NASHVILLE — For renowned documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, chronicling country music history, in some ways, is a race against time.
The genre’s legends — men and women who can recount the roots and the rise of the signature sound — have aged. Their toe-tapping has slowed. Their voices have become more gravelly.
And their memories have, with each passing day, become more valuable.
So, four years ago, as Burns and co-producer Dayton Duncan began the quest to capture and recount the story of the musical genre for their latest documentary series, Country Music, they made a list of all the individuals who could offer an important vignette or verse. Few other projects in popular media confer as much clout as a film by Burns. His reputation is one of assiduous documentation.
Interviews were planned first with those who may have the least amount of time left.
Some they got: Cowboy Jack Clement. Little Jimmy Dickens. Billy Sherrill. Merle Haggard. Guy Clark.
Some they didn’t: George Jones. Ray Price.
Health and time interfered. Some interviews indefinitely deferred.
“An extra year of time makes a difference,” Duncan said.
But Burns and Duncan — Emmy Award-winning creators of PBS’ most acclaimed documentaries, including The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball and The National Parks: America's Best Idea — do not feel rushed.
In the creation of Country Music, Burns and his crew have waded slowly through history. Production of the eight-part series began in 2012. It is expected to broadcast in 2019.
Burns was not available for an interview.
Through the filmmakers' journey, they have physically and visually delved into the genre's most iconic venues — the 1950s kitchen of songwriters Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, the progressive 1970s songwriting sessions in the home of Guy and Susanna Clark, the 1980s-era Bluebird Cafe. They have spoken to those who founded the sound, and those who now carry on its legacy such as Carlene Carter, the granddaughter of "Mother" Maybelle Carter, and Vince Gill, the grand master of Nashville.
Their intent, within the stories they tell, is to explore the evolution of the art form through song and experience from the 1920s through the mid-1990s.
"We want to bring that all alive," Duncan said.
They have set the industry abuzz with anticipation about what a documentary — specifically one by someone as acclaimed as Burns — may mean for Nashville and the genre. In her proposed budget, Mayor Megan Barry has committed incentive funds for the production of the documentary, with the idea that it will inspire tourists to visit Nashville's historic country music locations referenced in the film.
"He's Ken Burns," said Steve Buchanan, president of the Opry Entertainment Group. "He really provides the quintessential historical and cultural perspective on the many things that have been so incredibly important to American society.
"I think people really regard him as someone who is going to do a documentary like has never been done before. He will have the depth and richness that really tells the story, and he will do it with a tremendous amount of heart and breadth and depth."
It won’t all be a Nashville story — and it won't all be sweet-as-pie Southern. Nashville, though the epicenter of Southern strings and sweet drawl, doesn’t claim all the rights to country’s roots, and it didn't always embrace the bedazzle and twang of the early years.
Music City USA, some will argue, could have easily ended up in Chicago or Dallas or Atlanta.
The documentary will hearken back to origins buried by the dust bowl and found in ballads from the British Isles. It will explore the folk songs of the southern Appalachians and the western swing of Texas and Oklahoma. It will travel from California's honky-tonks to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. And it will taste the rich gumbo of music in Memphis, touring the time when blues and country collided and rockabilly began.
Burns and Duncan will take people places they never can be again — all to answer the question, "What is country music?"
Of all the interviews conducted by Burns and Duncan, the one with Haggard stands out. The light-eyed, gray-bearded country music legend became more than a personal storyteller; he assumed the role of historian.
Haggard recalled the days when he would sneak out of his house and stand outside the Beardsley Ballroom in Bakersfield, Calif., listening to touring musicians such as Bob Wills and the Maddox Brothers and Rose. Eventually, the young Haggard also picked up an instrument.
Haggard spoke, too, about the day the baritone man in black named Johnny Cash played his first prison concert at San Quentin State Prison in California on Jan. 1, 1958. As the story goes, that concert set Haggard — a then 20-year-old San Quentin inmate — straight and put him on the path toward becoming a legend.
Burns was there to capture the story on film from Haggard himself. Before it was too late. He died in April.
"That kind of footage and that kind of insight, how incredible it is now," said "Whispering Bill" Anderson, an acclaimed country music songwriter, singer and television personality who also was interviewed for the documentary.
"And to get it right from the mouths of those who were there in the beginning of the music, creating the music and creating the stories ... I don’t think we could ask for a whole lot more."
Burns and Duncan interviewed 96 people on camera, including 38 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. More than 200 hours of interviews were conducted — most of them in Nashville. They collected 40,000 photographic images for possible use, as well as hundreds of hours of archival footage.
They followed through time Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Garth Brooks and the Carter family — speaking, at times, to family members of those who are no longer around to speak for themselves.
Carlene Carter, the daughter of country music legends June Carter and Carl Smith, stepdaughter of Johnny Cash and granddaughter of "Mother" Maybelle Carter of the original Carter Family, remembers her interview in a studio on Music Row.
They talked not only about what country music is, and how her family set the foundation, but also about what makes a country song — the origin of the story, the ideologies, the honesty and integrity.
“It's anything you want it to be," Carter said, "because it’s about life. Life makes a country song.”
And capturing a collection of life experiences makes a documentary.
"I will say this about country performers and my family, there is so much heart," Carter said. "That has always been one of the cornerstones of country music in my estimation. ... It's broad, it's huge, and it's soulful. What a wonderful subject matter for (Burns) to make a piece out of. There’s so many aspects of it."
Many believe the timing is right for such a documentary given the influx of fans to the genre and its ever-evolving sound.
"I think with anything like this, especially due to the explosive growth of country music, it's now more important than ever to record and document and teach our genre's history in order to preserve it," said Sherod Robertson, president and owner of Music Row Enterprises.
"Because, when an artist gets on stage, if the only thing a fan sees is that artist, they are missing so much. If they don't know what the Grand Ole Opry is all about or the historical importance of the Ryman, if they don't know how we got to this place, they don't know the entire story.
"To me that's the most important impact something like this has."
Duncan acknowledges that encapsulating the entire history of country music can be a colossal undertaking. He and Burns are historians and storytellers, who have already put years into collecting the soul of country music on film. But, Duncan said, "We don’t consider ourselves the last word in anything.
"We are more introducing people to parts of our history and parts of our culture that we get excited about, and we hope we can infect other people with that enthusiasm."
Follow Jessica Bliss on Twitter: @jlbliss
Who was interviewed for 'Country Music'
In their quest to tell the story of country music, documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan conducted 96 interviews, including 38 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Here are the Hall of Fame members, listed in the order in which they were interviewed.
Little Jimmy Dickens
Cowboy Jack Clement
Tom T. Hall
Jim Ed Brown
Hargus “Pig” Robbins
The Oak Ridge Boys
Don Reid (Statler Brothers)