An Episode Guide to ‘Country Music,’ A Film by Ken Burns

An episode guide to “Country Music.”

What is country music anyway? How did it become the all-American art form it is today? Directed by Grammy and Primetime Award-winner Ken Burns and produced by Burns and longtime collaborators Julie Dunfey and Dayton Duncan, “Country Music” tells the history of the genre that came to define what we now know as America’s music.

Since the beginning, country music has been a product of a hodgepodge of influences, from gospel to minstrel music and even rock and roll, that have come to reflect what Americans are going through and what they dream of. By listening to the stories of the genre’s pioneering musicians themselves, we take a journey from the 1920s to today, passing along historical moments like Gene Autry sparking a fever for the singing cowboy, Elvis — who started with ties to country music — giving girls an actual fever with his dance moves and music, and even Loretta Lynn being an accidental feminist as she sang about birth control in “The Pill.” Like the history of this country itself, tradition and innovation collide throughout the genre’s history as country music is loved, fought and argued over by those who want to move it into the future and those who want it to stay the same.

Get a sneak peek at Ken Burns’s new sweeping series on the history of country music – from its roots in ballads, hymns and the blues to its mainstream popularity. Watch this extended trailer.

The genre’s amazing artists drive the story forward — along with unforgettable archival images and photographs — showing how country music spans ideas and generations to tell the story of the American people.

“The Rub” (Beginnings – 1933) – Sun., Sept. 15 at 8 p.m.

Jimmie Rodgers | Wikimedia Commons
Jimmie Rodgers | Wikimedia Commons

It’s the 1920s and ‘30s, radio and phonographs reign supreme, providing a new avenue for so-called “hillbilly music,” which originated in rural America, to reach new ears. Audiences can imagine turning on the radio and listening to country music greats like the Carter Family singing about keeping on the sunny side and Jimmie Rodgers — master of the blue yodel — whose careers were launched in those days.

“Hard Times” (1933 – 1945) – Mon., Sept. 16 at 8 p.m.

Publicity photo of Gene Autry for his appearance at a banquet to announce a contest for the Seattle Packing Company-Bar-S brand. | Wikimedia Commons/Seattle Packing Company-Bar-S Brand
Publicity photo of Gene Autry for his appearance at a banquet to announce a contest for the Seattle Packing Company-Bar-S brand. | Wikimedia Commons/Seattle Packing Company-Bar-S Brand

Country music’s uncanny ability to provide comfort to people during hard times develops during the Great Depression and World War II. Texas Swing, the Grand Ole Opry’s “King of Country Music” Roy Acuff and Gene Autry as a singing cowboy provide a much-needed distraction for their struggling audiences, whose record purchases help boost Nashville’s transformation into becoming the beating heart of the country music industry.

“The Hillbilly Shakespeare” (1945 – 1953) – Tues., Sept. 17 at 8 p.m.

Hank Williams | Flickr/Fabio/Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)
Hank Williams | Flickr/Fabio/Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

After the war, bluegrass proliferated, and Hank Williams found widespread success with his deeply emotional song lyrics, which stemmed from his troubled life. He said he wasn’t responsible for writing hits like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” because God himself deserved that writing credit, as he said, “I just hang on to the pen and God sends them through.” Legend also has it that even though he couldn’t read or write musical notes, he wrote “Hey Good Lookin’” in 15 minutes.

“I Can’t Stop Loving You” (1953 – 1963) – Wed., Sept. 18 at 8 p.m.

Elvis Presley in 1958. | Wikimedia Commons
Elvis Presley in 1958. | Wikimedia Commons

Marked by the birth of several iconic country stars, this period, which gave us Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley singing rockabilly, Ray Charles’ country record and Patsy Cline’s slick new Nashville Sound, epitomized by her runaway hit “Crazy” — which Willie Nelson, who wrote it, originally titled “Stupid” — would become the stuff of musical legend.

“The Sons and Daughters of America” (1964 – 1968) – Sun., Sept. 22 at 8 p.m.

Coal miner’s daughter Loretta Lynn describes her songwriting philosophy in this clip from “Country Music.” Watch now.

The sixties were a time of change in the U.S. As Loretta Lynn unconsciously became a feminist with “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” and “The Pill,” audiences decided to set race aside and accept Charley Pride’s undeniable talent. In California, Merle Haggard, a devil-may-care young criminal at San Quentin State Prison, who in his freshman year of high school attended school a grand total of 10 days, was lucky enough to see Johnny Cash perform at the prison. Inspired by Cash, Haggard became “The Poet of the Common Man.”

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” (1968 – 1972)– Mon., Sept. 23 at 8 p.m.

Kris Kristofferson | Wikimedia Commons/Magna Artists
Kris Kristofferson | Wikimedia Commons/Magna Artists

Artists like Bob Dylan and the Byrds may not be associated with country music, but in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, like authentic country stars, they recorded in Nashville. Meanwhile, in aftermath of the Vietnam War, former Army captain and helicopter pilot turned songwriter, Kris Kristofferson, broke country music’s lyrical mold.

“Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” (1973 – 1983) – Tue., Sept. 24 at 8 p.m.

Dolly Parton publicity shot. Circa 1977 | Wikimedia Commons/RCA Records
Dolly Parton publicity shot. Circa 1977 | Wikimedia Commons/RCA Records

Singing along to the music of this time is almost inevitable. Dolly Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You” — which Whitney Huston gave new life to in 1992 — for a man who was reluctant to let her go. The song would rocket her to stardom in the country world and beyond. Meanwhile, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings were up to no good, to the delight of country music fans, launching the “Outlaw” movement, and all the amazing music that came along. Hank Williams, Jr. and Rosanne Cash also found success in this time, honoring the legacy of their country music royalty parentage.

“Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’” (1984 – 1996)– Wed., Sept. 25 at 8 p.m.

Garth Brooks revolutionized country music performances with his energetic, rock-inspired concerts. Learn more about his approach in this clip from “Country Music.”

In the middle of radical change in the genre, “New Traditionalists” George Strait, Randy Travis and the Judds fight to keep country music true to its origins. Country phenomenon Garth Brooks finds widespread success, which yields him enough fans for a record-breaking autograph signing session that lasted more than 20 hours. A mature Johnny Cash looks on at the industry he had a large role in creating.