Ask Dayton Duncan about his favorite country song, and he may tell you his favorite story about a country song, Dolly Parton’s 1973 hit, “I Will Always Love You.”
If you don’t know the original, you may remember Whitney Houston’s impassioned (and vocally spectacular) version in the 1992 film The Bodyguard. Despite that context, the tune wasn’t meant to be a pledge of everlasting romantic fidelity. Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You” in an effort to break off a relationship with her longtime producer and duet partner, Porter Wagoner. She wanted a solo career, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
“So I thought, ‘Do what you do best,’” said Parton during an interview in Country Music, the new 16-hour, eight-part documentary series by Ken Burns. “I wrote a song and took it to him the next day, and said, ‘Porter, sit down. I’ve got something I have to sing to you.’ ”
The documentary premieres on Sunday, Sept. 15, on New Mexico PBS, KNME Channel 5.1.
In the song, Parton wishes Wagoner a life of joy and happiness — with no hard feelings. Her creative strategy worked. Wagoner stopped threatening to sue her for leaving his musical variety show.
To Duncan, who was producer and head writer of the series, that private story forever changes the experience of this beloved song.
In fact, it was the stories behind the songs that struck him most during the years he, Burns, and producer Julie Dunfey worked on Country Music, which tracks the genre’s history from the banjo (which was brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans) to the rise of Garth Brooks in the 1990s; from the singing cowboys of the 1930s and ’40s to Vince Gill’s classic 1995 tribute to lost loved ones, “Go Rest High on That Mountain.” Parton’s feminist uprising is among Duncan’s favorite anecdotes, as well as the little-known fact that country queen Patsy Cline didn’t write her iconic song “Crazy.” Willie Nelson did. The original title was actually “Stupid,” a potential lyric that makes Duncan laugh. “Can you hear her singing it that way?”
Burns has made more than 25 history documentaries, including longform examples like The Civil War (1990), Jazz (2001), Baseball: The Tenth Inning (2010), and The Dust Bowl (2012). Several have won Primetime Emmy Awards, including The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009), Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2005), Baseball, and The Civil War. A friend of Burns suggested he explore country music, and when he told Duncan, his longtime producing partner was all in. “We are on a continual quest to tell the story of the United States from as many different angles as possible,” Duncan said. “Country music is this incredibly great lens to continue that journey. It’s a uniquely American art form. It’s got great characters and great songs. Our response was not ‘Why country music?’ but ‘Why haven’t we done this already?’”
Duncan developed an abiding affection for country music from the outset of the project. He was a teenager in the 1960s, when his local AM radio station in Indianola, Iowa, would follow a Beatles song with a Johnny Cash tune, so he grew up familiar with the musical twang. In 1975, he fell hard for Waylon Jennings’ album Dreaming My Dreams. Burns and others working on the documentary had less knowledge of the music, and some even went into the project sure they wouldn’t enjoy it. They came around. “Now they’re all arguing over what the best Merle Haggard song is,” Duncan said.
As a team, they always try to go into new research as blank slates, and let the work tell them what the story is. Usually, Burns conveys complicated history through interviews with academics. The approach in Country Music is different. Among the documentary’s 101 interviews, just one is with a historian, author Bill Malone, who in 1968 wrote Country Music, U.S.A., which was the first scholarly study of the genre. The rest are with musicians, producers, and others who are part of the country music world, which gives the documentary the rich flavor of firsthand experience. Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam, and Emmylou Harris are among the many who share their own histories with the form. Merle Haggard, interviewed prior to his death in 2016, appears in all eight episodes of the documentary because he had so much to say about everyone that came before him — from Jimmie Rodgers to Bob Wills, Maddox Brothers and Rose to Lefty Frizzell.
Duncan said that country music is a genre of cross-pollination between cultures. Rufus Payne influenced Hank Williams and Hank Williams influenced Charley Pride. Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, was mentored by the African-American fiddler Arnold Shultz. Bob Wills came from a family of fiddle players in the Texas Panhandle. He learned the blues from black sharecroppers around whom he had grown up; he also played with Hispanic musicians in Northeastern New Mexico in the 1920s. “He creates Western swing, which has all those influences. It’s big band sound; it’s got a fiddle and a steel guitar. Eventually, he added horns as well,” said Duncan. One of the things he learned is that country music isn’t just one kind of music — it’s many kinds. It has never been limited by one definition or one idea of who its audience is.
“Commerce and culture try to assign boundaries and categories to things. Record producers said rhythm-and-blues music, which was once called race music, was black music for black audiences. The label executives and radio stations said country music was white music for white people.” But the reality is that people love all kinds of different music — a statement that Duncan said is particularly true of the artists themselves. “Musicians and artists are always in advance of society. It’s never segregated in the way that society has been segregated. Country music came from a lot of different roots and sprouted a lot of different branches.”
He said it’s a potent combination of music and poetic lyrics that bypass reason to hit you straight in the gut and heart. “Country music is stripped-down and puts things in a way that is both memorable and direct. It deals with the most basic human experiences.” He quoted Dolly Parton’s interview from the documentary.
“You can dance to it. You can cry to it,” she says. “You can make love to it. You can play it at a funeral. Country music has something for everyone.” ◀
▼ Ken Burns’ Country Music, an eight-part documentary series
▼ KNME Channel 5.1, New Mexico PBS
▼ 7 and 9 p.m., Sept. 15-18 and Sept. 22-25