Dayton Duncan Discovers Emotional Truths in 'Country Music' on PBS

Dayton Duncan with Merle Haggard December 2014 [Jared Ames]
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The late country music legend Waylon Jennings once said: "Country music isn't a guitar, it isn't a banjo, it isn't a melody, it isn't a lyric. It's a feeling."

The new Ken Burns documentary series, "Country Music," brings that quote to life with its eight-night broadcast on WVIZ/PBS, beginning Sunday, September 15 at 8 p.m.

Dayton Duncan is the writer and producer of the series, which features more than 100 interviews including 40 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. 

Dayton Duncan [Evan Barlow]

"I think that at its base 'Country Music' deals with essential truths and experiences that everybody has: hardship, falling in love, falling out of love, the hope for redemption, death and [with] very simple melodies," Duncan said.

At the center of the first two episodes is the group known as the "First Family of Country Music," the Carter Family.

The Carter Family: AP, Maybelle and Sara Carter c. 1930 [Carter Family Museum]

Their famous song, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," tells the sad but universal story of a loved one's funeral.

"So that's just inexpressable grief. And yet when you get to the chorus: 'There's a better world awaitin' in the sky lord, in the sky.'  Everybody claps and sings on that," he said.

 

Storytelling is at the heart of most every country song, which was a goldmine for a writer like Duncan to work with on this documentary series.

"Well I'll tell ya, there are stories ... one big one is when Sara Carter decides to sing a song to her boyfriend in California," he said.

Carter sang the song, "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes," live over the radio airwaves of XERA on the Mexico-Texas border dedicating it to her long-lost lover, Coy Bayes.

Bayes heard the song and her dedication in California, where his mother had been hiding Sara's letters to him. 

He immediately drove off to Texas to find her and the two were soon married.

"You can't make stuff like that up," Duncan said.

Along with stories like these, the series is also full of people who rose out of poverty thanks to their music.

"I think that's another thing that's part of 'Country Music,' at least in the 20th Century history of it, is so many came from those circumstances and never forgot it," he said.

Ken Burns' "Country Music" airs on WVIZ/PBS from September 15 through September 25.

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