BRISTOL, Va. — Sunday night patrons at the Paramount gazed at stark black-and-white images as the camera zoomed in on the faces of Sara, Maybelle and Alvin Pleasant Carter from Maces Springs, Virginia, and Mississippi’s Jimmie Rodgers — artists forever connected to the Twin City through the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings.
The images were an important part of a preview from the first episode of “Country Music,” a new eight-part PBS documentary that begins airing in September.
Minutes later, the sold-out Paramount crowd watched another clip about Southwest Virginia’s Ralph and Carter Stanley and learned of their rivalry with Bill Monroe, a Kentuckian credited with creating the genre of bluegrass music.
After the lights came up, documentary producer Ken Burns — America’s storyteller — took the stage to discuss his latest project. He was joined in Bristol with two members of his Florentine Films team, writer Dayton Duncan and producer Julie Dunphy, along with Ketch Secor of Grammy Award-winning Old Crow Medicine Show. The crew also spoke at an event Sunday afternoon at the Birthplace of Country Museum.
Their appearance in Bristol kicked off the 30-city U.S. road show to promote the film, which will air locally on East Tennessee PBS of Knoxville.
Outside the Paramount, a message on the front of a massive blue tour bus champions “Country Music” as “a story of America, one song at a time.”
The film will include the story of the 1927 recording sessions that occurred here in the Twin City on the second floor of the former Taylor-Christian Hat Co. warehouse. There, New York record producer and talent scout Ralph Peer used portable recording equipment to make the first recordings of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family — who went on to earn spots in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“The Bristol Sessions are ground zero for the story: the coming together, the creation and [coalescing] of country music,” Burns told the audience inside the BCM Museum. “The Bristol story that we try to tell may not be as in-depth as you all know it, but I think this will help put this on a much larger map and put it in context. … We know that something happened here in the summer of 1927 when Ralph Peer came at the suggestion of [Ernest] Stoneman to record other people, including Stoneman, and ended up getting the Carters and Jimmie Rodgers. Something happened that is miraculous.”
Duncan, who wrote the script for the 16-hour documentary, said the Bristol Sessions — which are featured in episode one — help set the tone for future episodes of the project.
“Ralph Peer said that success is being in the right place when lightning strikes, and, as we say in the script, it was about to strike for him twice in the same place,” Duncan said. “It’s historically and narratively essential — historically because it is where two of the foundational artists of commercial country music were first recorded. They were discovered here.”
The other narrative aspect shows how the sessions brought together two unique strands within the country genre; the big acts Peer recorded were diverse in style, with the Carters recording a number of religious songs and Rodgers emerging as a honky-tonk performer, Duncan said.
“You had these two different acts who are the Saturday night and Sunday morning, making their way to a place called Bristol. … This takes up more space in our 16 hours than any other story,” Duncan said.
The finished 16-hour, eight-episode product represents about eight years of research, work and development.
Burns said only loving his children compares to the satisfaction and exhilaration of telling important stories well, even if the topic is as complex as an entire style of music or some of his previous projects, like the Civil War or baseball.
“We’ve been foolish for a few decades. This is just documentary filmmaking,” Burns joked. “But these are big, risky kinds of things. I think trusting the process allows us to take over these big projects and figure out how to wrestle them to the ground.”
Duncan said his first draft would have equated to a 33-hour film, and Burns initially intended to tell the story in 12 hours. But through a careful process, they worked to pare the work down to 16 hours, which is comparable to other Burns documentaries.
The narrative begins in Atlanta with the recording of Fiddlin’ John Carson in Atlanta in 1924, includes the Bristol Sessions and then shows the diverse range of country music’s roots and winds its way through the 1970s before ending in the mid-1990s with the success of Garth Brooks.
The team conducted more than 100 interviews, including 40 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“You always have these moments when you’re getting impatient,” Duncan said. “Me, as the writer, I don’t know if I know enough yet. So you conduct more interviews and research more things, and, out of a different type of panic, you say, “I’ve got to start this somehow.’ … We have worked together a very long time, and we’ve learned to trust the process. So we look at an episode that is 3 1/2 hours long, and our objective is to get it to two.”
Duncan was a country music fan before starting the project, and Burns said he too liked country music. Producer Dunphy was a convert, especially after she and Duncan interviewed Merle Haggard.
Besides Haggard, the series features interviews with dozens of stars, including Dolly Parton, Marty Stuart, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Kathy Mattea, Willie Nelson and Garth Brooks.
While in Bristol, Burns and his team received a tour of the BCM Museum. The group will travel to Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis as part of a 30-city U.S. publicity tour. A special concert is scheduled this week at the Ryman Auditorium.
“It’s a very, very exciting day for Bristol,” said Leah Ross, executive director of the BCM. “We think the film will be great for us, but I don’t think we can comprehend what it means. For Ken Burns to start the road show here is huge. It’s a true honor for that to happen here.”
Burns said the initial response to private screenings of Country Music has been very positive.
“We’ve never had a subject that was as resonant as country music, and I think we need the story of country music even more today,” Burns said. “As we see the magnificent tapestry of what our country is becoming frayed with the ancient animosities that seem to set one group against the other, we are reminded of the way in which country music is an amalgam of lots of different forms. It has been so omnivorous and reached out and embraced other forms and other people that it reminds us of what we share in common.”