The Aspen Times: Ken Burns previews ‘Country Music’ documentary in Aspen

Ken Burns spent more than eight years working on his new 16-hour documentary series “Country Music.” He did 101 interviews, collected 1,000 hours of film and some 100,000 photographs, culled down to the 3,300 featured in the film.

So it may come as a surprise that America’s most beloved documentarian wasn’t a country music fan when he started on this massive project.

“I’m a child of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll,” Burns said backstage at Harris Concert Hall on Tuesday night before a preview of the new film. “So it wasn’t in my system. I didn’t know it. … But this has been as satisfying a production as I’ve ever worked on.”

The eight-part documentary, which will begin airing on PBS on Sept. 15, tracks the history of country music from the early 20th century and the days of the Carter Family through the 1990s and the superstardom of Garth Brooks. Along the way it traces the music’s role in American culture and counterculture, the evolutions of its sound as well as its place in gender equality and race relations.

“It exploded my preconceptions,” Burns told the nearly full Harris Hall crowd during a post-screening discussion with Aspen Music Festival President and CEO Alan Fletcher and bassist Edgar Meyer.

Fletcher asked Burns for his thoughts on the “very white” world of country music and its perception as a regressive, male-dominated and often racist culture, noting segregation-supporting country icons like Minnie Pearl.

Burns said he had been fascinated to learn about the African-American influence on early country music and noted that women have played a central role in the genre from the beginning — from the days of Sara Carter through Loretta Lynn’s proto-feminist “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’.”

“It’s a remarkable story of very strong women, which belies our sensibility that this is essentially a conservative thing adhering to a tradition,” Burns said. “It has all the problems, those things are here too, but it’s about strong women and that floored us. … You will not believe me when I tell you this was done before the #MeToo movement.”

Country music, Burns found, is far more complex than the stereotype of pick-up trucks and beer-swilling good ol’ boys.

“I think that art and the business of art is to transcend the simplistic, binary thing,” Burns said, noting that the film is arriving soon after “Old Town Road” — a country song by the black, gay rapper Lil Nas X — broke the record as the longest reigning No. 1 charting song in history and underscored his film’s thesis that country is more complex and inclusive than it might seem.

“Thank you, Lil Nas X,” he told the crowd.

Tuesday’s screening in Harris Concert Hall included a preview of eight segments of “Country Music,” including a section on the “hillbilly Shakespeare” Hank Williams and one on Patsy Cline recording “Crazy,” during which Willie Nelson tells the story of writing the ballad (he’d originally titled it “Stupid,” which drew laughs from the Aspen crowd) and going to Cline’s home in the middle of the night to share it.

A segment on Loretta Lynn depicts her trailblazing mid-1960s work writing about issues like spousal abuse, consent and women’s rights in songs like “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’” and “The Pill.”

“If you’re writing about your life, it’ll be country,” Lynn says in the film, “because you’re writing about what’s happening and that’s all a good song is.”

A revelatory segment about Dolly Parton tells the backstory of her writing “I Will Always Love You” in order to get out from under the thumb of her creative partner Porter Wagoner. Other preview segments dug into Vince Gill’s tortured, grief-laden composition of “Go Rest High on That Mountain” and the personal nature of country music fandom.

Edgar Meyer, the Nashville-based classical and bluegrass musician, performed two solo pieces at the conclusion of Tuesday’s preview presentation. He said he is excited to see the full series and is hopeful it will reshape the public’s understanding of country music.

“It seems to show the country music that I love, and which all the musicians know about,” he said. “I look forward to learning a lot and raising the awareness of most people about what country music actually is.”

Burns was introduced by Amy Margerum Berg, the former Aspen Institute executive and Aspen city manager, who is now president of Burns’ nonprofit Better Angels Society. Tuesday’s preview screening, hosted by the Aspen Music Festival and School, served as a benefit for the organization.

The crowd included locally based funders of “Country Music” including John and Jessica Fullerton, Fred and Donna Seigel and Mercedes Bass. Aspen-based music figures, including the DJ Dan “Pastor Mustard” Sadowsky and singer-songwriter Jackson Emmer, also were in attendance.

Aspen Daily News: ‘An evening with Ken Burns:’ Famous filmmaker to preview his latest project, “Country Music,” in Aspen

Erica Robbie, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer Aug 17, 2019

Despite his more than 30 years of telling stories of war and other equally heavy subjects, Ken Burns was not prepared for the level of emotion he would experience while creating his latest documentary: “Country Music.”

“We tend to make fun of country music because it deals with two four-letter words that none of us are really comfortable discussing: love and loss,” Burns said in an interview from his home in Walpole, New Hampshire on Thursday during a break from an editing session. “And so, it’s much easier to mask that with, you know, pickup trucks and good ol’ boys and hound dogs and six-packs of beer, when that is a very tiny, small subgenre of what country music is about, which [are] universal human emotions that everyone has felt.”

The Emmy Award-winning, Academy-nominated filmmaker will show a special preview of “Country Music” at the Aspen Music Festival and School on Tuesday. Burns will also speak on a panel alongside AMFS President and CEO Alan Fletcher and bassist and composer Edgar Meyer.

“Country Music” explores the history, impact and evolution of what Burns considers a uniquely American art form. The eight-part series, which features unseen footage, photographs and interviews with more than 80 country music artists, will premiere nationally on PBS on Sept. 15.

“People ask me who I made the film ‘Country Music’ for,” Burns said, “and I say, ‘I made it for people who love country music, I made it for ­people who don’t know anything about it, and I made it for people who don’t like country music.’”

In other words, Burns said, he created “Country Music” for everyone.

Country music grew “out of places in the American South, always, with complicated roots,” Burns said. “It’s a working class music; it’s like folk music — it comes from the bottom up, and it’s from people who feel like their stories aren’t being told.”

This is how Peter Coyote’s warm, familiar voice opens the entire 16-hour series: “Country music rose from the bottom up,” Coyote narrates, “from the songs Americans sang to themselves in farm fields and railroad yards to ease them through their labors.”

For the longest period of time, country music was synonymous with “hillbilly music,” Burns said.

He added: “That, in and of itself, was a pejorative super-imposition; that somehow these people — with their twang and their rough dress and their lack of sophistication — couldn’t possibly create something as elegant as popular music or as jazz.”

All told, from initial research to production, Burns spent eight-and-a-half years working on “Country Music.” By comparison, his 10-part, 18-hour documentary on the Vietnam War was a 10-and-a-half-year process.

The documentarian works on several projects at a time and is currently chipping away at seven films.

“We have to do deep dives,” he said, in order to “fully flesh out” the complete picture.

With more than 30 films under his belt, Burns has directed and produced some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries of our time.

Asked to what extent the availability or accessibility of visual elements impacts which subjects he chooses to explore, Burns responded: “None. Zero. Zip.”

“It doesn’t really matter,” he said. “Sometimes the subjects have an abundance of archives, and you use them; sometimes they don’t, and you figure out new ways [to tell the story]. I’ve never been scared off by either too much or too little of a particular archival research.”

While Burns’ subjects appear diverse on a surface level — from baseball and jazz to the Civil War and national parks — they are all deeply ingrained in American history.

“I think we’re always looking for subjects that tell us about who we are. And that ‘us’ is both ‘us’ in the lowercase, two-letter, personal pronoun ‘us,’ but also in the larger U.S.,” Burns said. “The story of country music is just a spectacular one, surprising to us in so many ways, particularly with regard to the role of women, but also with race, [and] just the sheer emotion of this music.”

If you go…

What: “Country Music: An Evening with Ken Burns”

When: Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.

Where: Harris Concert Hall

Cost: $200 per ticket, with net proceeds benefiting the Aspen Music Festival and School and The Better Angels Society. Tickets to the event were still available as of the Aspen Daily News’ press time. More information at

Lancaster Online: 3 Donegal High students find national success with their History Day documentaries

MARY ELLEN WRIGHT | Staff Writer Jul 28, 2019

When Taylor Barton first learned about pioneering 19th-century nurse Clara Barton, she wondered whether their common last name might not be just a coincidence.

“I’ve always been interested in the Red Cross and Clara Barton, because when I was younger I thought everyone with the last name Barton was related to me,” says Barton, a rising senior at Donegal High School.

From left, Ella Warburton, Morgan Creek, and Taylor Barton are three Donegal High School students who have found success with their National History Day documentaries. They’re photographed at the computers were they edited their films.

Although they’re not kin, Barton was able to use her interest in the Red Cross founder’s relief work after the Johnstown flood of 1889 to win two national history awards.

She’ll also get to meet a famous filmmaker.

Barton’s 10-minute documentary, “Dam! Better Call Clara!” won her a national second-place award at the National History Day competition last month in College Park, Maryland.

And it also earned her the notice of documentarian Ken Burns, famous for his PBS documentaries on such topics as the Civil War, jazz and baseball.

Barton was named one of six recipients of the new Next Generation Angels awards, created by Burns’ Better Angels Foundation to encourage a new group of young documentarians.

Barton will meet Burns in October, when she and the other top winners in the National History Day documentary category travel to Washington for three days of touring such institutions as the American Film Institute and the Library of Congress.

Barton wasn’t the only Donegal student to gain recognition with a National History Day documentary this year.

National museum

Ella Warburton and Morgan Creek, both of whom graduated earlier this year and will be attending Gettysburg College in the fall, had their National History Day film about the 1930s Scottsboro Boys case shown in a national venue.

Because Warburton and Creek’s documentary, “Lonesome Jailhouse Blues,” advanced to the national competition, they were able to submit their project to a film festival. Their film was screened last month in the Oprah Winfrey Theater of the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington.

“It was amazing,” Creek says, seeing their film on a big screen “in a theater that shows real documentaries. I just felt so accomplished.”

So what explains the National History Day success of the Donegal High School students?

“I give all the credit to the students,” says Sara Frazier, Donegal library media specialist. “They picked their own topics that they’re passionate about, and then they run with it.”

Frazier and Susan Heydt, a gifted-education teacher at the school, co-teach the year-long National History Day class at Donegal.

“Once we get an idea of what they’re interested in, what they’re passionate about, we help guide them,” Frazier says.

“We’re not teaching content,” Heydt says. They’re teaching the students research techniques and, for those making documentaries, how to use sophisticated film editing software, she adds.

History day

Founded in 1974, National History Day is a nationwide history education program for middle and high school students. It has regional, state and national competition levels.

Students can create a documentary, website, performance or exhibit, or write a paper about their chosen topic.

This year’s National History Day theme was “Triumph and Tragedy.”

The Donegal students wove together extensive research, narration, historical images and video to tell their documentary stories.

Barton, who eventually plans to go to medical school, is especially interested in medical topics in history.

“Last year … I made a documentary about the great plague of London of 1665,” Barton says.

She originally was interested in finding out how the Red Cross dealt with the diseases that broke out in Johnstown after the devastating flood.

But she wound up concentrating on Barton’s work in providing housing, food and other services to those who’d lost everything.

For Warburton and Creek, the genesis of their project came in English class, during a discussion of the Ralph Ellison novel “Invisible Man.”

Their teacher told them about the Scottsboro Boys, a group of African American men who had been unjustly charged with raping two white women in Alabama in 1931.

Their story involves complex legal battles that took their case to the U..S. Supreme Court, but left many of the men in jail for years, subject to the harsh conditions of the Southern prison system of the time.

The students’ documentary follows the case through the courts, and details the support the defendants received from Communist and labor groups.

“Last year (for National History Day), I wrote a paper on Russian feminism during the Russian Revolution,” Creek says. “This year, I wanted to do something different.”

Warburton had the documentary skills, having entered a History Day film every year since seventh grade.

The Joplin Globe: Joplin student earns chance to meet Ken Burns through History Day contest

In his second year participating in National History Day, Josef Schuller has earned a special honor — the privilege of being able to meet famed filmmaker Ken Burns.

“It’s really exciting,” said Schuller from his Joplin home last week. “Wow, we actually get to meet Ken Burns. What they call ‘the Ken Burns effect,’ I used some of that in my own documentary.”

Schuller, a student at South Middle School who was a third-place winner last month at National History Day, is among the first six winners nationwide of the Next Generation Angels Awards, a new honor that recognizes middle school and high school students for excellence in historical filmmaking.

The awards were launched earlier this year as the youth component of the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, a new initiative to support professional filmmakers exploring themes in American history. They are made possible through the support of the Better Angels Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to education Americans about their history through documentary film.

“These burgeoning documentary filmmakers have addressed compelling lessons of history,” said Cathy Gorn, executive director of National History Day, in a statement. “We are grateful to Ken Burns and the Better Angels Society for celebrating our students’ success and working to encourage them to cultivate their skills as future filmmakers.”

Meeting Ken Burns

Schuller’s documentary is titled “The Bridge Over Funchilin Pass: The Only Option for Retreat.” Detailing the dramatic and daring trek by U.S. Marines from North Korea’s Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War, the film won him first place in the region in the category of junior individual documentary, second place at the state competition and third place at the national contest.

“At nationals, I was just happy to get in the top 10,” he said. “We saw some of the other documentaries, and they were really good.”

Schuller and the other five awardees — from California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Singapore — will travel to Washington, D.C., for a three-day excursion this fall, courtesy of Hilton Hotels. They will receive tours, special screenings and behind-the-scenes access to film archives at the Library of Congress, American Film Institute and other cultural agencies.

They also will be recognized at a special ceremony and dinner by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who has won 16 Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Burns’ documentaries include “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz,” “The Statue of Liberty” and “The Mayo Clinic: Faith, Hope, Science.”

“We are so proud to partner with these young historians, writers, scholars and thinkers,” Burns said in a statement. “I’ve long admired National History Day and have enjoyed attending these national events. It is a tremendous honor to now have a small part in recognizing the extraordinary work this organization does and to acknowledge how young people throughout the country are bringing a new understanding and depth to our historical consciousness.”

Learning ‘cool facts’

Schuller chose this year’s History Day topic after talking with his grandfather, Warren Turner, commander of Joplin’s American Legion Post 13. The theme of the 2019 competition was “Tragedy and Triumph in History.”

Turner had suggested his grandson look into the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, an important conflict in the Korean War that took place during the last months of 1950. Schuller researched the topic and decided to narrow it specifically to the U.S. military force’s retreat through the Funchilin Pass, a daring mission that required portable bridge sections to be dropped into the area by parachute.

He drew the background information from books and websites and scoured firsthand-account letters and images to use as primary sources. He chose to create a documentary because he was familiar with the technology and program needed for filmmaking.

Schuller said his favorite part of History Day, for which he begins preparing every August, is learning “cool facts” about his chosen topics. This year, for example, he was particularly interested to learn that the troops had only 1 inch of clearance on either side of their makeshift bridge as they crossed through the Funchilin Pass, and that the aircraft that dropped the bridge parts in the area were so new that their safety features hadn’t been added to the manual yet.

The National History Day competition draws more than 600,000 participating students worldwide in at least the school level, said Heather Van Otterloo, Schuller’s teacher and History Day adviser at South Middle School. Schuller placed third at the national level out of 103 documentaries in his category, she said.

The Press Enterprise: These young Inland historians showed their knowledge at National History Day

Allison Bushong, center, stands with California delegates during a luncheon in the U.S. Capitol. Bushong won first place in her division at the 2019 National History Day competition for her documentary, “Triumph of Representation and Tragedy of Repercussion: Silent Gesture of 1968.” (Courtesy of Leslie Bushong)

For these Inland high school and middle school students, history is more than a school subject.

Several students took their projects to the National History Day contest at the University of Maryland, College Park, in June, and left with more accolades than King Henry VIII had wives.

Allison Bushong, who will be a junior at Martin Luther King High School in Riverside, was recognized as a National Endowment for the Humanities Scholar for her documentary on the black power salute during the 1968 Summer Olympics. She also won a three-day visit to Washington, D.C. as part of the Anne Harrington Award from the Better Angels Society. She will meet filmmaker Ken Burns later this year.

Titled “Triumph and Representation and Tragedy of Repercussion: Silent Gesture of 1968,” her work — along with Springs Charter School student Rafael Ibarra’s documentary on race riots in Birmingham — was showcased with 21 others at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. in June.

Haley Hocking, of King High; and Sarah Runyan, from Riverside’s Poly High School, received state distinction for their documentary on the formation of the Special Olympics.

Students who also competed at the National History Day competition include Leslie Madrigal and Brian Garay from Summit High School in Fontana; Ivy Hatch, Mehreen Suzaan, Natalia Fernandez and Michelle Apanco-Verduzco from Rancho Verde High School in Moreno Valley; Peyton English from Vista Heights Middle School in Moreno Valley; and Lorelei Tang from El Cerrito Middle School in Corona.

Tennessean: Ken Burns unveils guitars signed by country music legends at Belmont ahead of upcoming documentary

Oscar-nominated documentarian Ken Burns joined Belmont University President Bob Fisher Wednesday in unveiling two guitars signed by many of the country music artists who were interviewed for Burns’ upcoming eight-part film, “Country Music,” at the school’s Gallery of Iconic Guitars.

The two Martin D-28 guitars, signed by 76 out of 101 musicians featured in “Country Music,” joined Belmont’s GIG collection and include signatures from Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Reba McEntire and others. Among these artists, 37 are Country Music Hall of Famers, and 15 have passed away since signing the instruments.

“We are so completely, utterly grateful to our association with Belmont University,” Burns said at the event. “We went early to them. We asked for their financial support. They said yes … It has turned in to a great partnership.” [READ MORE]

Billboard: How Ken Burns’ New Documentary Will ‘Redefine What People Think of As Country Music’

Ken Burns reaches into his front-right jeans pocket to retrieve a small, burnished silver heart, then a coin awarded to learning-disabled students who memorize The Gettysburg Address. Next he pulls out a button from the uniform of a soldier who landed at Normandy on D-Day and, finally, a Minié ball fired from a musket at Gettysburg.

The Emmy Award-winning documentarian travels every day with these four mementos, gifts from fans of his more than 30 films. They represent a tiny fraction of the tokens he has received — reminders of the impact his documentaries, from 1981’s Brooklyn Bridge to 2017’s The Vietnam War, have had on generations of viewers. “The hardest part is [carrying] the abutment to the Brooklyn Bridge,” jokes Dayton Duncan, his longtime collaborator.

For nearly four decades, Burns has been telling the story of America one topic at a time. For the past eight years, he has focused on country music, resulting in — simply and definitively named, like so many of his films — Country Music, a sprawling 16-and-a-half-hour, eight-part, $30 million budget film airing on PBS’ 350 member stations starting Sept. 15. Burns’ team interviewed over 100 people, including Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson, Reba McEntire, Rhiannon Giddens and, in one of his last sit-downs, Merle Haggard. (Nearly 20 of Burns’ subjects have since died, making his plan to donate 175 hours of interviews and transcripts to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum all the more resonant.) [READ MORE]

The Washington Post: How maximum security inmates took on Cambridge in a debate about nuclear weapons — and won

“The three students from the University of Cambridge, wearing black suits and clutching sheaves of papers, stepped onto the wooden auditorium stage under the warm yellow lights. As members of a storied debate team, they had competed the world over but never in a place like this — a stripped-down hall in a maximum-security prison in Upstate New York that looms among the Catskill Mountains like a medieval castle.” [READ MORE]