Ken Burns sees himself “an offspring of rock ‘n’ roll and R&B. But the award-winning documentary maker felt it was far from a stretch to produce an eight-part, 16-hour documentary about “Country Music,” which starts airing Sept. 15 on PBS.
“My grandfather sang songs to me that I guess one would invariably call folk and country. My father did the same thing,” recalls Burns, Sixty Six, who was brought up in Ann Arbor from the age of 9 until he graduated from Pioneer High School. But his real experience in country music came while working at the Discount Records store on South University Avenue.
“We sold everything related to that stuff, so I got to know it,” Burns told. “I was working without any wage literally, getting paid with an album every couple of weeks, and in the end got minimum wage as an assistant manager. I heard a lot of the music there that I might not otherwise have listened to for sure, so (country) was a real eye-opener for me.
“I was very proud of myself that I covered all the Merle Haggard (album) covers we show in the shots on Merle in the film.”
Country music is the new subject Burns has taken on during a career that’s included acclaimed in-depth analysis of the Civil War, baseball, jazz, the Roosevelt family, national parks and many more. He’s been working on it for more than eight years since a friend he was visiting in Texas asked Burns if he’d ever thought about the country as a genre.
“(The idea) just burst in me,” Burns says. “I kind of got down on my knee, metaphorically, and took to country music. I came back home to New Hampshire and said all about it to my partner (Dayton) Duncan about it. We were thinking about a different project, and I don’t know where that went. Our sole focus was on this for eight and a half years.