Ken Burns Visits San Quentin to Preview 'Country Music' Documentary For Inmates

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L to R: Ken Burns, Julie Dunfey, Rahsaan Thomas and Dayton Duncan on stage at San Quentin State Prison. (Geraldine Montes/KQED)

Ken Burns, the prolific documentary filmmaker, addressed roughly 100 inmates at San Quentin State Prison on Wednesday with a message about redemption, destigmatizing incarceration and country music.

Country star Merle Haggard, Burns explained, was once reluctant to acknowledge his stint at prisons including San Quentin, fearful it would hurt his professional reputation. But Johnny Cash, well-known for concert recordings at Folsom State Prison and San Quentin, urged Haggard to be open about his time behind bars, and to draw on his experiences.

What Cash knew, and country music affirms, Burns said, is that "the value of a human being does not end when you walk in the front door of a place like this," adding, "I know I'm preaching to the choir."

Rahsaan Thomas, Ear Hustle co-host and San Quentin News contributor, speaks with Ken Burns.
Rahsaan Thomas, 'Ear Hustle' co-host and San Quentin News contributor, speaks with Ken Burns. (Geraldine Montes/KQED)

The occasion was a preview of Country Music, Burns' forthcoming eight-part, 16-hour series on the "uniquely American art form." He played clips from the series, focused on Cash and Haggard's ties to California's penal system, before fielding questions from Rahsaan Thomas, "inside" co-host of Ear Hustle and a contributor to San Quentin News, plus other incarcerated audience members. Country Music airs on PBS stations, including KQED, from Sept. 15–25.

The event, which general population inmates attended voluntarily, occurred in a 373-capacity protestant chapel next to a neatly landscaped courtyard where men in blue denim mowed lawns. In addition to Cash, the prison has hosted musical acts including Metallica, Crime and, most recently, Queens of the Stone Age.


The clips, together running a half hour, followed Haggard from his impoverished Central Valley upbringing to his time in prison (he witnessed Cash's performance at San Quentin in 1959, while an inmate), and the development of his "outlaw" persona. Cash, meanwhile, is seen struggling with methamphetamine addiction before the concert recordings at Folsom and San Quentin draw acclaim and restart his career.

Curly Ray Martin (L), who once shared a cell with Merle Haggard, sits next to Country Music writer and co-producer Dayton Duncan (R).
Curly Ray Martin (L), who once shared a cell with Merle Haggard, sits next to 'Country Music' writer and co-producer Dayton Duncan (R). (Geraldine Montes/KQED)

Dayton Duncan, Country Music's writer and co-producer who took questions alongside Burns and co-producer Julie Dunfey, described San Quentin as central to Haggard's story. "You know, how important was Valley Forge to George Washington?" he said.

Duncan, choking up, then acknowledged the presence of an 80-year-old inmate named Curly Ray Martin, who once shared a cell with Haggard. "Merle taught me how to play bass," said Martin, who performed with West Coast artists such as Rose Maddox before being incarcerated 52 years ago. "Listenin' to Merle in here, his songs, everybody knew he was destined to be a big star," he said.

Thomas, who chatted with reporters about Robert Mueller's congressional testimony that morning ("You'd be surprised by the political savvy on the yard," he said), brought up Burns' 2012 documentary The Central Park Five, about five teenagers wrongly imprisoned after being coerced to confess to rape in 1989. Thomas asked the filmmaker about his views on criminal-justice reform.

San Quentin News reporters interview Ken Burns.
San Quentin News reporters interview Ken Burns. (Geraldine Montes/KQED)

Burns responded that interrogation practices deserve scrutiny. Mentioning College Behind Bars, a forthcoming Lynn Novick documentary he executive produced, Burns stressed the role of education in reducing recidivism. "This is the time," he said, noting such reforms have bipartisan support. "It can't come too soon."

More than a dozen incarcerated audience members stepped up to a microphone to ask questions, almost all of them professing intimate knowledge of Burns' work. (PBS is one of few channels available in prison.) One of them, a FirstWatch filmmaker, noted the "Ken Burns effect," a style of panning and zooming, available to use through iMovie.

Laughing, Burns replied, "You have to thank Steve Jobs for that one."

Anthony Evans, an inmate, asked how the film addresses the "symbiotic relationship between country and the blues." Duncan responded that the documentary traces the international roots of country, and examines the former market division between "race" and "hillbilly" music. Burns similarly noted the debate over how to categorize Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" reflects how black people's contributions to country have long been minimized or ignored.

"It's appropriate we're in a chapel," Burns said. "I want to share with you the gospel of country music."