Film documentarian Ken Burns understands the power of making things personal. His own words, reading the letters of long-departed soldiers on both Confederate and Union sides, made his 1990 opus of “The Civil War” more palpable and raw than anything written in history books. Complementing the prolific, expansive scenes of the sites related to the conflict were the haunting words of President Lincoln and anguished parents enduring the wait and loss.

A few years later, Ken Burns would bring eyes and hearts to baseball in American history, and its lasting impact as a welcome reprieve from societal pressures. In 2017, Burns made another personal statement by not neglecting the political turmoil surrounding the entirety of the “The Vietnam War.” Ken Burns thrives on tackling big topics with impeccable sensitivity.

This Sunday, September 15, Burns’ latest epic, “Country Music” premieres on PBS.

This film collaboration, with writer Dayton Duncan, is not the first time that the filmmaker has turned to music. He traced the joy and tumult of an entire era in 2001’s “Jazz.” More than ever, Ken Burns lets the music, and the artists who create it, speak in “Country Music,” and the result is a lasting, loving, and resonate legacy that likely will leave many more singing.

The sound of American history

Even while he talks about the subject of his new series, Ken Burns can't refrain from singing, as he did on “CBS This Morning” on September 14 with Jeff Glor.

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He describes the work as representing “American history firing on all cylinders,” but with a focus on “great stories” beyond historical data. Songwriter Harlan Howard gave his concise definition of country music as “three chords and the truth,” and without exception, the musical icons stretching from generations interviewed for the project insist that truth is still at the core.

It doesn't take all that much listening or research to discover that the essence of rebellion and dissatisfaction so often attributed to rock 'n roll really began with American roots music and folk.

“America's Troubadour,” Woody Guthrie, created anthems of immigrant suffering that echo with the truth that is as relevant today as when they were penned by the unparalleled truth-teller. Groups like the Limelighters may not have looked like social activists, but their songs like “There's a Meetin’ Here Tonight” were powerful sparks to social change.

In similar ways, Burns declares that Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton were preaching female liberation long before rock or society did.

Lynn was embroiled in controversy for her song, “The Pill,” and Ken Burns couldn't help but cite “Don't Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind),” as being the superlative game-changing statement of its time for women. He couldn't help but sing the title just a little. Dolly Parton not only celebrated her Smoky Mountain roots in song, but she also exemplified feminine strength and carried that skill forward to becoming the most business-savvy lady in the boardroom, crediting her father for those lessons.

Artists like Kacey Musgraves and Margo Price have furthered country music's reach into gender equality and pay parity. Ken Burns did not include any artists solely within the last 25 years because the historian in the chronicler compels him to wait to see where more contemporary artists will fall in the scope of country music over time.

It is blatantly clear from the more than 100 interviews conducted over the six years involved with the venture that country music is about much more than beer parties, short shorts, and pick-trucks. Many of its deeper themes still seem to be evaded in the current Top 20.

Musical therapy

No other genre encapsulates pain and loss through a more honest filter than country music, and when Merle Haggard writes of being an “Okie,” he delves into the pain of being a Dust Bowl transient in California. “The human being has a history of being very cruel to something different,” the composer of the common man spoke in one interview. Haggard died in 2016, but his many hours of interviews will now be preserved for posterity in the Country Music Hall Of Fame and Museum. Of the 100 contributors of interviews for “Country Music,” 20 have died, yet their songs endure. Marty Stuart has become the protector and preserver for his art form, and he gave unlimited entré to Ken Burns in the making of the film series.

Burns illuminates that African-American influence is as crucial to country music as its rural American tradition. He elaborates that Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, A.P. Carter, and Johnny Cash all had African-American mentors. The instruments of country music were first carried on slave ships before they were slung over shoulders in cotton fields. Country music, like all American history, is “a million things” and one is not the same without the others, relates the filmmaker.

Rosanne Cash candidly conveys that her father “worked out all his problems on stage” “His anguish, his fears, and his grief-- he worked them out with an audience.” It's no surprise that he and other country music legends are still helping millions to feel that they are not alone, and can face another day. After seeing “Country Music,” new converts may flood to the altar.

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