Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns backstage at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, July 24, 2019. Gabe Meline/KQED
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns backstage at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, July 24, 2019. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

Ken Burns' Top 5 Song Discoveries While Making 'Country Music'

Ken Burns' Top 5 Song Discoveries While Making 'Country Music'

How could anybody, after years spent working on a 16-hour country music documentary, pick just five important country songs out of thousands?

When I propose the idea to Ken Burns, he calls it "the impossible Top 5," and with good reason. The documentary series Country Music, premiering Sept. 15 on PBS, is full of songs. Timeless songs. Songs with incredible backstories. Songs interwoven into the fabric of America. "Crazy." "Lovesick Blues." "I Walk the Line."

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But those aren't the songs I want. When I sit down with Burns in July, after a visit to San Quentin to screen clips of the film for inmates, I ask for the lesser-known songs. Personal discoveries of songs that he'd never heard before he started working on Country Music, or that he heard in a whole new light. Songs that, once discovered, perhaps even guided the documentary down a different path.

After some thought, Burns is game. He makes a list.

"Basically, the constituent building blocks of our work is biography, it's really mostly about people," he explains. "But what's so wonderful, and I don't think we were completely prepared for, is just how powerfully emotional some of these songs are."

What follows is Ken Burns' personal picks of five key underdog songs from Country Music—in chronological order, and in his own words.

'Mule Skinner Blues,' Jimmie Rodgers

"Mule Skinner Blues" is a wonderful, wonderful song. You can see the twinkle in the eye when Merle Haggard sings part of it for us in our first episode. What's amazing is that "Mule Skinner Blues" resurfaces again and again and again as three other rebirths in our film.

Bill Monroe, when he's asked to debut at the Grand Ole Opry, plays a new version of it. I don't think I could quite call it bluegrass, but it's taking "Mule Skinner Blues" and doing something else with it, and it's a wonderful thing. Later on, we're out in the Central Valley of California with Maddox Brothers and Rose, and they do an uptempo, incredible, kick-ass version of "Mule Skinner Blues." And then one of Dolly's debut songs on The Porter Wagoner Show is "Mule Skinner Blues," which she calls an heirloom. These things that are passed down from generation to generation to generation.

'Little Darling Pal of Mine,' the Carter Family

This is actually the second song you hear in our film. As we researched it, we found this amazing story, which is that it had begun, the melody or the rough approximation of a melody, as a 19th-century Protestant hymn. It got taken by an African-American minister into the black church, and was turned into a kind of almost gospel stomp called "When The World's On Fire." The Carter Family, listening to everybody, including African-American music, loved what they heard. Maybe it was Lesley Riddle, the guitarist, who brought "When The World's On Fire" to them, but they changed it into "Little Darling Pal Of Mine," which is one of their really big hits.

Well, Woody Guthrie heard it, and he wrote a song called "This Land Is Your Land." Now, all of them, the original hymn, "When The World's On Fire," "Little Darling Pal of Mine," and "This Land is Your Land," all have the same melody, and all have a place in our film. I love the fact that a melody can undergo extraordinary transformation. I think I had learned once that "The Star-Spangled Banner" was an old English drinking song!

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'Holding Things Together,' Merle Haggard

In the film, Dwight Yoakam sings part of this wonderful Merle Haggard song, which snuck up on me. Something I certainly never heard, even though I knew a lot of Merle stuff. It stops Dwight Yoakam dead in his tracks, this great performer used to being in front of an audience. And suddenly he's recalling his favorite Merle Haggard song: the unusual circumstance where it's not the man who's left the family but the woman who's left the family, and the father's left trying to hold it together. Dwight sings a part of it, then starts going into the next part and can't get through it. Stops and really pauses, for a really long time.

It's very poignant. It's not awkward in any way because the emotion's so genuine, and then he kind of talks his way through the rest of it, undone by how powerful Merle Haggard, the poet of the common man, is. I've seen it 500 times in our film, and I cry every time.

'Where've You Been,' Kathy Mattea

So John Vezner's married to Kathy Mattea. He's at the Bluebird Cafe, and he's singing this song that he and Don Henry had written, about his grandparents. His grandfather had been a salesman, and his grandmother was the salesman's wife who waited for him to come home at the end of every day. She slips in her old age into forgetfulness, and one day they're in different parts of the hospital for different reasons. She's been unresponsive, and he's wheeled into her room, and she looks up and she says, "Where've you been?" And it just... apparently, at the Bluebird, people were sobbing by the first or second verse.

It seemed too long and too maudlin of a song, nobody was going to record it. But Kathy Mattea said, "I want to do this," and it won two Grammy awards. I'd never heard of it. It's one of those requested songs in the canon of country music that is just so poignant. None of us are untouched by age-old love, and the fact of what happens to them is common to so many families. You can endow the ordinary with the extraordinary by just telling a good story. And "Where've You Been" is a great story.

I'm getting mushier and mushier. My final one is totally sentimental.

'I Still Miss Someone,' Johnny Cash

This is one of the last songs we hear in the film. Rosanne Cash sings it a cappella when asked about one of Johnny Cash's favorite songs. She sang it at his memorial service at the Grand Ole Opry, and it's amazing. The second verse is so spare and plain: "I go out to a party to have a little fun, but I find a darkened corner, because I still miss someone." And it's just... it's all about longing. Do you think she's sorry for what we once had? It's just so poignant, and it's as simple as "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."

It was a revelation to me. I thought I knew all about Johnny Cash. I worked in a record store in the late '60s in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I knew Merle Haggard stuff, and not just "Okie From Muskogee," and I knew all these other country people. I knew Johnny Cash more than anyone, because he crossed over more than anyone else. And I didn't know this song. It just really, really gets me.

'Country Music' premieres on Sept. 15 on PBS stations including KQED 9. Details here.

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