by the way her writing tackled the same racial divides our country is confronting today.

“She’s so contemporary and, in many ways, she’s writing for a nation that always thinks it doesn’t have to deal with its latent racism and, yes, it’s still there,” he said in a phone interview.

The film grew from a collection of archival interviews with people close to Ms. O’Connor, which Dr. Bosco received in 2007. After consulting Dr. Coffman, an associate professor at Loyola University Chicago and a seasoned documentary filmmaker, they started to raise money and move forward with the project in 2013, conducting archival research and interviewing writers and celebrities including Alice Walker, Tobias Wolff, Tommy Lee Jones and Conan O’Brien.

In the style of Mr. Burns’s documentaries, “Flannery” uses interviews, archival footage, photographs and voice actors (Mary Steenburgen reads as Ms. O’Connor) to tell the story of her life, writings and faith in the face of racism, sexism and her struggle with lupus. Ms. O’Connor’s iconic stories are also brought to life through motion graphics, created by a team of female animators.

Dr. Bosco and Dr. Coffman will receive their award at a ceremony at the Library of Congress in Washington on Thursday, a day before their film has its world premiere at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in Arkansas. The doc will then go on to screen at the New Orleans Film Festival and the Austin Film Festival later this month.


Variety: Ken Burns, Library of Congress to Present Documentary Award to ‘Flannery’

Documentarian Ken Burns is partnering with the Library of Congress and two philanthropic organizations to present a new award to “Flannery,” a documentary about Flannery O’Connor.Filmmaker Elizabeth Coffman and Jesuit priest Mark Bosco will be presented the first Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film on Oct. 17 at the library. The award includes a $200,000 grant to finish the film.“‘Flannery’ is an extraordinary documentary that allows us to follow the creative process of one of our country’s greatest writers,” Burns said. “It also provides us a glimpse into her life, including her Catholic faith, her unusual sensitivity to race as a Southern white woman, and her daily struggles with illness and the prospect and reality of an early mortality. The story is
beautifully told and captures the power of her southern birth and life. We’re hopeful that a new generation of readers will re-discover the writings of Flannery O’Connor because of this film.”

Burns told Variety that finishing funds are crucial for young documentarians — a scenario he faced four decades ago when he was attempting to complete his first project, “Brooklyn Bridge,” and had to figure out how to raise $50,000.

“I looked about 12 at the time,” he recalled. “One of things I did was adopt a very low-cost lifestyle in New Hampshire, where I live to this day.”

A total of 80 films were submitted for consideration earlier this year. Ten movies were then reviewed by an internal committee consisting of filmmakers from Florentine Films and staff from the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center. The six finalists were reviewed by a jury of experts and the winner was selected by the Librarian of Congress and Carla Hayden, in consultation with Burns.

Jeannie and Jonathan Lavine provided the funding to the Better Angels Society to endow this award through the Crimson
Lion/Lavine Family Foundation.

“We believe that history helps all of us better understand who we are as a people and how our culture is enriched by diverse voices,” they said. “Flannery O’Connor was an artist of remarkable talent and originality, but she also defied simple categorization given her southern upbringing, her strong Catholic faith, and her commitment to a sense of place and

The Better Angels Society has supplemented the Lavines’ award by providing additional prizes to finalists, with $50,000 to “Mae West: Dirty Blonde,” directed by Sally Rosenthal, and $25,000 grants to “The Adventures of Sally Bellow,”
directed by Assaf Galay; “The First Angry Man,” directed by Jason Cohn; “Mr Soul,” directed by Melissa Haizlip; and “9 to 5: The Story of a Movement,” directed by Julia Reichert.

Burns has won 16 Emmy Awards. He’s been nominated for Oscars for “Brooklyn Bridge” and “The Statue of Liberty.” His eight-part “Country Music” series aired last month and he’s working on projects on Ernest Hemingway, Muhammad Ali, Ben Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, the Holocaust, President Lyndon Johnson and the American buffalo.

Hollywood Reporter: Library of Congress, Ken Burns Unveil Inaugural Documentary Prize

The award goes to Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco, the filmmakers behind ‘Flannery,’ about the late, great writer Flannery O’Connor.

The filmmakers behind an upcoming documentary about famed Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor have been awarded the inaugural Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, it was announced Wednesday.

Flannery, directed by Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco, explores the life of the late, Georgia-born O’Connor, whose provocative fiction about Southern prophets, girls with wooden legs and an assemblage of fantastic characters has inspired artists, musicians and writers around the world.

Mary Steenburgen provides the voice of O’Connor. Watch a trailer for the film here.

The winner was selected by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden in consultation with Burns, who in a statement called the feature-length Flannery “an extraordinary documentary that allows us to follow the creative process of one of our country’s greatest writers.”

“It also provides us a glimpse into her life, including her Catholic faith, her unusual sensitivity to race as a Southern white woman and her daily struggles with illness and the prospect and reality of an early mortality. The story is beautifully told and captures the power of her Southern birth and life. We’re hopeful that a new generation of readers will rediscover the writings of Flannery O’Connor because of this film.”

O’Connor’s notable works include Wise Blood, published in 1952, A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960).

The Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize was unveiled in March to recognize a documentary filmmaker who “uses original research and compelling narrative to tell stories that touch on some aspect of American history.”

The award, which comes with a $200,000 finishing grant, will be presented to Coffman and Bosco at a Library of Congress gala Thursday night.

Eighty films were submitted for consideration; 10 were then reviewed by a committee consisting of filmmakers from Burns’ Florentine Films and staff from the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, the Library of Congress’ moving image and recorded sound preservation facility.

Six finalists were then reviewed by a jury consisting of Edward Ayers, Tucker-Boatwright professor of the humanities and president emeritus at the University of Richmond; Andrew Delbanco, the Alexander Hamilton professor of American studies at Columbia University and president of the Teagle Foundation; Rachel Dretzin, documentary producer, director, writer and co-founder of Ark Media; and Dawn Porter, a documentarian and founder of Trilogy Films.

Philanthropists Jeannie and Jonathan Lavine provided the funding to the nonprofit Better Angels Society to endow the award through the Crimson Lion/Lavine Family Foundation.

Coffman, an associate professor of film and digital media at Loyola University in Chicago, earlier co-wrote, co-directed, co-edited and co-produced Veins in the Gulf (2011), a documentary about how climate change has threatened coastlines around the Gulf of Mexico.

Bosco is a Jesuit priest and vp for mission and ministry at Georgetown University.

The Better Angels Society supplemented the Lavines’ award by providing additional prizes of $50,000 to Mae West: Dirty Blonde, directed by Sally Rosenthal, and four $25,000 grants to The Adventures of Saul Bellow, directed by Asaf Galay; The First Angry Man, directed by Jason Cohn; Mr. Soul!, directed by Melissa Haizlip; and 9 to 5: The Story of a Movement, directed by Julia Reichert.

In July, the society announced the six winners of The Next Generation Angels Awards, recognizing middle- and high-school students for excellence in historical filmmaking.

Inside Higher Ed: Documentary to Showcase Education in Prison

By Madeline St. Amour

September 16, 2019
The Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference Friday in Washington hosted a panel discussion and preview of a new PBS documentary series that follows incarcerated people who are pursuing college degrees.

The four-part series, “College Behind Bars,” was executive produced by Ken Burns and directed by Lynn Novick. It will air Nov. 25 and 26.

It follows a dozen incarcerated men and women over four years as they participate in the Bard Prison Initiative, considered one of the most rigorous prison education programs in the country.

Burns moderated a conversation following the preview among Congressman Bobby L. Rush; Novick; Max Kenner, executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative; DeAnna Hoskins, president of advocacy group JustLeadershipUSA; and Wesley Caines, an alum of the initiative and chief of staff at the Bronx Defenders.

The conversation ranged from how the film was made, to current criminal justice reform efforts like the REAL Act, to broader issues like prison privatization and forgiveness.

“As a society, if we’re going to choose to remove certain people and place them in cages, we really need to ask ourselves how do we want them to exit those cages?” Caines said.

Woman’s Day: Ken Burns’ New Documentary Is A Deep Dive Into the Fascinating History of Country Music

August 9, 2019

Have you ever wondered about the origin of your favorite genre?

Burns painstakingly examines the evolution of country music through the work of artists like the Carter Family and Hank Williams. “At the heart of every great country music song is a story,” he says. “As the songwriter Harlan Howard said, ‘It’s three chords and the truth.’”

Today - Season 68

Country artist Rhiannon Giddens also appears in Ken Burns’ new documentary, out Sept. 15


The documentary also explores the origin of those classic country music sounds so familiar to us today. The genre takes inspiration from other cultures, borrowing sounds from Irish, Scottish, and African music. Musician Rhiannon Giddens, who is interviewed in the film, tells Woman’s Day: “It’s not as easy as saying it’s the European fiddle meets the African banjo. That’s true up until a point, but it’s actually where these people interacted with each other to create this new American idiom that has heavy elements of everything in it.”

Another major focus of the film: the women who gave country their own brand of emotional resonance, like Patsy Cline, with her achingly lovely voice,
and the beloved icon Dolly Parton. “Whether it’s the sisterhood that runs across generations or the topics the songs cover, women and their stories have always been an essential part of country music,” says Burns.

The film also reminds us of country’s unique ability to bring people together, whether at early barn dances or the down-home Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. “People connect through music faster than any other thing,” Giddens shared. “Somebody hums a tune, the other person hums a tune, and you’re in.”

Though the documentary doesn’t premiere until September 15, the soundtrack — which showcases music from artists highlighted in the film, including Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and Willie Nelson — hits stores Friday, Aug. 30. With more than 80 songs written and performed by America’s favorite country legends, the five-disc boxset is a great way to prep for the long-awaited film.

Ken Burns’ Documentary, ‘Country Music,’ Will Tug At Your Heartstrings
by Woman’s Day US


The New York Times: Country Music as Melting Pot

Country Music as Melting Pot

The new documentary series by Ken Burns aims to remind divided Americans of what they have in common.

 September 9, 2019

By Contributing Opinion Writer

NASHVILLE — Last spring at the Ryman Auditorium, sitting in the audience for a concert filmed to celebrate the new documentary series by Ken Burns, I couldn’t help but notice that the folks around me didn’t look much like the usual bro-country fans swarming Nashville these days. Just who exactly was this documentary aiming to reach?

All of us, it turns out. People of every age, every political persuasion, every socio-economic class, every race. The goal of “Country Music” is nothing less than to remind us of who we really are. Even its cover image is designed to evoke the American flag.

Country music, Mr. Burns explained at the concert, is “a uniquely American art form,” one whose signature instruments, the banjo and the fiddle, continue to transmit the disparate cultures, African and European, from which the music sprang. “Country music has never been one style of music,” Mr. Burns said. “It has always been a mixture of many styles, springing from many roots and sprouting many new branches to create a complicated chorus of American voices joining together to tell a complicated American story.”

For the sake of a television audience that might be unfamiliar with country music, all the famous stories are here. How Hank Williams, “the Hillbilly Shakespeare,” died in the back seat of a car during a snowstorm. How a young Willie Nelson drove to Patsy Cline’s house in the middle of the night to play her the demo for “Crazy,” a song he’d considered calling “Stupid.” How Dolly Parton finally convinced Porter Wagoner to let her leave his television show by singing “I Will Always Love You,” which she’d written for just that purpose. How Merle Haggard was an inmate in the audience during Johnny Cash’s first concert at San Quentin prison. How Loretta Lynn, instructed not to hug Charley Pride onstage at the Country Music Awards, defied orders — hugging him and kissing him, too.

But it’s the stories that aren’t yet famous that will have faithful fans of the genre tuning in for every episode of “Country Music.” Mr. Burns’s team listened to 15,000 songs, sifted through more than 100,000 photographs and 600 hours of archival footage, much of it never before published, and conducted 101 on-camera interviews with country legends. The concert at the Ryman — which aired last night on PBS — featured many of the stars who speak in the documentary.

Even so, it took a lot of courage to introduce this program at the mother church of country music. Half the people in this town are pickers, and the other half are music critics, professional or self-professed. But that hometown audience at the Ryman gasped out loud when a teenage Willie Nelson appeared in a photograph on the screen above the stage. “Country Music,” it turns out, can surprise even Music City.

One of the best decisions Mr. Burns made was to tell the story of country music primarily through its artists — those who knew the legends personally and now carry on their art — rather than through historians or critics. The result is a film that is both historically compelling and richly human. “Burns lifts these characters out of the history books and makes them rounded, imperfect humans,” said Craig Havighurst, a Nashville music journalist and the author of “Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City.” “The Carter Family’s complexities and the tenacity and creative spirit of Mother Maybelle are made more vivid here than in any book I’ve read or documentary I’ve seen.”

The singer-songwriter Vince Gill served as a consultant for the documentary, an experience that inspired him to call his own new album “Okie.” “After watching the ‘Country Music’ film and learning about the origins of this music, from people of all backgrounds and races, I appreciated that Okies aren’t that different from other groups who were scorned and stereotyped,” he said. “They were hard-working people who were willing to do whatever it took to survive during one of our country’s most challenging times. The people I grew up with were fair-minded and grounded by common sense. They have given me the values and traits I’ve carried with me on my life’s journey, and they have inspired and created some of the best music I have ever heard.”

Because country music is so strongly associated with white working-class people in the South, many of the same stereotypes that reduced impoverished farmers to “Okies” during the Dust Bowl years are still assigned to country music itself. But Mr. Burns takes pains to complicate these expectations, to highlight not just the story of an art form with roots in both slave quarters and mountain cabins but also the moral evolution of some of the genre’s most prominent musicians.

When word first got out that Charley Pride is black, many radio stations refused to play Mr. Pride’s record. “You son of a bitch, you go back there and tell that son of a bitch that manages your station if he takes Charley Pride off,” Faron Young told one of them, “take all my records off.” It was country star Tom T. Hall who urged Johnny Rodriguez, the young Mexican-American country singer whose manager called him Johnny Rogers, to come to Nashville and reclaim his name. The audience, he said, would come around.

More than anyone else, Johnny Cash pushed the country music establishment to embrace new artists and enfold new musical forms. Mr. Cash used the platform of his weekly network TV show to celebrate diversity and what his daughter Rosanne Cash calls the “ecumenical attitude he had toward all music.” Guests included Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, the Who, James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell. When network executives said Pete Seeger was too left-wing for the show, Mr. Cash ignored them. Mr. Seeger appeared anyway.

As Mr. Burns tells it, musical genres were always cross-pollinating. When Ringo Starr recorded a Buck Owens hit, “Act Naturally,” the Beatles released it as the flip side of “Yesterday.” Bob Dylan invited Johnny Cash to play the 1964 Newport Folk Festival and later moved his own recording work to Nashville; the success of “Blonde On Blonde” led a host of other folk and rock artists to Nashville studios, with Nashville session musicians sitting in. And as Willie Nelson observes about the diverse audiences who showed up for his annual Fourth of July concerts in Austin, college students and truck drivers aren’t so different from each other after all: “They’re out there drinking beer, smoking dope, and finding out that they really don’t hate each other,” he said.

Except for one ill-fated attempt to move away, I’ve lived in the South my whole life, and all my people are Southerners, but I didn’t grow up listening to country. My parents played only the Big Band music they’d danced to during their courtship, and the second I got my first transistor radio at age 12, I tuned it to ’70s rock. But as a homesick graduate student in Philadelphia, I found a country station on the radio and fell in love. It gave me what country music has been giving its listeners from the very beginning: a way to feel less alone. That year I gave my parents Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” for Christmas.

Every art form benefits from a gifted teacher, an expert, an evangelist — someone who can explain to the uninitiated or the skeptical or the heedless that, no, this actually isn’t something their toddler could have made in nursery school. Someone who can convey the context in which the art was created, the hopes of its creators, the way they learned from each other and nudged each other to grow. Someone, above all, who can convince you that you will be better, your life more enriched, if you understand it.

Ken Burns, a Brooklyn-born filmmaker, may be an unlikely teacher of country music, but this transcendent documentary, six years in the making, has arrived at a particularly auspicious time. Thinking of Southerners as stupid rednecks and toothless hillbillies has become the last acceptable prejudice in America. Mr. Burns’s comprehensive and nuanced documentary will make for a welcome reconsideration, especially for those who think they understand what country music is (“loving, cheating, hurting, fighting, drinking, pickup trucks and Mother,” as Harold Bradley described the stereotype) and those who think there’s nothing much to understand. As Mr. Havighurst said, “I can’t wait for America to see this and rethink what country music means and how it sounds.”

“Country Music” will begin airing, on PBS affiliate stations and online, Sunday, Sept. 15. “Country Music: Live at The Ryman, a Concert Celebrating the Film by Ken Burns” is streaming now.

Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”

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Filmmaker Ken Burns’ delves into the roots of Country Music. We sat down with him to find out why.

September 2019

Ken Burns is America’s best-known documentary filmmaker. Since 1990, his PBS documentaries have illuminated topics such as jazz, Frank Lloyd Wright, baseball, the Civil War and the Roosevelts. But in his latest series, Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns (premiering Sunday, September 15, and airing for seven more nights), Burns tackles a genre that is more complex than you might think. He spoke with American Way about the project and why country music continues to have such resonance.

American Way: With Country Music, it seems like you’re stepping out of your comfort zone. How much did you know about it before this project?

Burns: I wasn’t much of a country music lover growing up. I was a child of rock ‘n’ roll and R&B. I worked at a record store in the late 1960s and in ’70-’71 in Ann Arbor, Michigan [and learned a bit about country]. I knew going into this, though, there were hugely important stories there to be told.

Why is it important?

It’s really elemental stuff—“three chords and the truth.” If you’ve ever felt lonely, if you’ve ever felt in love, if you’ve ever been sad at the passing of someone else, these are human themes that run through all popular expressions of music.

Country music encompasses so many styles—early blues, hillbilly music, bluegrass, western swing, rockabilly. How do you define it?

It never was—even at the beginning—one thing. If you listen to [blues-oriented] Jimmie Rodgers and [the rustic mountain music of] the Carter Family, they don’t sound anything alike. Country is just omnivorous. It’s honky-tonk, it adds the Deep South blues, the [string-laden, uptown] Nashville Sound. It has all these umbilicals to R&B, to jazz, to rock and to blues itself. It was never ever one thing to begin with, and it is certainly not one thing now.

“It’s just simple ways of telling stories, experiencing and expressing feelings. You can dance to it. You can cry to it. You can make loooooove to it. You can play it at a funeral. It just really has something in it for everybody, and people relate to it.”
—Dolly Parton, legendary singer-songwriter, actress, businesswoman

What might surprise someone who’s not a student of the genre?

My biggest interest is the way we [as a culture]  sort of ignored and segregated any discussion of race. It’s no accident that the folks who deserve to be on the Mount Rushmore of early country music—A.P. Carter, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash—all had musical mentors who were African American. And then there’s Ray Charles [who had numerous country hits] and the jazz influence in the phrasing and guitar playing of Willie Nelson and Chet Atkins. [If not for those influences], all of a sudden you don’t have Elvis and you don’t have Johnny Cash, [early African-American Grand Ole Opry harmonica player] DeFord Bailey, all the way through Charley Pride and Darius Rucker. People listen to other people’s music and adapt to it.

Why did you focus as much as you did on women in country music?

Working on this film we found that women are at the center of this story. Loretta Lynn was like a proto-feminist. The year women’s liberation was coined, she’s writing “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind).” She wouldn’t consider herself a feminist and neither would many of her fans, but somebody was speaking for women. There was a powerful sisterhood of country music stars, such as Rose Maddox, Kitty Wells and Dolly Parton, who were articulating themes that nobody else was touching at the time.

 “It’s America, but it’s got Africa in it.”
—Rhiannon Giddens, Grammy winning banjoist, fiddler, singer

What was one of your biggest surprises in the making of this series?

I find it thrilling that The Beatles, every single one of them, has country music as an influence. And we see how Bob Dylan has to go to Nashville to sort of revitalize his music.

Why are some Americans hesitant to embrace country music?

We make jokes about country music, but that’s because we can’t deal with the two four-letter words that country music is all about: love and loss.

You also held a concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium to be shown on PBS. What was that like?

Rhiannon Giddens did [Patsy Cline’s] “Crazy,” and there was Vince Gill’s version of “I Will Always Love You” [written by Dolly Parton, made a classic by Whitney Houston]. We had Rosanne Cash singing [her father, Johnny Cash’s] “I Still Miss Someone,” Dierks Bentley singing “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” [by Waylon Jennings]. It was so much fun. All the musicians backstage said, “How come we never do this?”

“Just life. That’s what I write. Just life.”
—Loretta Lynn

After working on the film series, how does country music fit into your vision of the U.S.?

America’s strength is an alloy, a combination of things—the complexity, the majesty, the controversy. I believe music works the quickest and the fastest [to bring folks together]. Two notes and you begin to feel something. The reason we’re drawn to particular film subjects, be it jazz or baseball or country music, is that they offer us an opportunity to re-remind people that there is an ultimate power in “us” and in the U.S.

What’s next for you, and what does it mean to you to tell these incredible stories?

We have a new documentary coming out on the American Revolution. Yes, [it will be] about powder-wigged guys in Philadelphia. It’s also about shopkeepers, it’s about slaves, it’s about Native Americans, it’s about women. The barriers we build between ourselves are artificial. As Wynton Marsalis says, art tells the tale of us coming together.

Los Angeles Times: In 2019, country music has a raging identity crisis. For Ken Burns, that’s a 100-year-old story

One is a offhandedly radical merging of two styles of music — hip-hop and country — that historically have occupied distant ends of the musical spectrum; the other is a measured, exhaustively researched examination of nearly a century of American music and cultural history.

The common element, however, is that both hone in on and illuminate — without definitively answering — the same question: What is “country music”? [READ MORE]