MORGANTOWN — Ken Burns’ forthcoming project — “Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns” — covers familiar ground for the famed documentary filmmaker, which he said is perhaps why it’s taken him to this point in his career to devote himself to a subject so sewn into the fabric of his, and he’ll argue, most Americans’ lives.
“It may just be a deeply human thing about a new relationship,” he said. “This is something like when you’ve always known a person. … Sometimes, you’d rather share a process of discovery.”
Prior to “Country Music,” Burns tackled everything from “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and “Jazz,” to “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” “Prohibition,” “The Roosevelts” and, most recently, “The Vietnam War.” His efforts have earned him two Academy Award nominations, as well as several Emmys.
With “Country Music,” he explores a genre that he said deals with elemental human emotions, one of which he cites when discussing why now is as good a time as any to delve into the topic.
“It’s always the right time to fall in love,” he said, and like any creator steeped in his subject matter, Burns automatically likens the thought to a song Merle Haggard wrote for his wife, while sitting with her in LAX — “Today I Started Loving You Again.”
“It’s this unbelievable song about waking up to the way things disintegrate and appreciating what you have,” he said.
In the roughly eight years it has taken Burns and long-time collaborators Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey to make “Country Music,” they’ve sifted through many such classic songs and the stories behind them.
In September, the eight-part, 16-hour documentary will premiere on PBS stations. Leading up to the debut, makers are touring the country, showing select excerpts. And at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday Duncan, the film’s writer and producer, and fellow producer Dunfey will host a screening at the WVU Creative Arts Center featuring clips related to West Virginia. Mountain State artists Kathy Mattea and Charlie McCoy, both of whom are featured in the documentary, will perform live with the Mountain Stage Band. Earlier in the day, Reed College of Media students will learn what it takes to produce a major documentary.
“Some of my favorite characters and some of my favorite interviews were with West Virginians,” Duncan said. “Jimmy Dickens was the first interview I did in the fall of 2012. He was spry and funny and insightful. Charlie McCoy was as good an interview as he is a harmonica player. He explains what session musicians need to do to be good. And Kathy Mattea I count as one of the blessings of this whole enterprise. Besides being helpful and a great singer, she and her husband John are real friends.”
Duncan also said the story of singer Harold Franklin Hawkins, better known as Hawkshaw Hawkins, is one that struck him, so much so that he’s included it in a companion book he wrote to go along with the documentary.
Born in Huntington, the Grand Ole Opry member was married to fellow country star Jean Shepard, who spoke with Duncan. Along with Patsy Cline and Cowboy Copas, Hawkins was killed in a plane crash in 1963.
“I was totally unfamiliar with him,” Duncan said. “I know that Patsy Cline died in a plane crash, cutting short her career, but I didn’t know that Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas were in the same plane. … I had a great interview with Jean Shepard before she died that helps deepen the whole story.”
For instance, Duncan found that Hawkins was on the ill-fated flight because he gave his ticket on a commercial plane to another performer who needed it.
“He said, ‘I’ll go a little bit later and fly with Patsy.’ … I think that really speaks to who he was as a person.”
Burns and Duncan crisscrossed the country finding such stories, and relied on a team of researchers, including Morgantown resident Susan Shumaker, to help.
“Essentially, I was one of the first people out of the gate, and I did the story research, working closely with Dayton,” said Shumaker, who is listed as an associate producer and archival producer on “Country Music.” “I read a lot and talked to a lot of experts. I was also tasked with wrangling all of the archival assets.”
That meant weeding through archives and private collections across the country to find elements, such as photos, that will “surprise and delight people.”
In one case, Shumaker traveled to Jimmie Rodgers’ hometown of Meridian, Mississippi. And, with the help of a local source, she made her way to the county courthouse, where she discovered a scrapbook and photo album Rodgers’ wife put together, which hadn’t been seen in years.
“It’s where they hold the Rodgers family archive, and I noticed a couple of spaces on the shelf, where it looked like something was removed. Three shelves down and two over were things that matched the collection.”
In the album and scrapbook, Shumaker found rare photos and items, such as the Western Union telegram from New York telling Rogers’ wife that he died.
“It’s all about local people helping us,” Shumaker said of the research process. “I wouldn’t have been in that courthouse otherwise. It’s about people trusting you and trusting Ken to treat the subject well. And we always try to do that, as perfectly and respectfully as we can.”
“We are notoriously slow when making films,” Duncan said. “And that’s deliberate, so that we have extra time to devote to the process. We take a lot of time in the early part, before editing. That is part of the joy for me, the learning. We don’t think we already know what the story is, even if we know something about it. We go places and meet people and let the story emerge from that.”
For example, with “Country Music,” Duncan said “you go out and meet with people like Kathy Mattea, touch base with her and others like her — that was in 2012, when I was grappling with all the stories we wanted to tell — and you get advise from them. What I hope the result is, is that the film is really focused on the storytelling.”
Shumaker, who has worked with Burns for 16 years, is excited that some of those stories involve the place where she lives.
“Usually, my personal life and my professional life never converge,” she said. “And so this is thrilling, because it’s almost like a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It’s fantastic.”
- A screening of “Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns,” including excerpts featuring West Virginia, is set for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the WVU Creative Arts Center. Kathy Mattea and Charlie McCoy will perform. General admission tickets are available at wvpublic.org/ countrymusic. They cost $13, plus applicable fees. Doors will open at 7 p.m. The WVU Bluegrass and Old Time Band will play in the lobby prior to the show.