Ken Burns promotes upcoming special on history of country music

Exclusive: Ken Burns talks about upcoming project

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns was in Memphis on Tuesday promoting his newest documentary “Country Music,” set to air on PBS this September.

Ken says he likes to tell America's great stories. He's already brought us the Civil War, baseball, and Mark Twain.

His latest passion is an 8-part, 16-hour documentary about the history of Country Music.

Guests were treated to a 12-minute sneak peak of Country Music inside Sam Phillips’ Memphis recording studio Tuesday. Burns then did a Q & A with the audience.

He and his team interviewed more than 100 people for this project. They looked through more than 100,000 pictures and 700 hours of film.

“Country Music” is a labor of love that took eight years to complete.

"Country music is about two, four-letter words and nobody wants to deal with them: love and pain,” Ken said. “And so we make fun of it. We say oh, it's about pick-up trucks and dogs and six-packs of beer. And it's about a lot more complicated things. It's about the joy of having love and the pain of losing love."

Episode 4 features Sam Phillips, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, who was called the "Hillbilly Kid" when he started out.

Ken is on a tour of Tennessee right now and held another preview Tuesday night at G-PAC.

Inside Sam Phillips’ Memphis recording studio, the award-winning filmmaker spoke about his latest project.

"It just tells us so much about who we are,” Ken said. “The music is so much about us."

Over the last eight years, Burns and his team interviewed more than 100 people including Marty Stuart, Garth Brooks, and Dolly Parton.

"People denigrate country music and its sort of...I can't figure out why,” Ken said. “It's three chords and the truth. It's about elemental human emotions."

Filmmaker promotes documentary in Memphis

The film traces the history of country music and how its two principal instruments come from two very different cultures.

"The fiddle comes from the British Isles in Europe,” Ken said. “The banjo comes from Africa. So right then and there, what became a mainstream American instrument is mainstream because it's actually African and African-American."

The audience at Tuesday's screening was treated to an episode featuring Sam Phillips, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.

"One of the most fun, amazing, interesting days of my life, you know,” said Jon Hornyak, executive director of Recording Academy in Memphis. "Ken Burns is an incredible story teller. Everyone here is going to be watching every episode of this."

The Cash family gave Burns never before seen home video including his daughters and first wife Vivian.

"We were just talking about ‘Walk The Line,’ which is about being faithful to Vivian, when he's not going to be," Ken said.

Ken’s work also shows how country music isn't just a male-dominated genre.

"We think American history is a sequence of presidential administrations punctuated by wars, and it's not,” Ken said. “It's about baseball, it's about race. It's about leadership. It's about women."

This September on PBS, It will be all about “Country Music.”

On Wednesday, he heads to Nashville to host a star-studded, two-hour concert.

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