LOS ANGELES — Country music performer Marty Stuart looked to be just another in the 101 interviews collected for the new PBS documentary series “Country Music.” The production is the latest from filmmaker Ken Burns — and he found a gold mine of knowledge with Stuart.
It was Stuart’s wife, country singer Connie Smith, who provided the link between Stuart and Burns. Her son, Kerry Watkins, told her about seeing Ken Burns on TV saying that he was thinking about doing a film on country music. As soon as Stuart heard there was a possibility of such a project, he immediately knew he wanted to be part of it.
“I had always loved Ken’s work and so I wrote a fan letter. I said I can’t get you to the moon but I do know about country music,” Stuart says. “If I don’t know it, I can get you started. I said you will roll out of this office and go blow up the world. I said start here.”
About a month later, Stuart I got a reply telling him he would join the likes of Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash and Dwight Yoakam who would be interviewed.
Then Stuart started talking. And he kept talking. Burns has found through all of his past documentaries that he will get everything needed from an interview subject in one recording session that can last two hours. Stuart brought so much knowledge of country music to the table that it took two recording sessions.
Eventually he talked so much about the history of country music from his own personal perspective and through his passion for the history of the musical genre that Stuart became one of the main voices in the eight-part, 16-hour film.
Julie Duffy, an executive producer on “Country Music” says: “What we discovered is we started doing our interviews so many of the artists, musicians, producers were historians of their work. They know where they came from. They knew the songs, they knew the traditions. And we found out we only have one historian in the film, because Rosanne (Cash), Marty (Stuart), Dwight (Yoakam), so many people, know so much about their history, i.e., the history of the work and the artistry that they produce.
“And that was really a revelation to us. And it’s in some ways a more intimate way to approach the history, because there is a different connection there. It’s coming from their art.”
Stuart adds that everything he had to say about country music was coming from his heart. He found it easy to talk about the past and present of the music genre because he believes in it so much. The 60-year-old Stuart was only 12 years old when he started performing professionally and touring with bluegrass legend Lester Flatt. Through four decades of performing, Stuart picked up five Grammys and has been a member of the Grand Ole Opry since 1992.
The years he has spent in country music have given Stuart a chance to see the impact of the musical genre on life, politics and other musical styles. He was present for what Stuart calls “one of the most other worldly moments I ever witnessed in my life.”
That happened in 1979 when country music star Porter Wagoner defied a wave of protests to present James Brown on the Grand Ole Opry stage.
“It was pretty awesome,” Stuart says. “I thought, boy, this is three different points of light coming together all at one time. “The first song (James Brown) did that night was the ‘Tennessee Waltz,’ which the audience was very responsive to. But Porter kept egging him on, and so the second song James Brown did was ‘Sex Machine’ on the Grand Ole Opry.
“I thought this is pretty good. So this is country music.”
“Country Music” shows that the music genre is really the weaving together of multiple music styles driven by personalities, technology and creativity. One thing Stuart has learned is that the essence of country music comes down to family – whether that be blood or band. It felt to Stuart during the production process that he was making a “family film.”
“As big as the industry is now and as gargantuan and stretched out with as many buses and trucks as there are now, it is still a big old dysfunctional family in my mind,” Stuart says. “I think the way country music is set up, we all came from a family background.”
“Country Music” is scheduled to air at 8 p.m. Sept. 15-18 and 22-25 on PBS. The series will also be available in a Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD on Sept. 17.
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