Three Chords And The Truth : Throughline When Lil Nas X released his viral hit "Old Town Road" last year, he sparked a conversation about what country music is and who is welcome in the genre. To better understand the deep and often misunderstood history of country music, we sat down with renowned filmmaker Ken Burns to talk about his new documentary series Country Music and his process as a storyteller.

Three Chords And The Truth

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Are you all recording? Are we good?

KEN BURNS: Testing, one, two, three. Testing. Testing.


We're recording?

ARABLOUEI: OK. We have something special for you all today. It's not a typical THROUGHLINE episode. It's a conversation with one of our favorite storytellers.



ABDELFATAH: You might've heard of him. He's made dozens of historical documentaries over the years, about everything from the Civil War, to jazz, to cancer, to the Vietnam War.

ARABLOUEI: And now he's back with a new documentary, about country music. And I have to be honest. I don't really care about country music. In fact, I don't like it. Growing up, I associated country music with artists like Toby Keith, whose songs were, you know, aggressively patriotic and really weren't for someone like me. But when I heard Ken Burns was making a documentary about country music, I was like, OK, let's see what this is about.

ABDELFATAH: And that, my friends, is what makes Ken Burns so good at what he does. He takes something that you'd think you have zero interest in and makes it interesting. Which is what we try to do every week on this show. So we were super excited to sit down with him and talk about his approach to storytelling, why history matters and country music. That conversation when we come back.

ZAE TULMAN: Hi. This Zae Tulman (ph) from East Brunswick, N.J., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


ABDELFATAH: OK. So naturally, the first question we had for Ken Burns was, why country music, and why now?

BURNS: People were asking me after we did our series on jazz that came out in 2001, you know, would I do rock 'n' roll? And I'm a child of rock 'n' roll and R&B. That was my music. And yet, when the country music idea came - a friend of mine said, hey, thought about country music? And it'd been mentally on some lists, but it just sort of entered in my heart. It was, like, this wholehearted yes. Whatever it was we were thinking about doing next together, that's disappeared. And for the next eight years, we really plowed towards this.

I knew some stuff. My granddaddy and my daddy, you know, sang me songs. But I knew that it was connected to all American music, that what we tend to do in everything, particularly now, where there seems to be a tsunami of information breaking over us, is that just out of desperation, we ensilo (ph) everything into its own category. But when you listen to country music and you learn a little bit about it, you find out from the very beginning it was never one thing.


CARTER FAMILY: (Singing) I was standing by the window on one cold and cloudy day.

BURNS: The big bang took place in the summer of 1927 in Bristol, Tenn., when Ralph Peer, an entrepreneur, recorded, in almost succeeding sessions, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.


JIMMIE RODGERS: (Singing) Once, I had a sweetheart.

BURNS: So you have this music that's growing up that's then adding all sorts of stuff - Western swing...


BURNS: Cowboy music...


GENE AUTRY: (Singing) Whoop-dee tie ay oh, rockin' to and fro.

BURNS: There's bluegrass...


BURNS: And the Bakersfield sound...


BURNS: And a kind of more smooth, Nashville sound...


BURNS: And later, an even smoother, countrypolitan sound...


BURNS: I mean, it defies category, like all the other genres.

ARABLOUEI: In your documentary, you explore - at least, in the beginning - the kind of sharing of culture. Even the Carter Family used, basically, old gospel songs.

BURNS: Yeah.

ARABLOUEI: "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," the biggest country song, maybe the most influential ever. Given that, I know what people are going to say when they see this documentary, given what happened recently with the "Old Town Road" - I'm sure you're aware of it - with Lil Nas. I think what that brought up is, for a lot of African Americans, they thought, well, we have a history in this music, too...


ARABLOUEI: ...That country music is our music, too.

BURNS: So it's in every episode of ours.


BURNS: And that dynamic is there. And if you made a Mount Rushmore of the top five people - the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, who invented bluegrass, and Johnny Cash - all of those five had an African American mentor who took their chops from here and put it way up here so that they deserved a place in the Mount Rushmore. So all of a sudden, you realize, this is not some back 40 acres of some hick thing, but in fact one manifestation of American music that's going to also manifest itself in the blues, in jazz, in folk, in rockabilly, and later, rock, and R&B and soul.

And let's remember, it's a complicated story. The two main instruments of country music, the fiddle - which comes from Europe and the British Isles - and the banjo - which comes from Africa - tells you about a dynamic. And so our first episode is called "The Rub." And normally, when we think about races coming together in the American South, the rub, the friction, produced is a negative one.

In this case, well, the negativity is still there, all of the horrors of slavery, and of Jim Crow, and of segregation and of minstrelsy - they're there. But one of the byproducts is extraordinarily positive, which is creating a set of music - jazz, and blues and country - that is America's music.

ABDELFATAH: But, you know, something you mentioned that I would love to dig into a little more is the tension at the beginning of country music that produced something great, yes, but also complicated.


ABDELFATAH: Because you mentioned these Mount Rushmore sort of figures of country music. All were inspired, borrowed, from African American music and culture. Can you talk a little bit about that sort of tension how it informed the rise of country music?

BURNS: I think that tension is sort of present almost everywhere in American life in every subject that we've done. And I think no more so than here. And that's where creativity takes place. Not in these sort of perfect moments, but in just the complication of life. I don't see this in terms of appropriation because of course African Americans are listening and borrowing from. And so what you see are people who are a huge variety of mixtures.


CANNON AND WOODS: (Singing) Hey, Mama, I'm going to leave your town.

BURNS: There is a sadness to me that we don't know Gus Cannon, Johnny Cash's mentor, as well as we know Johnny Cash. That's not Johnny Cash's fault. Johnny Cash would, to the end of his dying day, would tell you the significance of Gus Cannon to who he was and the kind of person he began. Same with Elvis. There's lots of argument about Elvis. But Elvis knew where he came from. He was listening to country music. He was listening to gospel, black and white. He was listening to the blues. He was listening to everything, and he reflected it.

And that's who we are. You can't celebrate a melting pot on the other side and then say it's not good to melt. You know, there's presumptions in commerce that people are only listening to this music that are white or that are only listening to R&B that are black. And this just isn't the case.


RAY CHARLES: (Singing) You promised me love that would never die.

BURNS: When Ray Charles had a chance to have creative control over an album for the first time, and he released "Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music," and the great hit was "I Can't Stop Loving You." I mean, just a phenomenal crossover in the other way that you would imagine.

You know, the culture is going to resist that. The culture often will default to the lowest common denominator, us against them. And what I think art reminds us is that you can neutralize that conflict with something that sees a little bit bigger than that. And good art always does that.


BURNS: You're going to meet De Ford Bailey, who's a harmonica player, an early African American member of the Grand Ole Opry, who's unceremoniously sort of kicked out at a moment of sort of resurgent Jim Crow and - for excuses - brought back. You have Charley Pride. You have Ray Charles doing this spectacular thing. And throughout our film is Rhiannon Giddens, who's an African American woman who is one of the great most driving country sounds you'll ever hear and tearing the cover off almost every song she attempts to sing.


RHIANNON GIDDENS: (Singing) And I'm crazy for loving you.

BURNS: I watched her a few weeks ago at the Ryman Auditorium, the home for decades of the Grand Ole Opry, sing Patsy Cline's "Crazy" and bring 3,000 people to their feet in thunderous applause. So it's there right in front of us. The recipe is there.

ABDELFATAH: I mean, is that what drew you to it at the beginning? I mean, it seems like this was a learning process, you know, as were spending eight years on it. Is this something you knew at the outset, that there was this deep, intricate American story at the heart of country music?

BURNS: You know, it's so easy to backfill and lie to you, (laughter) you know?


BURNS: I'm looking, in all these things, for subjects that reflect us back to us. And I don't want to do stuff that I know about.

And what's so great about country is that it's elemental - three chords and the truth, the songwriter Harlan Howard said - and that means it doesn't have the elegance and sophistication of, say, classical music or even jazz. What it has are really clear lyrics and very simple music that is telling you elemental things about human life - the joy of birth, the sadness at death, falling in love, trying to stay in love, falling out of love, being lonely, seeking redemption. There's nobody within the sound of my voice that hasn't experienced at least one if not two if not all of those things.

And what we found as we were working on the film is our developing sense that we were sitting on kind of a volcano of emotional power. And people would come in. And they would be, you know, I love country music, but I had no idea that it was this. Or - I'm not really sure; I don't like country music. Once you get rid of the deadwood and get the brush out, this is an extraordinary set of tunes that this series is introducing you to.

And for those that said I don't like country music, they suddenly realize how kind of superficial and blind that might be - that good music is just good music, wherever it is. Is there bad jazz? Yes. Is there bad blues? Yes. Is there bad rock? Oh, my God. You know?

So is there bad country? Of course. But if you can tell the kind of story - multigenerational, huge Russian novel of a story that we told across eight episodes and 16 1/2 hours - you have a chance to see this American family story that, at its heart, is as American as it gets.


CARTER FAMILY: (Singing) And the lilies so far...

ABDELFATAH: You know, one of the things that struck me in the film was the number of women who played, you know, such a big role in the development of country music.

BURNS: This is a surprisingly feminist film. From the very beginning, Sara Carter and Mother Maybelle Carter are two super strong women, and they're followed by Rose Maddox...


MADDOX BROTHERS AND ROSE: (Singing) I'm heading down the street to my grandma's flat. I'm never gonna fall for a line like that. Stop whistlin' wolf. I ain't a red riding hood.

BURNS: ...And Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline, of course...


PATSY CLINE: (Singing) I don't know what I'm gonna do. All I do is sit and cry. Oh, Lord, that last long day he said goodbye...

BURNS: ...And Loretta Lynn. So in the mid-'60s, Loretta Lynn is dealing with themes that nobody in folk has touched - nobody in rock have touched.


LORETTA LYNN: (Singing) You've been making your brags around town that you've been loving my man.

BURNS: "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)" - or any of the - "You're Not Woman Enough (To Take My Man)" (ph). So what you have is this kind of surprisingly proto-feminist film. When that tune comes out, "Don't Come Home A-Drinking," it's the year that women's liberation is used. And Loretta's not going to use that term. She's not joining any movement, and neither are her fans. But they are imbibing of these fundamental human aspirations.


LYNN: (Singing) Well, you thought I'd be waiting up when you came home last night. You'd been out with all the boys, and you ended up half tight.

BURNS: And let's just stop and talk about the unspoken thing, which is rock 'n' roll. Every single one of the Beatles, their initial impulse was country. You know, a quarter of the songs that the Beatles gave Ringo to sing were country songs.


BUCK OWENS: (Singing) They're going put me in the movies. They're going to make a big star out of me.


BEATLES: (Singing) We'll make a film about a man that's sad and lonely. And all I gotta do is act naturally. Well, I...

BURNS: And in fact, his first big one, "Act Naturally," is a Buck Owens tune, which suddenly revitalized and made Buck Owens cool. When Bob Dylan felt after these just iconic albums like, you know, "Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," you know, "Highway 61 Revisited" - where does he do?


BOB DYLAN: Is it rolling, Bob?

BURNS: He goes to Nashville. And he does "Blonde On Blonde" and "John Wesley Harding" and "Nashville Skyline." He's using the Nashville session musician, the A-Team, they were called, to get the best sound out.


DYLAN: (Singing) The country music station plays soft, but there's nothing really, nothing to turn off.

BURNS: I mean, you just tell me what's not country about The Band.


THE BAND: (Singing) The night they drove old Dixie down. And the people were singing. They went...

BURNS: Or about The Byrds - after having explored psychedelica, they are going to Nashville to record an album, "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo."


THE BYRDS: (Singing) No, nothing was delivered. I can't say I sympathize.

BURNS: I mean, you have "Honky Tonk Woman" (ph) by The Rolling Stones. You know, if you're going to put up barriers, then you've forgotten that everything's on a kind of continuum. And I would suggest, because of the Carter Family's, "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," that is not a linear one. It's - it comes around. It's full circle.


ARABLOUEI: How exactly do you boil down the 20th century into a 16-hour documentary? Ken Burns tells us when we come back.


DAVE: This is Dave (ph) from Seattle, Wash., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


ABDELFATAH: All right. So after talking about country music for a while, the conversation moved to music and Ken Burns films more generally. And Ramtin, who, as you probably know, scores THROUGHLINE, had a lot of questions.

ARABLOUEI: I want to ask you about music because I've seen all of your movies. And I think the - if you look at, like, "Civil War" and the way music was used and then "Vietnam," what was your decision-making from film to film about how you used music, how much music you used? 'Cause in "Vietnam," I thought Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's score was incredible.

BURNS: Unbelievable.

ARABLOUEI: It's so good.


ARABLOUEI: What was the decision to, like, get them involved in that? And so much different than...

BURNS: So...

ARABLOUEI: ...Some of the others ones, yeah.

BURNS: So actually, the music is always the same for us. Even when - in the two films that it's been about music, jazz and country music, it's not just background. But it's sort of middle ground and foreground and sometimes a kind of hyperspace as you're deconstructing...



BURNS: ...A piece of music. We record our music before we begin editing. We have most of our music...

ARABLOUEI: Oh, interesting.

BURNS: ...In place. Most people, it's the exact opposite...



BURNS: ...It's scored...


BURNS: ...Which is a mathematical term. And they're sitting there to the picture. And they want to hit...


BURNS: ...This at this. We never do that. We'll cut the picture to the music. Music is such a powerful form.

ARABLOUEI: Interesting.

BURNS: And we might shorten a sentence in order to fit a phrase of music or lengthen it...


BURNS: ...Just to fit a phrase of music or just shut up for a second. It's hard for us to do 'cause we have written films, too, and we celebrate that. They're very - we don't think that image and the word are at odds, and music is the great reconciler of that. So we're recording our music.

We - in "The Civil War," I just sat with a person who played on a piano all of these hymns, all of these popular music of the day, all this military stuff. And I picked maybe 40 tunes, and then we went into the studio and recorded each of those tunes 40 different ways. And so we'd have all of these choices going in. So each subject requires that you want to have the contemporary music. That's no different than "Vietnam."

So Lynn Novick, my co-director on "Vietnam," was watching "The Social Network." And she went...

ARABLOUEI: Incredible.

BURNS: ...This music is unbelievable and came back and said, we should get them. And I was like, yes, what a great idea.

So we went to Trent and Atticus, and they said yes, we'd love to do that. And they said to us - though they never let us in on the process - that this was one of the most satisfying creative things they'd had, working...


BURNS: ...On the stuff and delivered us three hours of material that is mindblowing. And we went to Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, and they took Vietnamese tunes and lullabies and folk songs that anyone, North and South, would know and bent them in their unique and completely original fashion.

And then we go out and we collect 120 pieces of music. And the first thing we did is we went to the Beatles and said we can't afford this; we need you to help us. And they said fine. And then we went to...


BURNS: ...Bob Dylan. He said fine. And then we just walked our way through the rest of the 120 pieces. We would have been able to afford 12 had they not said, look; we understand what you're trying to do. And we promised never to play a piece of music that wasn't out - that is to say you couldn't hear it on Armed Forces Radio or you couldn't hear it in your transistor radio or on your car radio on the way to a demonstration against the war - and that we'd use it honorably.

And that has to do with the fact that, for us, music is central. It's not like the afterthought. It's not the icing that you hope is going to amplify emotions you hope you hope are there - but in fact, baked into the process from the beginning.

Music is so powerful. I mean, all we're talking about today is music and its power.


ABDELFATAH: That's the power of history, right? Like, I think one of the things that, on our show, we try to do is use history to kind of better understand the world we live in today.

BURNS: This is exactly the power of history. And this is why I'm there - because we like to say that we're condemned to repeat what we don't remember. It just doesn't happen. Human nature never changes. The Ecclesiastes says, what has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. There's nothing new under the sun.

That suggests that human nature doesn't change. And so when we think history repeats itself, we're only looking at these habits, you know, these cycles, these, you know, motifs, these themes that constantly reoccur, and that gives the possibility to history to be our best teacher. You know, Mark Twain said, history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes.

And I can't tell you - there hasn't been a single film - it's almost 40 films, I think, some an hour in length, some 18 hours in length - where I haven't finished the film and looked up and gone, my God, it's about the present moment. And I can't convince anybody that this film was essentially editorially locked before the #MeToo movement came because you would swear to God, in every episode, we're like, oh, there's a nice little reference to - it's - I never put in any reference to the present in any of the films. It's just that everything rhymes.


BURNS: But the great tyranny, the great arrogance of the present is that we somehow think that because we're alive and they're not that we know more than them. And we do not. We experience everything the way they did, and there were conversations 10,000 years ago that were as complex as I hope this is.


ABDELFATAH: When we come back, more on the art of storytelling from Ken Burns.


DEENA: Hi. This is Deena (ph) from Frederick, Md., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


ABDELFATAH: I mean, I'm starting to get a sense of sort of your approach to telling history and all these stories because it seems like, with all of your documentaries, you're bringing together things. It's just - it's way more complicated than you go in maybe thinking it is.

BURNS: You know, it's funny. I think I've grown as a filmmaker, but my very first film for public broadcasting is one called "Brooklyn Bridge." And I was raising money - I looked about 12 years old, and everybody was turning me down. Ha-ha-ha, this kid's trying to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge.

No. I used to have binders filled with the rejection letters just to remind me of how complicated it is, particularly in public broadcasting, to get anything done. But I was writing a letter, and I added that I was uninterested in excavating dried dates and facts and events of history, that I was interested in an emotional archaeology. I wrote that in, like, '77 when I was trying to raise money, or '78. And I don't know of any better way to put it than that - that if we want to use history as a weapon, then you're only speaking to the choir. You're only speaking to the converted. You can't possibly change minds.

The novelist Richard Powers said that the best arguments in the world won't change a single person's mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story. And a good story, I think we'd all agree, is one that has that complication, one that has that undertow, one that has a thing in the opposite of a thing being true at the same time.

And our ability to tell each other stories and to remind us that we are obligated as human beings - not as Democrats or Republicans or white people or black people or gay or straight people or male or female people or West Coast people or East Coast people or north people or south people, but just people - is that we're going to have to negotiate these things for ourselves first and to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable opposites. And when you have the possibility to do that - and art and storytelling are all part of the infrastructure of helping us get through that stuff - then you have the possibility of what everybody wants to - what everyone wants to be, which is a better person, a better everyone.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, and you said emotional archaeology, which is really interesting because one of the things we struggle with, I think, is the balance between story and timeline, right? Like, on the one hand, when you're telling history, you want people get a sense of what happened over the course of history.

BURNS: Yeah.

ARABLOUEI: But I completely agree with you that narrative and story is what makes someone...

BURNS: It's the only thing...

ARABLOUEI: It's how you hook someone.

BURNS: You know, first of all - there's lots of things to say. First of all, let me explain. Emotional archaeology - this is not sentimentality. This is not nostalgia. Those are the enemies of good anything. The other thing is that, quite often, we go through our own fashions in historiography.

You know, you drop an atomic bomb after you've murdered 60 million people - I don't mean us, I mean the human race does this in the Second World War and everything is questioned. And narrative is the first thing to go. So to end then and then and then seems hopelessly bankrupt and inadequate to the situation.

And so we begin to have Freudian approaches. We begin to have Marxist or economic determinist approaches to things. We have, later on, symbolism and semiotics and deconstruction and Afrocentrism and all sorts of ways of saying that this is the way in.

And what we have come back to understand is that a much more informed - we would say today woke - narrative allows for all of those possible things. I've just watched with great satisfaction that often my - there was a knee jerk criticism to the work that I had done in the '90s because it didn't fit into an academic definition because it subscribed to this old bankrupt thing called narrative.

Now, there are some narratives that are bankrupt. If you think a top-down story of great men is only the story of American history, then yeah, it doesn't work. But if you're engaging a bottom-up as well as a top-down, you begin to realize that to tell that complicated story, you have to bring in all of these other things. These are the tools of narrative, not the sole new way to do history.

And so I think we've come back, and I've found the academy back to this idea that, yep, it's narrative - and then and then and then. We just have to be a little bit more conscious. We have to be a little bit more expansive and generous. We have to be a little bit more inclusive if we're going to call it our - if we're going to do our jobs.

ABDELFATAH: I think the thing that we struggle with and that I think you do well is when you're telling a story - you mentioned that you've told the story of 20th century America however many times, and each time is sort of a slightly different story. How do you know what to leave in, what to leave out? Like, how do you make those choices?

BURNS: So that is actually my, our job. We're amassing a vast body of information, stuff that's in the script, stuff that's in the interviews, stuff that's in the photographs, stuff that's in the footage and the live cinematography, whatever it is. It's at least 40, sometimes 50, 60, 70 times what we're going to end up using. And then it's cutting it away.

The key for us, we've found, is time. You know, we're not doing these things in a couple of years. We're doing them over a decade, in the case of Vietnam, 10 1/2 years. Or we're doing them in eight years. And that's because we want to wrestle with this material. We don't want to disqualify something. We want to learn. We want to throw stuff out.

Our cutting room floor is not filled with bad stuff. It's filled with really, really good stuff that if we picked it up and showed you, you'd go, my God, why isn't that in it? We'd go, yeah, we're still hurting about that, but it didn't fit. We edit human experience down.

ABDELFATAH: Do you ever worry that you leave something out that...

BURNS: All the time. We just - we do. You know, nothing is definitive. You do what you can do. And I imagine that if I worked on, say, the Civil War now, it would be 35 hours, right? And it may not be as good a film. It was just who I was at that time and just struggling and waking up at 4:00 in the morning, which I still do, going - and sometimes it hurts so bad that I'll say, OK, let's put it back in, you know. And then you'll see. And then maybe two months later, three months later, you go, OK, can we take it out? You see how that's destabilized?

As great as that scene is, it's now made something an hour later seem kind of boring. And you can watch people look at their watch or shift in their chair. It's because you've just, in that moment, lost them. And I I make really long films. This is a huge demand on our audience in a time when people are supposed to be butterflies flitting, and we go, no, we need you to stay for 10 episodes and 18 hours of Vietnam or eight episodes and 16 1/2 hours of this.


BURNS: But then I'm obligated to make sure that if you've sat down, there are going to be no interruptions for two hours. And that it's my obligation that if you bring your attention, I will not squander that great gift that you've given me. And if they're curious, we want to reward that attention. And that's the compact of storytelling.

ARABLOUEI: Wow. Thank you so much for this. We really appreciate it.

ABDELFATAH: Thank you so much. Yeah, this has been really great.

BURNS: It's my - it's been my pleasure.


ARABLOUEI: That's Ken Burns. His new eight-part documentary, "Country Music," begins airing on your local PBS station on September 15.


ABDELFATAH: And that's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei, and you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This show was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me and...





N'JERI EATON, BYLINE: Smizing and somber, N'jeri Eaton.

ARABLOUEI: Greta Pittenger fact-checked this episode.

ABDELFATAH: Original music was produced for this episode by Ramtin and his band, Drop Electric.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: And, of course, Ken Burns and PBS.

ARABLOUEI: If you liked this episode or you have an idea, please write us at or find us on Twitter - @throughlinenpr.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

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