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3 chords and the truth: Ken Burns’ ‘Country Music’ documentary to air on PBS

Love. Loss. Redemption.

These are a few topics found in many country songs.

Ken Burns is the director behind “Country Music.” (Courtesy of Chris Pizzello/Invision)

The three are also examples of the universal experience and the premise behind filmmaker Ken Burns’ latest project – “Country Music.”

The eight-part, 16-hour documentary premieres 7-9 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 15, and runs through Wednesday, Sept. 18, and then Sept. 22-25 on PBS. Each episode repeats from 9 to 11 p.m., as well, on New Mexico PBS.

“It’s three chords and the truth,” Burns says about country music. “It’s the universal experience of love, loss and redemption. We make jokes about country music is only about pickup trucks and drinking. Country music boils down to two four-letter words – pain and love.”

In the documentary, viewers will get to see that Willie Nelson wrote Patsy Cline’s hit “Crazy.”

And that Merle Haggard spent time in prison.

And that Kris Kristofferson, when he left the military, learned to play music with mariachi bands in El Paso and New Mexico.

Burns and his crew trace country music through the decades.

From southern Appalachia’s songs of struggle, heartbreak and faith to the rollicking western swing of Texas, from California honky-tonks to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, the series follows the evolution of country music over the course of the 20th century, as it eventually emerged to become America’s music.

“It doesn’t matter what your politics are or your color,” Burns says. “The thing about country music is that it makes you feel human.”

It is directed and produced by Burns, and written and produced by Burns’ longtime producing partner, Dayton Duncan.

The team had 175 hours of footage and did 101 interviews for the story, although only 75 to 80 of those were used.

“Our cutting room floor isn’t filled with bad stuff,” he says. “We were taking out stuff that didn’t fit.”

“For over a century, country music has been a pivotal force in American culture, expressing the hopes, joys, fears and hardships of everyday people in songs lyrical, poignant and honest,” PBS President Paula A. Kerger says in a statement. “It is fitting that we have two of America’s master storytellers, Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan, tell the story on film of an art form that for generations has told America’s story in song.”

Working for years on the project, Burns was able to learn plenty more about the genre’s history.

“It was exhilarating to learn the extensive African American influence,” Burns says. “There are no borders. All music borrows from one another. It’s just an amazing story, the early heroes and the pantheon of country music, they all had African American mentors.”

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