A letter from Ken Burns about Country Music

Dayton Duncan, Julie Dunfey, Ken Burns

From Left to Right: Dayton Duncan, Producer

and Writer, Julie Dunfey, Producer, Ken Burns, Director

Our new documentary series, Country Music, explores a uniquely American art form. It sprang from many roots and from every part of the nation––Appalachia’s songs of struggle and heartbreak, church hymns and the blues, farm fields and the open range and the barrios of the southern border, rowdy honky tonks and rural hoedowns. As it grew and evolved, it sprouted many branches of its own––from bluegrass to Western swing, from rockabilly to the smooth Nashville Sound, to name just a few––ultimately creating a complicated chorus of American voices, joining together to tell a complicated American story, one song at a time. As Dolly Parton told us, there’s “something in it for everybody, and people relate to it.”

During the eight years we worked on the film, which was written by Dayton Duncan and produced by Dayton and Julie Dunfey and me, we were struck by the way country music, at its best, touches on the most basic, universal human emotions and experiences, always reminding anyone who listens that, as Emmylou Harris told us, “we’re all in the same boat.” Merle Haggard put it another way: “It’s about those things that we believe in but we can’t see, like dreams and songs and souls.” We had the great honor––and pleasure––of meeting and interviewing more than a hundred of the remarkable artists who wrote and recorded enduring country songs that are embedded in our nation’s collective consciousness. “Music,” Willie Nelson explained, “cuts through all the boundaries. It’s not a Democrat or Republican.”

We’re excited about this film, which is both sweeping and intensely intimate. And thanks to Bank of America’s generous support for the documentary and the outreach materials that will accompany it, we believe that the series will provide people the chance to enjoy some great songs, meet some unforgettable people, and remember how intertwined our history is and how music––the art of the invisible––can bring people together.

Our partnership with Bank of America began in 2007, when our seven-part series, The War premiered. Since then we have worked together on many films, including The National ParksProhibitionThe Dust BowlThe Roosevelts, and The Vietnam War. In each case, thanks to the bank’s support and involvement, we’ve been able, through our films, to encourage and inspire Americans to participate in a larger conversation about the rich history of our great country.

Just as Willie says, we’ll be “on the road again,” and we look forward to working with the entire Bank of America family as we travel the country and share our film with people in communities large and small.


Ken Burns


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Evan Barlow